By John Hart
Grilling season has arrived and with it the resumption of a debate about the environmental ethics of charcoal grilling. Some scientists and municipalities are increasingly taking aim at charcoal grilling, arguing the practice increases the risk of fires, hurts air quality and contributes to global warming.
While not explicitly taking aim at charcoal, one city, Takoma Park, Maryland, wants to go much farther and ban all fossil fuels including gas stations, gas appliances and gas-powered lawn tools. Gas grills, not to mention charcoal grills, may not survive this purge.
While Takoma Park city officials may be content to be the caricature of woke cultural imperialism, which tends to favor sanctimony over science, progressives would do themselves and the planet a favor by realizing that going after BBQ is the ultimate non-starter in the debate about environmental stewardship. If defunding the police was a political dud, defunding our picnics won’t fare much better. Durable solutions to complex problems like climate change need a broad and diverse coalition outside of the coasts. Nothing would kill that coalition faster than going after charcoal.
As a Kansas City native, I understand BBQ passion. I myself am a practitioner. Kansas City is the source code for BBQ sauce – all other regional sauces are derivative of Kansas City sauce and celebrate its constituent parts by emphasizing ingredients like vinegar, molasses, brown sugar, mustard and tomato. While these regions may argue Kansas City simply incorporated their styles, they would be wrong, at least according to people from Kansas City.
Friendly regional rivalries aside, guilt-tripping Americans, especially those living in Middle America and the South, into giving up charcoal grilling isn’t going to happen. Should sea levels rise, a fair number of Americans would rent a barge, dock it to the flame of the Statue of Liberty and use it to ignite their smokers.
Instead of haranguing this culture, and scolding it with low impact, high inconvenience environmentalism, we should celebrate grilling. Embracing the timeless ritual of cooking with fire (including charcoal) will do the planet, and people, far more good than harm.
What the science really says about charcoal grilling
While it would be comforting to conclude that charcoal grilling doesn’t incur any environmental cost that simply isn’t true. The carbon output of grilling isn’t insignificant but there are important caveats to keep in mind.
According to one notable study, the typical grilling session releases 11 pounds of CO2 into the air. By comparison, driving a car 22 miles emits the same amount of CO2. Grilling just four times a year nearly matches the CO2 absorption capacity of a mature tree, which can absorb 48 pounds of CO2 a year.
A few key caveats: First, the term charcoal is a misnomer. Charcoal briquettes are not pure coal but small loaves of stuff that contain both renewable and non-renewable ingredients. See one ingredient list here. Other forms of charcoal are hardwood that don’t contain any fossil fuels. There is considerable debate about the cooking benefits and techniques around these types of charcoal. Hardwood charcoal tends to burn faster and not as consistently as traditional briquettes. Pit masters tend to use only seasoned wood that has been dried just like firewood. I’ve tried all three techniques, but the best option for me usually involves using some briquettes to keep the fire steady while incorporating hardwood briquettes and pre-soaked natural wood chips to provide smoke flavor.
Second, when a tree dies and decomposes it slowly releases the CO2 it absorbed during its lifespan. The process essentially is photosynthesis in reverse. Burning the wood expedites the release of that CO2 that was going to be released anyway.
Third, the net CO2 impact also depends on whether the companies who make briquettes, and the consumers who use them, replant trees. On my own land, I recently planted 1,175 trees which is enough to absorb about 3 million pounds of CO2 and more than 1,000 years of CO2 from grilling.
But it’s about more than science
Some scientists argue that gas grills are a better alternative because they emit less CO2 and are more efficient. Propane grills emit about half as much CO2 (5.6 pounds). But the point of grilling isn’t convenience or efficiency. The point of is to be inefficient, to savor the moment, to drag out the experience, to be and to be with others.
As soon as my kids were old enough to sit upright without toppling over, they sat with daddy while he grilled, often with an incentive of a few sips of root beer in their own frosty mug. In DC our tiny yard backing up to an alley included a place to park and a few feet of grass between the car and our deck that was just wide enough for a smoker. My two oldest would sit on the trunk of the car when their legs weren’t long enough to reach the bumper and just watch.
In Virginia, we had enough yard space to make room for outdoor chairs. Our third, Gabriel, was so enamored with the ritual that he decided he was going to turn our house into a restaurant and let mom and dad live in the garden shed.
Now, in Pleasant Valley, MD as the sun lowers over our fields while I grill low and slow, I remind our four kids that we get to sell our crops and use some of the proceeds to feed children in other countries who are just like them, but hungry. The organization we partner with is Growing Hope. The lesson I hope is imparted, which pairs well with luxurious ribs, is that we have a responsibility to put more into the system than we take out and leave the world better than we found it. And while our kids are older and busier, there is always an extra chair next to dad.
Millions of other families have their own rituals around cooking and food that are indescribably valuable. Virtually every culture has traditions that involve cooking low and slow over fire. And it’s important to remember that American BBQ has a rich and complex history. The practice was imported from Caribbean tribes and developed by slaves. We should celebrate these traditions and study this history, not cancel it with killjoy environmentalism.
The art of grilling deepens our connections with each other and to nature. If an animal (often a cow, pig or chicken) gives its life, it should be cooked properly and with care. People who grill tend to think deeply and carefully about where their food comes from and how it was raised. Hunters and gun owners are among the most passionate, informed and dedicated environmental stewards. They understand the costs and want to give more than they take to ensure that nature can continue to provide.
Finally, scientists who harp on grilling forget a very important lesson from science. Cooking with fire doesn’t just make us human; it made us human.
Harvard biologists Richard Wrangham and Rachel Carmody argue that the key technological breakthrough in human history was cooking. Cooked food delivers more energy to the body and gives us more time to do other things besides chew and digest food. Cooking, they argue, gave humans the chance to develop their brains and intellect.
So, this Memorial Day, fire up a grill to give thanks to those who sacrificed to give us the freedom to gather and reflect on how we’re connected to each other, and the world around us, and how we all become a little richer by giving more than we take. Brother Lawrence, who wrote about the wonders and mysteries beyond science, put it well:
“We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king.”
The primal and spiritual dimensions of cooking lead to the same conclusion. Rejecting the killjoy makes room for joy.