The Fire In Us: Why Do We Love To Barbecue?

By: Joshua Rooks

I’ve pondered this question for some time. Those I’ve questioned simply thought I had a particular fondness to the flavor of the sauce or the meat I consumed. Others have pontificated on the cooking process (this plays a major roll). But something in the back of my head told me it went a little deeper than that. Turns out, science says I was right.

There are two facets to the centuries old practice of barbecuing that I believe are at the center of humanity’s love for the practice of grilling and smoking. First, the smell of the smoke affects us on a primordial level, hearkening back to the first time that humans struck a fire. Second, the barbecue in the context of it’s use as a gathering has been foundational in the strengthening of modern community.

So, let us journey, for a brief time, through the building blocks of humanity and further understand why we love to strike a match and light the grill.

Burning for you

Fire has been at the center of humanity’s meal prep since…well, since we started to eat cooked foods. In modern times we often forget that fire is literally the first way humans began to eat heated morsels, whether it be vegetables or meat. Humanity’s use of fire has allowed us to progress as a species and as a society. But it also allowed us to experience the glory of grilled and smoked foods.

Scientists believe that the use of fire, and therefore smoke, produces an extraordinary response in our limbic system. This system controls long-term memory and emotion. You can see where this is going, can’t you? When you grill and smoke, your brain is firing rapidly, relaying feelings and memories long past of times that you consumed similar meals. In fact, you don’t even have to be eating. A researcher named Paul Breslin relays a story where walking by a West Philadelphia cookout caused him to salivate when he caught scent of the smoke.

This all means one thing: human beings are born of a long history with flame and our DNA via the limbic system, reminds us every time we inhale a whiff of that glorious aroma.

Breaking bread together

I know I mentioned bread, but that’s just a saying. I’m talking about community and gathering for a meal. Whether you are a community of 5 or 5 million, human beings are a social species. Of course, there are some outliers, but even a hermit ventures to town for supplies from time to time.

Sharing a meal has long been the main way to get to know one another. Another saying goes like this, “when you open your mouth to eat, you open your heart.” In other words, eating together makes us more inclined to hear each other. As we’ve learned about smoke and its effect on long-term memory, we can see how powerful it can be on our acquisition of information while under it’s influence. Quite literally, a conversation associated with a notable smell (and smoke is certainly that), is more memorable than your regular, run-of-the-mill break-room banter.

The barbecue gathering provides incentive to come by way of food served, and the primordial satisfaction via the smell of smoked food. It’s no wonder that President George Washington regularly catalogued his barbecue outings. In fact, a number of times he wrote, “stayed all night”. If it’s endorsed by America’s first, and arguably greatest president, it’s got to be special.

Bringing it all together

So, the barbecue gathering brings people together. It helps grow physical and emotional connections with one another. It strengthens bonds within family and the greater community. Additionally, the powerful memory enhancement provided by the smoke and the limbic system doesn’t let us forget these connections. Some might say that barbecuing makes us a better society.

At any rate, after researching my thoughts I simply have more reasons to keep smoking my favorite meats. I hope you’ve enjoyed these tidbits of information as to why we love to barbecue, and I hope to see you again soon in the next article.

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