The world’s biggest fixed barbecue, developed and built in The Cotswolds and known as the ‘God-grilla’ can cook 1, 000 sausages at once, 500 burgers in one sitting, seven lambs, three pigs or two cows. The bespoke steel grill weighs two tonnes, measures 16 feet across and takes 14 bags of coal to get going. The world’s biggest record-breaking barbecue event was held in Uruguay in 2008 when firefighters were on hand to manage the flames and 1,250 grill experts cooked up 12,000 kilograms of beef.
Examine the images of either and there is something undeniably primitive, sacrificial, hellish almost, at the vision of carcasses splayed over open fires. According to the writer Charles Lamb, the art of roasting meat with fire was…… an accidental discovery. In China, a young man called Bo-bo, son of a swineherd, accidentally burnt down the family cottage and incinerated a litter of piglets at the same time. The smell of cooked pig flesh was one that he had never before experienced; he tasted some of the crackling, his father came home and after his initial horror at what had happened, both of them gorged on the charred piglets.
Food writer Michael Pollan in his book ‘Cooked’, explains the act of roasting meat as a chemical and psychological process that renders the act of killing and eating an animal more “palatable.” Just as supermarkets have ingeniously removed the concept of slaughter from the likes of pre-packed and processed meats, so roasting or barbecuing is the ultimate guilt-free indulgence of what used to be (and still can be) a highly religious and ritualistic process.
In ancient times, the very act of slaughtering animals had to be carried out by a priest, suggesting that the discomfort surrounding animal slaughter is not a modern conundrum: “Before drawing knife against throat, the Greek priest would sprinkle water on the sacrificial animals’ brow, causing it to shake its head in a gesture they chose to interpret as a sign of assent.” (Pollan).
Pollan then describes how the conscious preparation of meat is what separates humans from animals and ultimately aligns us with the gods: “The ritual lets us tell ourselves that we kill animals not for our dining pleasure but because God demands it.” A trip to the pre-prepped barbecued meat section of a large supermarket somewhere near you is a much less onerous task – both spiritually and morally – these days.
The process of barbecuing can also be seen as a form of alchemy; one that can be done very badly or with all the skill of an artist, much like making excellent coffee. Good pit masters, as the original barbecue chefs are known in the US, can be as famous as rock stars, often staying up all night to nurture the flames. The combination of wood, smoke and coals in preparation for the meat is as important as the cooking process itself. Done properly, fat, skin and flesh are caramelised into complex and kaleidoscopic smells and tastes that evoke the flavours of roasted coffee, bread crust, chocolate, beer and soy sauce: the original umami you could say.
My barbecuing over the next couple of weeks will mainly be in grateful homage to the sun for making such a generous appearance, but remember when you flip your blackened burger, that the act of cooking meat over fire remains one of the most ancient and primitive of human gestures and one which distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom.