Ah,the primality of cooking with charcoal. The grill and grates aren’t even required hardware. At its essence is the dance between a slab of meat and the glowing, heat-radiating charcoal producing a succulent, smoky meal fit for a carnivore. But the archetype of a backyard barbeque warrior wielding charcoal is a thoroughly modern invention. The original version of charcoal (referred to today as “lump” charcoal) is the remains of wood heated in the absence of air, producing a black mass consisting mostly of carbon, ash and a tiny amount of water (a process known as pyrolysis). This material was used in ancient times for copper and iron smelting, as well as blacksmithing and in more modern times for residential and commercial heating and railroad fuel. The birth of the modern barbecuer archetype stems from the invention of the charcoal briquette by Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer in 1897 and the briquette’s popularization by Henry Ford (co-founder of Kingsford) in the 1920s. A briquette consists of powdered charcoal, carbonized coal, starch (a binder), nitrate (an accelerant) and an ingredient which turns the briquettes white when they are sufficiently heated in the grill, such as lime. These components are mixed, pressed and then heated to 275 degrees Fahrenheit for 3-4 hours to further bind the materials and reduce the moisture content. Both briquettes and lump charcoal are widely used by cooks in the present day, with millions of tons produced by a variety of companies each year. However, it should be noted that the manufacture and usage of charcoal, whether lump or briquette produces carcinogenic compounds and harmful gases such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and contributes to deforestation. After all, the wood has to come from somewhere.

michael isenbek

Michael Isenbek, Associate Editor, dabbles in both fiction and nonfiction writing, coordinates the Pulse event listings and writes the text for "Zoom," among other editorial tasks. He has a Master's Degree in Liberal Studies and a Bachelor's Degree in Cultural Studies with a concentration in Journalism from SUNY Empire State College.