Long before our forefathers teetered off the Mayflower, barbecuing in the United States had a long and fragrant history. American Indians were grilling fish and game many moons before the new settlers adopted this social way of cooking.
Not that the Indians started it. Roasting over an open fire is, in fact, the most ancient of cooking methods.
Today, from the stone and brick barbecues of cathedral proportions in the Southwest, to the hibachi grills precariously perched on Manhattan fire escapes, outdoor cooking is a tradition that has lasted and evolved when others have disappeared like smoke.
It has even found its way out to sea.
A cousin of mine recently crowned himself Captain when he picked up the payments on a long and slippery sailboat.
A small portable over-the-side grill seemed an appropriate gift, and a sunset dinner off Martha's Vineyard of twelve succulent chicken thighs christened the contraption.
There was much flailing of arms and screaming when a tenacious seagull swooped down and flew off with the first piece, cooling it first in the salty brine before wolfing it down in one gulp.
Grilled food, we found, is attractive to both seagulls and sailors.
Most grilling today is done on portable backyard barbecues, with small open hibachis, grills like kettle drums, and gas units being the most popular.
Outdoor barbecuing is usually informal, relaxed, and somehow taken less serious than cooking indoors. A hot dog immolated on a pile of logs or a marshmallow exploding in blue flame is greeted with a laugh, whereas something burned on a kitchen stove becomes a minor tragedy.
Beef, chicken, and pork are standard fare in most American homes and adapt well to simple grilling. But as tastes mature and become a little more daring, interesting ethnic and local foods, as well as different ways of treating traditional meats, become an interesting option.
A simple marinade of sesame oil and soy sauce with a touch of ginger or garlic brings a nutty tang to beef, chicken, and pork.
Equal parts of Dijon mustard and honey or fruit preserve create a wonderful contrast of tastes on chicken and pork, as does fruit juice combined with a little salad oil. Most bottled salad dressings may be used as a quick marinade in a pinch.
Some hints and advice on home grilling:
* Although gas grills are heated on high, most foods should be cooked on low heat.
* Chicken, unlike steak, should be turned frequently.
* Roasts should be cooked in covered grills. Use a standard meat thermometer to check for doneness.
* Most suggested marinades for chicken work equally well on pork.
* Wind can do more than bring smoke to your eyes. It can change cooking time measurably.
* Gas grills should always be opened before igniting, then covered until coals heat.
* Wok cooking may be adapted to grill use. Simply lift off the grate and place the wok directly on the coals.
* Cheaper hamburger of 15 to 20 percent fat stays moister when grilled than the more expensive meat.
Charlotte Erickson, author and food and appliance consultant in the Chicago area, recently tested all the recipes in ''The Complete Barbecue Cookbook'' (Contemporary Books Inc. $9.95, paper).
''We sometimes had five gas grills going at once and lots of neighbors in to do the tasting.
''One thing that impresses me is how much can be done on one grill,'' she says. ''A whole meal can be cooked without jumping up and running in the kitchen. It's like having a stove in your back yard.''
''Favorite recipes? That's like asking if I have a favorite child,'' Ms. Erickson says.
She did express a certain fondness for shrimps dipped in garlic butter, quickly grilled, and sprinkled with a little lemon juice.
''The main thing is to be creative and try out different things with imaginative marinades,'' she said.
The interesting and somewhat elaborate veal recipe below is from restaurateurs Margaret and Franco Romagnoli, who came across it one hot summer day in Sicily while doing research for their latest cookbook, ''The New Italian Cooking'' (Atlantic/Little Brown. $17.95).
The simple clam recipe is from the Al Forno Restaurant in Providence, R.I., where grilling is a specialty. It is a favorite of the owners, who suggest mussels as a substitute if clams are not available. Spiedini alla Siciliana (Sicilian Skewers of Veal) 2 1/2 pounds veal round, semi-frozen for easy slicing 1/3 pound mozzarella, diced or coarsely grated 1/3 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, cut in small squares 1 1/2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs 3/4 cup olive oil 36 bay leaves 3 medium onions, cut in wedges 1 1/2 dozen cherry tomatoes 1 1/2 dozen mushrooms 4 very small zucchini each cut in 4 even rounds Ground pepper to taste Oregano to taste Slice veal in 10 to 12 very thin slices. Pound between sheets of waxed paper to even thinness and cut each slice in half.
Mix mozzarella and prosciutto with bread crumbs. Add enough olive oil to dampen mixture and make it cling together.
Place a lump of mixture on each veal slice. Fold corners in and over to enclose mixture.
On long skewers, thread tomato, mushroom, zucchini, onion, bay leaf, veal packet, another bay leaf, and so on. Bay leaf should be on both sides of veal.
Mix remaining olive oil with oregano and pepper. Baste the skewers while grilling over low heat.
Serves 4 to 6. Grilled Littleneck Clams or Mussels 6 littlenecks or 12 mussels per person 2-3 tablespoons olive oil Juice of half a lemon Freshly ground black pepper Chopped fresh parsley 1 grilled crouton, coarsely chopped (recipe below)
Prepare medium hot charcoal fire. Place clams or mussels directly on grill. Remove from grill as each opens, being careful not to lose juices. Place in bowls on top of coarsely chopped crouton.
Drizzle with olive oil, lemon juice, generous amount of black pepper, and about one tablespoon of chopped parsley. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves 1. Crouton 1 slice Italian bread Olive oil or garlic butter Brush both sides of bread with olive oil or garlic butter. While clams or mussels are cooling, toast both sides of bread on grill. Chop coarsly when browned and place in soup bowls. Stroganoff Burgers 1 1/2 pounds ground beef 1/8 teaspoon black or cayenne pepper 1/2 cup chopped mushrooms 1/4 cup sour cream or yogurt 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 1/4 teaspoon onion or garlic salt
Combine all ingredients and shape into six patties. Grill over medium low heat, turning once, until cooked to your liking. Mushroom Burgers 1 1/2 pounds ground beef 1/8 teaspoon ground pepper 1 6-ounce can of mushrooms, drained and chopped
Mix all ingredients together and form 4 to 6 patties. Cook over low heat until done.
Here is a barbecued chicken dish of Persian origin called Kabab-e Joojeh. Traditionally it is marinated in lime juice, although lemon juice may be substituted. Persian Barbecued Chicken 2 small chickens cut in serving pieces 6 tablespoons olive or salad oil 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1/16 teaspoon saffron 3 to 4 teaspoons lime or lemon juice 2 packages instant dry beef broth 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon Ground black pepper to taste
Combine chicken pieces with all ingredients in large bowl and mix thoroughly. Cover and let stand several hours at room temperature or refrigerate overnight, turning whenever possible.
Grill chicken over low charcoal fire. Baste with remaining marinade and cook until done, turning occasionally.