Today in Tedium: As everyone knows, the July 4th holiday is one where people put a lot of foodstuff, usually of the animal protein variety, onto grills to cook—perhaps heated with the help of charcoal. This is not an unheard-of concept, but it’s one I don’t think the average person thinks about much. So I already had plans to talk about charcoal with today’s issue, because I bet people would be surprised about its evolution. A solid Tedium piece, but not exactly an edgy hook. But then Josh Barro, a journalist for the website Insider, made my job easier by writing a hot take about grilling that ticked everyone off, thereby giving this topic an edgy hook. (Thanks Josh!) So anyway, charcoal has a history that dates back thousands of years, but the stuff that you think of when we talk charcoal is way newer than that, and it has a heckuva story, complete with cameos from some of the 20th century’s greatest innovators. It’s a fascinating tale wrapped up in a single briquette, and today’s Tedium is going to tell you all about it. No comment on the bad grilling take. (Oh wait.) — Ernie @ Tedium
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“Traces of charcoal have been found in the blackened hearths of caves occupied in Palaeolithic times. It was undoubtedly used for drawing on cave walls because of its convenience.”
— A passage from The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art, a book discussing the use of artistic materials and techniques for building different kinds of art. Charcoal, which is essentially relatively pure carbon produced by removing the oxygen and water from wood, is one of the world’s oldest manmade materials, and the evidence is clear from the fact that it makes up the basis for many cave drawings that go back tens of thousands of years.
We can thank Henry Ford and a long weekend in the Upper Peninsula for popularizing charcoal
Getting past the cave drawings here, which are awesome but not necessarily how most people use charcoal, you probably think of the blackened, consistent bricks of coal-like material when the term comes up. It’s the stuff that’s easily found in stores. And while you may need lighter fluid to maximize its potential, the charcoal itself, mixed with a match, is often enough.
Along with lots of other inventions, you have Henry Ford to thank for that. While he didn’t invent it himself, he basically created an environment in which charcoal could thrive.
So, here’s what happened: Ford was looking to source his own wood for Model T cars, because he wanted to cut back on his use of outside suppliers. So he reached out to a relative of his, a real estate agent who was the husband of his cousin, to help him find a supply of wood for the interiors of his vehicles.
The brother found one in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, near the Wisconsin border, and brought Ford with him, along with some of Ford’s friends—Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and conservationist John Burroughs—on a camping excursion in the very woods they planned to borrow from. You know, just a selection of four random friends with recognizable last names. (Truth be told, Edison, Firestone, Burroughs, and Ford frequently took camping trips together, so this match-up was no surprise.)
Ford’s cousin-in-law would eventually have a famous last name, too, given that his name was Edward G. Kingsford. Yes, as in Kingsford charcoal briquettes.
It took a while for Kingsford to become a household name, but the seeds for the shift were planted during that long weekend in the Upper Peninsula. Soon after the trip, Ford helped to put together a factory that would produce wood siding for his vehicles. Making wood siding produces sawdust, and sawdust is wasteful.
So what were they going to do with all this extra sawdust? Well, it helped that around this time, it became known that taking sawdust and tar and combining them together made for an effective piece of charcoal—the work of an inventor named Orin Stafford, from the University of Oregon.
Additionally, according to the Iron Mountain Daily News, other inventors were working on the briquette design around this period, with inventor W.P. Taggart patenting his take on a design for a “lump of fuel” around 1895.
Meanwhile, a Reading, Pennsylvania-based inventor named Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer had been developing manufacturing processes to produce charcoal briquettes, and started manufacturing after World War I, but the problem was that he stood no chance of reaching national scale with his work.
Ford, meanwhile, ran such a dominant production that his company could develop charcoal from all that sawdust and scale up its sale nationally without even batting an eye.
How was Ford going to leverage this opportunity to dominate grilling? Well, this is where the connection with Edison helped. Edison came into play by helping to design a factory to take advantage of all this sawdust to make charcoal briquettes, basically creating a second factory next to the primary one, in a factory town that still exists near the Wisconsin border, named Kingsford after you-know-who. (Its sister city, the mining town Iron Mountain, is perhaps better known to non-Yoopers.)
The birth of the product was so tied to the Ford Motor Company that before the company took on the Kingsford name in the 1950s after the company was sold, the offering was sold as Ford Charcoal. (Edward G. Kingsford died in 1943, before the product was named for him.)
This was but one example of Ford’s tendency to maximize his manufacturing reach and minimize his production costs by building sustainable byproducts and vertically integrating his processes. As explained in a 1928 New York Times article, charcoal was one of many materials that the firm was able to produce or make available as a byproduct of manufacturing, saving $13 million a year ($205 million in today’s money) in manufacturing costs. And Ford didn’t just pocket that financial benefit, as the piece explains:
The movement has broad social and economic results. It is not merely for the—advantage of manufacturers. It means the lowering of production costs and, in a competitive market, that means the lowering of retail prices. The people who ride in Ford cars would have to pay more for them if Mr. Ford did not make money out of “waste” products. Moth balls would cost more if he did not rescue naphthalene from the gas that comes out of his coke ovens. Thus, the consumer public gets part of the $13,000,000. Nor does this take into account the employment provided by the prevention of industrial waste.
So by grilling with charcoal, you were helping the economy by creating a viable market for a byproduct. And though Ford stopped using wood in cars by the early 1950s, charcoal briquettes were very much a viable market by that point and didn’t need the cars anymore.
“Lump charcoal is composed entirely of charred wood. Briquets are primarily char, but they do contain some other ingredients. These additional ingredients combined with the briquet’s shape and how it is produced provide the consistent grilling experience. Some ingredients—coal, limestone and borax—are naturally occurring minerals. Wood char and cornstarch are both natural products.”
— A passage from the FAQ page for Kingsford charcoal explaining the difference between lump charcoal and briquettes. While briquettes have a bunch of extra stuff to improve consistency, which is something you want when you’re grilling. Of course, because there are some fillers and additives in there, it means it’s not as pure as using charred wood. “For the same reason that SPAM is cheaper than a whole ham, briquettes are cheaper to make than all-wood charcoal,” a 2013 Bon Appétit piece notes.
There was a time that some saw charcoal as a solution to our oil-dependency problems
So now that we have our lineage between Henry Ford and charcoal totally laid out, to the point where Ford was literally selling charcoal briquettes at his dealerships, I’d like to take this in an even weirder direction, a direction that involves carmakers (i.e., Ford’s competitors) attempting to use charcoal as an alternative to gasoline.
Yes, before we started packing giant lithium batteries into vehicles, people literally tried to make their internal combustion engines go with the help of charcoal. It wasn’t a particularly elegant solution, but it was one that saw a lot of interest around the 1920s and 1930s.
One thing you might not be aware of if you’re from the United States is the impact that World War II had on the global gasoline supply, particularly in areas that were major battlefronts.
This led to the popularity of wood gas during World War II—yes, that is correct, continental Europe and Japan were relying on firewood and charcoal to drive around. All those era-appropriate World War II movies with gasoline-based vehicles lied to us. Now, to be clear, this was a time when useful goods were being rationed, and there were clearly more trees hanging around than there was gasoline.
But even before World War II, the idea of charcoal (i.e. concentrated wood fuel) taking a bigger role in our vehicles was frequently discussed.
In 1932, for example—years before World War II even began—a Chinese inventor came up with a way to use charcoal fumes for driving a car, which was seen as a more cost-effective alternative to gasoline, which cost the equivalent of $1.50 per gallon at the time, or nearly $30 in today’s money. An oil embargo against China in 1950 briefly led to a return to charcoal.
But even well before a Second World War was on anyone’s mind, a French automaker who frequently borrowed concepts from Ford was looking closely at charcoal as a potential fuel alternative. André Citroën, the founder of the French automaker Citroën, was making the case that charcoal was a cost-effective alternative to gasoline as early as 1924.
One consideration Citroën had in his favor at the time was the fact that gasoline in Europe was harder to come by.
“It may not be long before the world Is without gasoline, or at least until gasoline Is prohibitive In price,” he told The Boston Globe in 1924. “You In America have been particularly lucky, but even your supply of oil is expected to last only another fifteen or eighteen years. In Europe we have felt the high price of fuel for a long time. and that Is one reason we don’t sell so many automobiles.”
And the truth is, Citroën was probably right to a large extent—while more oil sources later emerged, there were significant shortages of gasoline during World War II, even in the United States, where gasoline rationing rules were put into effect in 1942 (to much complaining).
Citroën died before he could see the wood-fuel-driven era of World War II, but vehicles made by his former company were converted to use charcoal during that time. One converted vehicle, using coal rather than charcoal, is on display at an American museum—the 1938 Citroën Berline 11 Gazogene, a part of Nashville’s Lane Motor Museum. The museum noted a few downsides of using coal over gasoline—the speed topped out at 45 miles per gallon, and the coal, carried within the car’s front fenders, needed to be ignited for half an hour before the car could even be used. Not exactly convenient.
It seems obvious in retrospect why gas won. What sounds easier to you, putting a gas nozzle into a tank in your vehicle, or literally putting a bag of briquettes into your vehicle, and waiting for them to burn long enough to produce heat? Gasoline easily wins that battle.
Of course, at the time, we didn’t really have concerns about emissions like we do now, and by burning one form of compressed energy instead of another, we were simply offsetting the problem of carbon gas in the air. It had many, if not all, of the same problems—and it had different kinds of problems. It was just produced differently.
There was a reason Henry Ford didn’t suggest charcoal for the vehicles his company made, even if it would’ve become the ultimate form of vertical integration.
The number of pounds of carbon emissions that the average charcoal grill produces per hour of use, compared to 5.6 pounds of carbon produced by a gas grill. (For comparison’s sake: Gasoline produces 19 pounds of emissions per gallon used.) A 2009 Slate piece on the issue notes that even with the emissions, there is an environmental case for using charcoal over gas, as Kingsford-style charcoal is a byproduct of other forms of wood production, and wood is a renewable resource. (Lump charcoal is technically worse for the environment, however, because it is not a byproduct, but purpose-built. Trees are cut down specifically to produce lump charcoal.)
So no, charcoal isn’t a perfect substance, but it is a versatile one, one that can be easily reproduced, and one that maximizes the usefulness of wood by reusing sawdust in an effective way. Perhaps it’s for this reason that when the Edison Electric Institute tried to come for charcoal grills in 1994—complete with press conference featuring billowing smoke from a charcoal grill—nobody really cared. (If only EEI knew at the time that their namesake actually helped popularize their nemesis.)
And of course, there are those who made the compelling case that charcoal grilling is better than gas grilling for one key reason: it simply tastes better.
Back in 2016, Wired did an analysis of why charcoal tastes better than gas drilling, and Josh Barro should probably go read this article and watch the attached video. In his piece knocking grilling, he spends a lot of time complaining about drippings. A sample passage:
Unless you’re cooking using a truly traditional method, most Americans have moved past cooking on open flames. Either you cook on top of a surface that keeps liquid from falling into the heating element—like a pan or griddle—or you cook with an open heating element that is above the food, like a broiler.
But as Wired points out, the drippings are actually the secret as to why charcoal grilling tastes better. I’ll let science writer Matt Simon take it from here:
Ironically enough, it’s the volatile compounds in the food, not in the briquettes, that are responsible for charcoal grilling’s distinct flavors. As the meat heats up, it releases drippings that strike the super-hot charcoal and combust with a tsss and a burst of flame (check it out in the video above—it’s beautiful). Those drippings are full of fats and oils and sugars and proteins that vaporize and rise back up into the meat whence they came.
That’s how grilling over charcoal gives you that wonderful flavor. The briquettes themselves are just middlemen, not the flavor-makers. The more you drip, the more the flavor builds.
So the very reason Josh Barro hates grilling—the drippings, and the flame bursts they create—are the very things that make grilling with charcoal awesome. (Now, if he was making the case involving charcoal in vehicles, he might be onto something.)
Perhaps a little research is in order before writing a hot take.
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