Man meets a Weber, and next thing you know, passion flames in the back yard. Women, however, just don't see the romance in barbecue.


August 02, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

My wife has never touched my barbecue grills.

This thought came to me with the fury of a grease flare-up as I wrestled with charcoal, flame and a beef brisket for five hours one recent Saturday afternoon. Why does she keep her distance?

My Smokey Joe, my trusty 22-inch kettle (Oh, what incendiary moments we've shared!), my three-burner propane barbecue with built-in "Flavorizer" bars - how could she not share my infatuation for their sizzle and smoke?

Even this summer when she bought me a new gas-powered model (which, I believe, pumps out enough BTUs to put grill marks on concrete), no exception was made: A man delivered it. I took immediate custody. The grill and I are very happy together in our strictly monogamous relationship.

So I looked to my friends and colleagues, mostly liberated, modern men married to liberated, modern women. The pattern was the same: Their wives felt the urge to sling briquettes about as often as they sought prostate screenings.

Consumer surveys back this up. According to the Barbecue Industry Association, men are the ones grilling 61 percent of the time, a landslide win for the gender. The trade association's annual polls show similar results for the last two decades.

In other words, women today are no more inclined to grill than they were in the days when "Charlie's Angels" was on television. Backyard barbecue is a man's world - one of the few places where sexism has been left unchallenged.

So why is this? Have women been made to feel unwelcome? Have men been duped into performing an unpleasant chore? (A particularly awful possibility since most men really enjoy grilling and that would make women truly diabolical.)

To answer this pressing family matter, The Sun sought out some of the nation's leading experts from barbecue cookbook authors and restaurateurs to grill manufacturers and a TV grill show host.

Momentarily putting down their tongs and aprons, the cognoscenti of combustible cookery had five theories about why grilling is a man's world - even though the word, "grill," can be viewed, quite remarkably, as an anagram of "girl" with an extra "l."

But I digress.

Theory 1

The dawn of time.

There is something primal about fire, smoke and raw meat. And there is something just as primitive about men.

Me hunt. Me build fire. Me roast a hunk of mastodon with a little braised celeriac and a hint of smoked morel.

Chris Schlesinger, co-author of the "The Thrill of the Grill" and chef-owner of East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., said he recalls from his own childhood in Virginia something Neanderthal - or at least Cro-Magnon - about returning from a successful grilling adventure with his father.

"We would enter the house through the sliding doors, meat in hand, saying that, yes, once again, we've conquered the uncertainties of the porch and provided a meal for the family," he said.

Not coincidentally, Schlesinger is no fan of gas grilling. He likes charcoal. Wood fires are even better.

He wants his guests to think he has gone to a lot of trouble. A mistake he once made was to show his girlfriend how to grill.

"After the second time she said, 'Is this all there is?' " Schlesinger recalled ruefully. "It's really a pretty easy thing to do."

Theory 2

Men are driven from the house.

In ancient times - during the Eisenhower administration, if I'm not mistaken - grilling was reserved for special events in the summer months. Women, already burdened with virtually every household chore, were happy to get their loutish husbands to do something useful.

Thus, if a man spends hours parked in front of a charcoal grill with beer in hand, there is actually a substantial net gain in productivity. Whereas if a woman did that, the rest of the meal would have to be sacrificed.

"The woman's domain is the house and the hearth," said Steven Raichlen, author of "The Barbecue! Bible," a new 556-page tome on the subject. "Men like to be outside. They're the roasters. Women are the boilers, the stewers."

Raichlen, a Pikesville native, traveled around the world studying barbecue. In most cultures, men were the chief practitioners, he said.

In the U.S., barbecue industry surveys have shown that while men grill, women are more likely to have planned the meal, done the shopping for it, and performed the cleanup afterward.

What else do men contribute? "They are more likely to take the credit for making dinner," said Betty A. Hughes of Weber-Stephen Products, maker of Weber grills.

"There's nothing sexy about baking, deep-fat frying and sauteing, but when you grill, you're the star of the show," said Raichlen. "It's man against the elements. It's you, the food and the flame."

Weber's annual survey of customers found that women grill only 28 percent of the time. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the same poll found that 29 percent of the population lists wussy "grilled vegetables" as their favorite grilled meal.)

Theory 3

From father to son.

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