Inventor Monday: Memorial Day

Since today is Memorial Day, we thought we would take a look at some of the products that make it possible for us celebrate the memory of our American heroes, and to start the summer off with our favorite tradition – having a cook-out.  While many things we eat at a cook-out (e.g. beef, watermelon or corn on the cob), which doesn’t have an inventor other things were either invented or had a visionary who brought it to the masses.  So let’s take a look at the people who enabled us to have a grand old cook-out for Memorial Day.

  • Charcoal Briquettes – Charcoal has been used for thousands of years for heating, smelting copper and silver, and for railroad fuel. But charcoal’s transition from a heating and industrial fuel to a recreational cooking material took place in 1897 when a man named Ellsworth Zwoyer patented the “briquette.” Surprisingly, it was Henry Ford who helped popularized its use in the 1920s when he began making briquettes from the sawdust and scrap wood generated in his car factory. Soon E.G. Kingsford began mass producing and commercializing his own briquettes. But since Ford and Kingsford were brothers-in-law, they settled the family dispute when Ford agreed to focus on the auto industry and Kingsford would get the business of selling charcoal briquettes.
  • Hot Dogs – Claims about who invented the hot dog are difficult to assess. One story says that a German butcher, Johann Georghehner, invented the ‘little-dog’ sausage in the late 1600s.  Others say it originated in Frankfurt, Germany; hence the name frankfurter. And of course the people of Vienna (Wien), Austria, point to the term “wiener” to prove their claim as the birthplace of the hot dog.  But what about our traditional American hot dog?  Well, again there is some controversy. One group claims that German immigrants sold them, along with rolls and sauerkraut, from a push cart in New York during the 1860s. In 1871, Charles Feltman, a German butcher opened up the first Coney Island hot dog stand selling sausages on a roll. No matter who was first, by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, sausages in rolls became a ‘hot’ item and a big seller, and when baseball became popular, hot dogs became a staple at the ballgame and were here to stay.
  • Baked Beans – Like the hot dog, there are many stories about who invented baked beans.  Some say they originated in France, but curiously, the beans used to make baked beans are native only to America, so we’ll pass on that one.  Many food historians say that New England Indians mixed beans with maple syrup and bear fat. They then placed the mixture in an earthenware pot, buried it in a pit, and covered it with hot rocks; voila – baked beans.  But probably the person most closely associated with popularizing baked beans was Henry J. Heinz, who began his now famous Heinz food company in 1867 in Pittsburgh, PA.  One of his first products he canned was baked beans (ketchup was, of course, his first) baked beans have been a cook-out staple ever since.

So there you have it; a little history on some of the people involved with creating or popularizing some of our favorite cook-out staples.  Now all we need is a tall cold drink and some good friends and family.