Grim's Grub: This is the smell of summer

How one of mankind's oldest technologies is still a favorite when the kitchen gets hot.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

More than 30,000 years ago, mankind began to harvest a marvel that is still used to this day, though they used it very differently. They used it to draw on cave walls.

Charcoal, the byproduct of wood fires worldwide, has had a surprising multitude of uses throughout human history. It's an art supply. It's a valuable material that elevated mankind into the iron age through metal smithing. And it persists as a means of purifying food and drink.

In Zanzibar, even the monkeys recognize charcoal's medicinal value (think activated charcoal) when they steal charcoal from colliers (professionals who make charcoal for a living) to counteract stomach upset from toxic foods.

However, first and foremost, the smell of charcoal burning is the smell of summer outdoor cooking with ties to some very familiar names.

Early on, charcoal came in the form of what is now known as "lump" charcoal - that is, whole pieces of wood carbonized throughout to make it light and easier to cook at a predictable rate and temperature. Foods cooked over lump charcoal would have originally been cooked over pits dug into the earth, which eventually gave way to troughs and even the predecessor of the grill - a shallow sheet metal pan called a brazier with no protection from wind gusts leading to ash and hot embers taking to the air with every breeze.


This problem was solved during the grilling heyday following World War II.

Black, charcoal kettle grill with cover on, in use. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Metalworker George Stephan upgraded the brazier to what we know as the kettle grill today. At work, Stephan chopped a metal buoy in half and installed air vents and legs. His invention eliminated plumes of ash and embers, and the matching cover could be used to contain the heat of the charcoal.

Stephan went into production and used his money to buy Weber Brothers Metalworks, later Weber-Stephan Products. His big break came in the 1970s, when he worked with a bank to offer free grilled sandwiches to potential customers. The line outside the bank was so long police had to provide traffic control.

Until his death in 1993, Stephen watched as his product grew into the brand that today is still one of the best known in its industry.

But that's only one half of the story, because yet another person was involved in the popularization of the charcoal briquette.

Even before the invention of the kettle grill was the creation of the charcoal briquette, which was patented by Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania in 1897. Another big industry name had an interest in the product, because it was a good way to use up a byproduct of his main product - Ford automobiles.


Henry Ford and Edward G. Kingsford worked together to procure land to supply timber for Ford's production lines, but the sawmills run by his plants made a lot of wood waste in the form of sawdust. Zwoyer's invention gave the business tycoon a way to turn waste into profit by compressing blocks of the reconstituted, charred sawdust into bricks that could be sold as fuel.

Originally, the product was marketed under the Ford name, but the brand was later changed to honor Kingsford. Ford probably didn't mind, given his name was still there, plain as day.

Black lump charcoal pieces ready for the barbecue grill. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Homemade Lump Charcoal

  • Untreated hardwood scraps (preferred varieties include alder, oak and maple)
  • 1 food safe sealable metal container
  • 1 larger metal container like a steel drum with holes near the bottom
  • Additional wood for burning

Place the smaller container in the center of the larger drum and surround it with kindling and additional wood in such a way that you still have room to put the lid on later. Get the fire going strong, but leave the lid off the smaller container. As the fire grows, add more hardwood to the inside of the smaller container a few layers at a time, as well as more burning material surrounding the smaller container.
Once all the moisture is driven out of the wood and all the hardwood pieces inside the smaller container have begun to burn and blacken, put the lid on to limit oxygen supply. Allow the wood to smolder for 24 hours or more. At the end of 24 hours, you can remove the lid to check if it is finished and put it back on if it is still smoldering.

Once the fire goes out by itself and the ashes are cold, you should be able to remove the smaller container and use the contents in your grill.


Grilled Chile Relleno, cook the peppers until they are tender and the cheese is slightly browned and bubbling. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Grilled Chile Rellenos

Adapted from

  • 6 large poblano or bell peppers
  • Optional: 6 slices of bacon, chopped fine; or 2 chorizo sausages, crumbled into small pieces
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can baked beans or grilling beans
  • Up to 2 teaspoons hot sauce
  • 3 cups pepperjack, Monterey jack or cheddar cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

If you like heat, use poblanos that have been cut in half and have had the seeds scraped out. If using mild bell peppers, simply remove the stem end and scoop out the contents, leaving the bottom intact.
If using meat, cook it just until it turns golden over medium heat in a skillet. Place a skillet over medium heat with 2 tablespoons of oil and saute the onion, jalapenos, cilantro and cumin until they develop a golden brown crust. Stir in the beans, hot sauce and 2 cups of cheese. Taste and adjust the flavors to your preferences. Spoon the mixture into each pepper and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Drizzle the remaining oil on top and grill over indirect, medium heat.

For added flavor, add your favorite wood chips to the coals or in a smoker box. Cover the grill and cook the peppers until they are tender and the cheese is slightly browned and bubbling, 30 to 40 minutes.

Grilled zucchini pizza with mushrooms, tomatoes, onions and cheese. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Grilled Pizza Zucchini


Adapted from and

  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 2 slices onion
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Pinch of oregano
  • 1 chopped basil leaf
  • 1 head of garlic (you will only need one clove, but save the rest)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Pinch of dried red pepper flakes
  • 4 medium zucchini, cut in half (optional, scoop out just a shallow dip in the middle)
  • High quality Asiago, mozzarella or a mixed pizzeria cheese

Cut tomatoes in half and remove the stems. Cut the top off the garlic. Brush the cut ends of tomato, the cut end of garlic and both sides of the onion with olive oil. Wrap the garlic in foil. Place the onion, garlic and tomato on the grill (grill side down where applicable, though you will likely have to turn the onion). The tomato is ready when the cut side starts to brown and the skin comes off easily. The garlic will be roasted in approximately 40 minutes and the onions will be ready when they turn transparent and tender.
Once ready, squeeze one clove of garlic out of the skin and place half of it in a food processor or blender. Remove the skin from the tomato and place it and the onion in the food processor. Add the seasonings and blend well. If the sauce is too thin, you can add it to a saute pan and stir it while water cooks out.

Cut the zucchini in half and scrape a hollow divot in the center before brushing with olive oil and placing briefly cut side down on the grill until it gets light grill lines and starts to just barely soften (3-4 minutes), then remove. Smear the grilled marinara sauce over the cut side of the zucchini and sprinkle with cheese. Return the zucchini to the grill and cover to cook a few more minutes until the cheese is melted.

You may also add your choice of meats (pepperoni, sausage, etc.)

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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