“When we were kids, a grill was the front of a car,” says Dad. “You’d know if it was a Chevy, Plymouth, or Ford when it came down the road by the look of its grill.” He reckons some eating establishments in the late 1930s started using the term for business names. The Hollywood Grill in Dubuque, Iowa, started “grillin’” even earlier—the Mississippi River restaurant was “famous for its baked ham” as far back as 1914.
Modern grilling really took off in the 1950s, with Weber models and the earliest gas grills. But according to Dad, folks had their own type of open-fire methods in the days when the country had “nothing to fear but fear itself.”
“People cooked out over a fire made from sticks or other material at hand—my dad might bring along a sack of cobs. They’d cook up hot dogs, and if they were splurging on an overnight camping trip, they might even have store-bought buns. They’d also take pints of whiskey in brown bags or a few bottles of Hamms. For dessert, they’d ‘grill’ marshmallows on a stick.”
Many of the locals liked to camp by a river or lake so they could cook fish on the open fire. “We kids would help string ‘set lines’ across the channel—six to ten hooks dangling into the water, baited with minnows. Dad figured the lines were ‘marginally legal.’ He and my uncles knew the local game wardens or knew how to avoid them.” Even with the fish, there did not seem to be much real grilling back then. They usually fried up the catfish or carp in huge skillets on the open flame.
Some of the most adventurous open-fire cooking took place on trips. In the 1920s Dad’s grandparents made several 5-day road trips from Iowa to California, and they’d stoke up the flames at various stops along Route 66. Fried chicken was a favorite on the road because it would keep at room temperature longer—those were the days before “use by” labels decorated the side of any food package. “Granny made pancakes over a fire every morning,” Dad said. “But they did occasionally stop at diners before they made it to the orange groves of California.”
Backyard grilling has become a religion in America, but the open-fire cooking of the past seemed more mobile. Folks would stop at roadside parks or in a farmer’s pasture to camp and light up a fire. “Most farmers were fine with it,” said Dad. “But old Art over on Highway 65 eventually grew tired of picking up trash and empty bottles in his grove, so he released a herd of hogs in the pasture.” Evidently, pork chop on a stick is fine, but 250 pounds of live bacon on the hoof rooting around your tent is not so appealing.
by dan gogerty (top photo from photolibrariandubuqueiowa)