by: E. G. Kingsford

Charcoal is simply carefully cooked wood.

Mankind figured out this one many centuries ago. The heat-producing part of fuel is carbon. Increase the relative amount of carbon in your cooker, and you can roast that haunch of mountain goat, or yak fillet, and get out of the kitchen in half the time. Wood is about 50% carbon (coal is 90). You can up your wood-based carbon by reducing the wood’s hydrogen and oxygen content. It’s still done pretty much the way it was started centuries ago. Logs are baked slowly at very high temperatures in a low-oxygen oven. This drives off most of the liquids and leaves the carbon.

Unlike charcoal, the irritating, ubiquitous charcoal briquette is made from roasted wood scrap, quick-lighting chemicals, and binders compressed into a little cake. It has less snob appeal than true charcoal but is a thoroughly American heritage. The briquette was invented in the 1920s for Henry Ford, as an auto assembly line spinoff. Henry Ford pondered the problem of how to squeeze a buck from the scraps of steering wheel and dashboard wood that were ordinarily thrown away. As always, his crack staff answered with the solution, “Cook it, smash it into a lump, and give it a fancy name.” For years thereafter you could only buy charcoal briquettes only at your local Ford dealerships. Then, eventually the operation became so large it was turned over to a Ford relative, E.G. Kingsford, and the rest is hamburger.


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