Grill kings rule with barbecue tongs

May 19, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

He's darling, isn't he, that man of yours? Three seasons of the year he can barely brew coffee, but then comes dusk on a summer Saturday.

"Stand back, honey," he growls.

With a ceremonial flourish, he waves his tongs about like a scepter, and then ascends (trumpet fanfare, please) to his glorious, if brief, reign as the Charlemagne of charcoal.

If you think such chest-beating pageantry is an American aberration -- something your dad picked up from his dad, and that Grandpa learned watching television's Father Knows Best -- you're quite mistaken. Actually, there are many recipes from around the world --paella in Spain, tandoori in India, kebabs throughout the Middle East, to name just a few -- that traditionally are cooked by men only.

What these masculine menus share with those rustled up by your president of the United Steaks is an air of festivity, a great amount of caveman preening and some slight danger. Ingredients are typically simple, with a strong element of catch as catch can. And, because they frequently are also prepared around open flames, there's a rite of passage involved: A boy becomes a man when he takes his place fireside.

This current state of affairs represents a paradigm shift, said Anya Von Bremzen, author of The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes (HarperCollins, 2004, $27.50). "Historically, men hunted, and women were keepers of the fire," she said. "Now this has shifted, so that almost everywhere in the world, women are associated with baking and stewing, but grill cuisine is ruled by men."

There are exceptions, suggested Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible (Workman, 1998), because women are the primary grillers in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Peru and Mexico.

"As to why men overwhelmingly dominate, though, I've heard many wacky theories," he said, "such as that only men are stupid enough to enjoy standing downwind from smoke or that the little boy who likes to set things on fire grows up to be the guy who enjoys burning beef. For a really serious answer, I guess you'd have to ask an anthropologist."

Which we did. And, wouldn't you know, Dr. Sidney W. Mintz, professor emeritus of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, has much to say on the subject. We'll give Mintz the final word. First, let's see what men are grilling globally.

Roasting meat on spits has been popular among Mediterranean men for centuries, dating back to when Homer describes soldiers skewering strips of meat in The Odyssey. Food historians generally concur, however, the idea gained wider popularity in 11th-century Turkey, where nomadic tribes cooked bits of marinated lamb over open field fires scratched together from kindling.

This was an efficient method in arid regions where fuel was scarce, as smaller bits of meat cook faster, thus using very little fire. Marinating not only tenderized tougher cuts, but also prevented them from burning over high heat. As the technique spread to the Balkans and Middle East, this dish's name was shortened from Turkish sis kebab -- sis meaning skewer and kebab meaning roast meat.

"In Istanbul today, men are still unquestionably in charge of kebabs," said Bremzen. "It's almost monastic, how recipes are passed from fathers to son."

Kebabs have expanded into many other cultures: Asians dine on satay and yakitori, Frenchmen savor brochettes. In fact, just about anything from fish to fowl, mango to mushrooms can be cubed, speared and put into the fire. Bear in mind, though, for a genuinely Turkish kebab, skewers must be suspended over flames on special holders so that the meat never makes contact with the grilling grate.


Such a my-way-or-the-highway rule is typical of male cookery, suggests Elisabeth Luard, author of Sacred Food: Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment (Independent, 2004).

"When men cook, there's always a lot of bother and display: special paraphernalia, tongs and toques, all the secret ingredients. We see here the beginnings of a male chef's tradition, which is quite different from home cooking," she said. "In order to make a thrifty population pay for food, you see, extras had to be added, like a Punch and Judy atmosphere, or something you couldn't see every day."

This is decidedly the case in restaurants throughout modern-day New Delhi, India, where turbaned chefs from the Punjab produce dinner theater over a tandoor, which is a beehive-shaped oven nested into burning wood and smoldering embers.

Combining radiant flames and convection heat from the oven's clay walls, a tandoor's interior can reach unimaginably high temperatures of up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Chunks of meat, when lowered upright into the tandoor on long, saber-sized skewers, will cook in a few smoky seconds.

There's an old saying in advertising, "If you can't sell the steak, sell the sizzle." Indian men who cook tandoori sell both, and then some.


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