In Europe smoking meats was practiced long before the discovery of America and it was a survival skill. At some point in the past we had discovered that when meat was left hanging over smoldering fire it tasted better and the process had been repeated ever since. We also knew that when salt was added to meat it improved its taste and keeping qualities. Those original salts came in huge slabs from different salt mines and the quality varied as different salts contained different impurities (chemicals) inside. The real breakthrough came when we discovered that when salts containing nitrates were used they imparted to meats not only a pink color, but also a peculiar flavor that was much in demand. That was the begining of "meat curing" and the same process is employed all over the world today.
This magical impurity was potassium nitrate, commonly known as saltpeter, the basic ingredient of gunpowder which the Chinese invented thousands years ago. We have tried to eliminate nitrates from our foods for hundreds of years but with all advances in computers and science we are not able to come up with anything else that might be so effective in preventing food poisoning also known as botulism. Our ancestors did not have the faintest idea about food poisoning but they knew that cured and smoked meats tasted better and lasted longer. In 1492 Columbus discovered America but smoking meats never took off there for the following reasons: 1. Traditional methods of meat smoking relied on applying cold smoke (less than 77º F, 35º C) to meat for extended periods of time (from 2 days to even 3 weeks) what basically was drying meat by removing moisture. This temperature puts severe restraints on the geographical area were smoking could be performed and in many parts of the country it would be limited to the night time in December, January and February.
Today refrigerators are everywhere and almost all foods are smoked with a hot smoke which provides smoky flavor but little preservation qualities. In most areas of the USA the climate was warmer than in Northern Europe and in the Western part of the country the cattle was grazing for most of the year. When cowboys were hungry they would slaughter a cow and grill steaks over the fire. They looked with disdain at pigs, sheep or goats.
In old Europe people showed sentiment towards a cow, it produced milk which was then processed into butter, cream or cheese and the animal was used to plow ground and move objects around. When it died it was burried. A pig was the animal to be eaten and it was and still is the best meat for smoking.
2. Pork meat was needed. A pig was not a native animal in America and only in 1539, Hernando de Soto brought the first 13 pigs to Florida.
Smoking meat became popular in the Eastern part of the country where slaves and poor people worked on plantations. A pig was easy and cheap to grow, it ate anything and in six months was ready for slaughter. Smoking meat and especially making sausages were dependent on the fact whether pigs were around.
This has changed only when railroads were built and animals were moved between different areas of the country. 3. No need to preserve meats in the USA.
Except the short Civil War that had taken place in the Eastern part of the country, the American soil never felt the presence of World Wars the way Europe did. Our losses did not compare to the 20 millions that died in Russia or 6 millions in Poland. There was nothing to rebuild, there was no shortage of food which was available all the time. Some Polish and German cities were completely destroyed and 20% of the population was gone.
There were no stores and no food left. One had to make his own foods in the summer in such a way that they would be ready to eat in the winter. Curing and smoking meats were survival skills which were not so important in the USA. Most Americans would buy fresh meats that would be barbecued and grilled to be immediately consumed when still hot on the plate. As the smoked meats are eaten cold and at the later date it would not be logical to expect those people to change suddenly the customs they were following all their lives. About 30% of meats consumed in the USA are of the smoked variety and the hot dog is included in that number, although it gets so little smoke that it can hardly be considered a smoked sausage.
For comparison in countries like Poland or Germany over 60% of all meats sold are of the smoked variety. For our ancestors smoking meat was a survival skill that was passed down from generation to generation. America has excelled in many areas however there has not been much desire to follow in the art of traditional meat smoking.
Adam Marianski has co-authored two books on meat smoking and making sausages. He runs the web site Wedliny Domowe where you can find more about making quality meats at home.