You Grill, Girl

More women prove they can take the heat as they pick up their barbecue tongs

July 02, 2003|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

As the Fourth of July approaches, thoughts naturally turn to freedom, equality and, of course, grilling.

Those all-American virtues converge with reports that a growing number of women are demanding their rightful place by the flames.

Cookbooks and Web sites now are aimed at women who grill, based on the notion, says author Karen Brooks, "that women don't need a man to light their fire."

In Dressed to Grill (Chronicle, 2002, $16.95), Brooks and Diane Morgan offer what may be the ultimate feminist grilling guide. "Let's face it. Right out of Eden's gate, we got the short end of the barbecue stick," they write. "Girls got the fertility ritual complete with the backbreaking assignment of grubbing for roots, while men proved who really sits on top of the food chain by vying for the power of the flame pit."

Elizabeth Karmel, who started the Web site 1 1/2 years ago to answer women's questions about grilling, says the goal is not about pushing men out of the way. "It's about joining in the fun."

She believes the division of women in the kitchen and men at the grill harks back to prehistoric divisions of labor. When George Stephen introduced his kettle grill 50 years ago, it appealed to men's primal urges to build fire and take no notice if their hands got dirty doing it, says Karmel, who used to work for Weber-Stephen Products.

Karmel, who is 42 and lives in Chicago, says her own liberation occurred when she seized the tongs about 14 years ago. "I got tired of the man burning the food," she says.

At first, she tried to make the pork barbecue she had grown up with in North Carolina, cooking it over a slow charcoal fire. Later, her grilling became more expansive. "I became the girl who grilled everything."

Something else changed as well. In those early years, Karmel says she didn't have much female company at the grill. Today, 55,000 visitors log on to her Web site each month, and she estimates that 22 percent of women grill. That's still far less than the 70 percent of men she says grill, but she says the gap is narrowing.

Karmel attributes much of the change to the growing popularity of gas grills. She believes women in the past may have been put off by the dirtiness of wood and charcoal and the difficulty of getting a fire to burn. But today, with 69 percent of Americans owning gas grills, cooking out has become as easy as turning a knob.

The increase of women grilling - or at least more women asking questions about grilling - has been noted by the folks at Weber-Stephen Products, which last year found that more women than men called the company's grilling hot line.

The change, says Christina Schroeder, vice president of marketing at the company, isn't just because of new technology. It also has to do with changing diets and changing demographics. Grilling fits with the desire some women have to create low-fat foods and cook with simple ingredients, she says. And many women are heads of their families, and they are not willing to give up grilled foods simply because they have no man to light the grill.

It was with women in mind that Weber introduced a new grill this year that runs off a 14-ounce cylinder of propane, which is lighter and easier to carry than the standard propane tank. "It's perfect for a single female or a small family," Schroeder says.

And recent cookbooks are showing women that grilling isn't just for cooking steaks and burgers. The new Good Housekeeping Grilling Cookbook (Hearst, 2003, $19.95) features recipes for grilled focaccia and grilled salmon with dill and caper sauce, and lots of grilled vegetables and fish.

"We were trying to keep a really fresh take on things that were new to women," says Good Housekeeping food director Susan Westmoreland.

Brooks says that while women have hesitated to build fires, when it comes to cooking new foods on the grill, they are often more adventuresome than men. She gives readers recipes for grilled tuna steaks, grilled portobellos with penne pasta, grilled chicken with an Indian spice rub and grilled mission figs with goat cheese.

"We want to do it our own way," she says.

Barbecuers' burning questions

How do I light the fire?

For a charcoal grill, use a chimney starter ignited with a crumbled newspaper or pile the charcoal into a pyramid shape on top of crumbled newspaper or paraffin fire starters. The coals should be ready in 20 to 30 minutes. For a gas grill, simply follow the manufacturer's directions.

Is there a taste difference between gas and charcoal grilling?

The "grilled" flavor that we associate with a hamburger or steak is not produced by the smoke of burning charcoal. It is the vaporized fats and juices that drip onto the hot coals that create the smoke and the flavor. Gas grills can produce this same effect by vaporizing the juices as they fall onto the gas heat source.

How do I know which grilling method to use?

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