The Birth of the Patio Daddy-O: Outdoor Grilling in Postwar America

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1956, food writer Clementine Paddleford took a trip out west. By that time Paddleford was one of the most famous food writers in America. She authored a daily column for the New York Herald-Tribune, a weekly column for a Sunday newspaper supplement that was distributed across the country, and had, until a few years previously, written a monthly column for Gourmet. Her columns featured the favorite foods from men and women across the country, both famous and nonfamous, and she traveled to their kitchens to interview them. She averaged tens of thousands of miles of travel each year.

Her trip west in 1956 took her to five states and dozens of people's homes. When she returned she prepared a memo about the trip for the staff of the newspaper she worked at, outlining the trends she observed. With a journalist's eye she described the popularity of coffee, dieting, and flambéed dishes, including a Lamp Post cocktail, "a sort of Martini made with lime juice and floating a half lime shell, green side turned in and this filled with dark rum, ignited!"

She also noted the popularity of outdoor grilling:

Everywhere the Barbecue. No longer a new thing, once a fad, now a "solid" in the way of entertaining. I doubt if ever again fried meats will be in the running. Almost every western home has an outdoor barbecue and usually a second built into the kitchen for cold weather use. Now the barbecue moves into smart dining rooms in restaurants. Charcoal broiled meats are featured served from the barbecue centered in the dining room and presided over by a chef in high hat. This trend I have noted taking hold a bit in New York, moreso however, in our nearby country inns, but the west leads.

(Paddleford 1)

Clementine Paddleford caught the grilling craze at the point of moving from popular pastime to a dish legitimate enough to be served in "smart dining rooms in restaurants." Its popularity at that particular moment was due to a number of trends unique to postwar America. The rise of suburbs, the popularity of the outdoors and the West, and new perceptions of the role of men in the family - all of these things contributed to the spectacular popularity of outdoor grilling.

Outdoor grilling was not, of course, a new idea in the 1950s. Humans have cooked over open flame for thousands of years, and even in countries like America in the early twentieth century, where most cooking was done indoors on a stove, food was sometimes cooked outdoors over an open flame. Numerous cookbooks early in the century discussed outdoor cooking. One of them, Horace Kephart's Camp Cookery (from 1910), placed outdoor grilling in a context typical for the time: cooking outdoors was done when groups of people (usually men) were outdoors for long periods of time. Living off the land, Kephart makes clear, is preferable to carrying unnecessary pounds of food, and to prove the point he outlines the weight of the water in canned, fresh, and dried peaches. He is no Spartan minimalist, though, and appears to be appealing more to the Teddy Roosevelts of the time than the Lewis and Clarks. For example, his instructions for cooking opossum are not simply to clean the animal and grill it, but to clean and parboil it for a few hours while steaming some sweet potatoes, and then to put the meat and sweet potatoes into a Dutch oven. "Bake slowly until brown and crisp. Serve hot, without gravy. Bourbon whiskey is the only orthodox accompaniment" (Kephart 71-72). The book also included recipes for salmon (creamed, scalloped, or on toast), potatoes (steamed, baked, boiled, mashed, or stewed), flapjacks, coffee, tea, kidneys, and bone marrow.

Kephart does not present outdoor grilling as a special type of cooking; it is only one of a number of ways to prepare food, and his discussions of cooking various types of meat make it apparent that it is not always the most preferable way to cooking food. This is not unusual. When prewar cookbook authors wrote about cooking outdoors they saw grilling as one of a number of ways of preparing food. …