American shorthand for prosperity in 1928 was “a chicken in every pot.” Had President Hoover been running for office some 25 years later, he might have promised a chicken on every grill. By then, backyard grilling was “bigger than Christmas,” as The New York Times wrote in 1959. Another Times article on the subject was headlined “Outdoor Cooking a Sizzling Trade.”
The postwar craze was fueled by some changes sweeping the newly prosperous nation: American families had more free time than ever before, and they were moving in droves from cities to suburbs. Their new single-family homes had yards, of course, which made cookouts possible. Come summer, the smell of grilling burgers and frankfurters wafted from those yards in the new Levittowns across the nation. Informality was in. Cookouts were the new cocktail parties, shorts and slacks the new cocktail party dresses.
The backyard was itself a symbol of affluence, and barbecuing rode the wave of prosperity to even greater popularity—a phenomenon that historians later dubbed the rise of the “patio culture.” As Kristin L. Matthews stated in her essay “One Nation Over Coals,” barbecue “was the new leisure…a symbol of plenty, and a marker of the freedom from work.”
Ever ahead of his time, James Beard published Cook It Outdoors in 1941. It was the first serious cookbook on the subject and by 1953 had gone through 11 printings. In the ensuing 60 years, our mania for backyard cooking has only heated up. According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, today 86 percent of American households have a grill, outdoor barbecue, or smoker. And last year alone, roughly 200 cookbooks devoted to the subject were published in the United States.
MAKE IT NOW: Our recipe for Monterey Chicken is free through August 20, 2013.