Fire is fundamental to humanity. For time immemorial it has provided warmth, light and the ability to cook our food. For early humans, fire was as impermanent and temporal as the rest of their nomadic lives, however as we began to establish permanent settlements and shelters it found a home in the hearth. In turn the hearth became the focal point of domestic and communal life and synonymous with home, comfort and safety itself.
In more modern times, the advent of new technologies for cooking and heating has largely banished fire from our daily lives, particularly in the warmer parts of Australia. The ingrained human affinity with fire remains though, so we created a different type of hearth – one that embraced the communal nature of our species and harked back to the earliest days of cooking meat over flames. The barbecue as a cultural touchstone was born.
The way we barbecue says a lot about our society in Australia. For many of us, our earliest memories of a barbecue would be a simple grate or cast-iron plate suspended over coals by a couple of Besser blocks. Or possibly a more impressive structure standing sentinel beside the backyard pool; bricks laid in varying degrees of proficiency, with a chimney and hutch for the woodpile. Or the sports-club special; a bare bones gas hotplate on legs intended to char snags and blacken onions with prodigious efficiency. Whatever the physical appearance, the barbecue symbolised a place to gather (particularly for males of a certain age).
Over the years we have created more and more complex and specialised barbecues; not only in the devices themselves and the spaces they occupy, but also the ritual that surrounds them. The humble gas hotplate might now be part of an outdoor kitchen, complete with wok burner, sink and fridge. Charcoal and smoke are still well represented, but through myriad offset smokers, kettles and big green eggs. Wood-fire has found its way from the brick barbie to a more cosmopolitan home in pizza ovens of all shapes and sizes. Braais, hangis, and teppanyaki grills reflect Australia’s multiculturalism through the universal language of cooking outside.
As we have turned our barbecues and barbecue areas into more formal and structured (and expensive) elements of our homes, you could take the view that we’ve lost the essence of what makes barbecuing fun and satisfying in the first place.
Though while people still want to gather together to eat, share stories and revel in the informality of cooking outside, fundamentally we’re still doing what’s been hardwired over millions of years. In a small way, the barbecue is something that reminds us of what it means to be human in the first place.