Isn’t it fun reading these old letters and getting a peek at my ancestor’s every day lives? In a letter from Great-Grandmother Hattie Stout to her daughter, Maude, she makes two mentions of food. She writes the letter on Thursday, May 12, 1910.
The food mention that particularly interested me was this reference to her other daughter, my grandmother Vera Stout Anderson who was going to be grilling. How? What would she be grilling? Was it for a large crowd? So many questions, and only some of them came with answers.
Outdoor cooking over direct fire is nothing new to humankind, of course. Our Neanderthal ancestors (whom, alas I have yet to document in my family tree) started the whole thing. In Colonial days, cooking outdoors over an open fire would more efficiently feed a crowd, like say, for the original Thanksgiving meal prepared by the Pilgrims in Plymouth. In the Midwest, the most frequent use of grilling would come when my ancestors cooked a large pig over an outdoor fire.
But the invention of portable barbecues for family use did not arrive until the early 1950s. Which explains the wildly popular back-yard barbecue tradition and my favorite grilled chicken recipe that I wrote about here. Unfortunately, the history-of-barbecue articles I found jump right from colonial days to the 1940s and 50s. I am left to guess at what Grandma Vera used.
Grandma Vera Anderson did not have a pre-built cooking tool like a Big Boy barbecue, as is made clear by Great-Grandma Hattie’s letter. She had a grill installed and had to get another one. I picture a pit dug in the ground that held the slow-burning wood. Metal grids to lay the meat on covered the pit. But what was the lining and the bottom that Hattie was going to loan her along with a spare grill? However the grill was constructed, it came together easily, because Hattie planned to go to Vera’s house in the morning, and Vera would be grilling that day.
What was Grandma Vera cooking on those grills? Could be the pig. But maybe it was the chicken those young women in the top picture are enjoying. The picture comes from the right era. Hattie mentions in her letter that Vera will have 10 or 12, and there are 11 women in the picture. The only thing that mitigates against that assumption is that the house probably belonged to one of the women in the picture, the town milliner. It is not the farm house that Vera and Guy lived in earlier, and it is not the house that they lived in when they moved to town. Nor is it the house that Hattie lived in. I can tell by the decorative work along the roof edge of the porch.
So while the chicken in the picture might have been cooked on a grill, I have reluctantly accepted that since Hattie was getting up early to go to Vera’s, Vera probably still lived out in the country, I do not know what her grill looked like,and I do not have a picture of the food she cooked on that grill. And most maddening of all, I don’t know why everyone had to gather around the grill. Roasting marshmallows?
You can read more about the history of grilling and barbecue on Tori Avey’s site.
Reminder: if you want to cook something delicious on the grill, try that marinated chicken recipe from the Big Boy Barbecue cookbook.