Each summer they crop up predictably: roses, azaleas, and affronts to my ability to work the grill. Backyard or front, Northeast or Midwest, since I've been able to wield a pair of tongs I've been ridiculed, deflected, and wrestled out of my preferred post overseeing the barbecue at seasonal parties and picnics.
Excuses? I've heard them all, from "I want to give you a break," to "This thing is tricky to operate." More often, a guy who sees me approaching the grill with a pile of hamburger meat or a marinated mahi-mahi will intercept me to ask, "What are you doing?" – as if brandishing a spatula and grill basket isn't indication enough.
It's true that women have penetrated boardrooms, fought wars, and climbed Mount Everest. Yet what Australians call the "barbie" still seems to be distinctly reserved for Ken.
Although I've been in the workforce for only a few years, gone seem the salad days of egalitarian college cookouts. And far behind me are the desperate fire-escape attempts at outdoor cooking during the years I lived in New York City – which, needless to say, were outside the realm of social norm.
To explain the no-woman zone surrounding the grill, men I know say that grilling is "not cerebral; you just throw it on and poke and prod it." My friend Lee says he likes the fact that grilling is "relatively difficult to screw up." Does this mean men think their gender isn't too bright or that grilling is so easy a woman would overthink it?
Not all men have a problem with women who want to work the grill. If you believe a recent survey by the National Pork Board, six out of 10 women are grilling at least once per month in the privacy of their yards. One-on-one, my male friends tell me they have no qualms about letting a lady char the chicken. But such chivalry belies my experience time and again at social gatherings, where the collective force of maleness at the grill makes me feel like a hen trying to roast a rooster.
Why would a woman want to "man the grill" (as the verbiage so clearly indicates is paradoxical)? It's hot, smelly, and – depending on the grill construction and amount of lighter fluid required – potentially dangerous.
I admit that there's nothing quite feminine about what inspires me to fire up the coals. In fact, it's the very "toughness" of the task that makes grilling a unique culinary challenge – it's more physical, gritty, and grandiose than baking a casserole. It's about the force of your burger flip as opposed to the fine fringes of your pie crust. It's the flambé instead of the baklava, the kebab rather than the kale. At the same time, it's an exercise in patience and observation – and what writer doesn't need extra help with that?
My sister, an epicure who went through culinary school, says that for her, commanding the grill means controlling the taste: "The temperature and even the way you lay a steak across the grill can affect its flavor." She quickly adds that my brother-in-law doesn't care about such considerations. This either proves that cooking out is more cerebral than many men think, or that she – in feminine fashion – overthinks it.
Other women who grill talk about their desire to be good hostesses or their maternal instinct to feed, citing reasons why a woman's nature is as geared toward grilling as a man's.
Of course, there are just as many – if not more – women out there who are happy to steer clear of the grill. Some are intimidated by the guys, the grubbiness, or the occasional need to kick a grill to get it to work. Others are accustomed to the traditional cooking roles they observe in their families. And some women are just grateful to have someone else cook for them, even if only seasonally.
My friend Jill, who leaves the grilling to her man, takes an anthropological tack, calling the barbecue "one step up from cooking over the primordial fire." Fortunately, she's found a good counterpart in her husband, who says that while growing up in Texas he "never saw a female up at the grill, ever." In his family, the tradition of men cooking steaks is "passed on like a torch."
It's possible that women are just as responsible for genderizing the grill as men. "I don't know that many women who are willing to let men take care of whatever else needs to get done in the kitchen to get the meal ready," says my childhood friend Carrie.
Jim, a father of four, confirms this, saying he'd "rather throw the meat on the grill than be ridiculed for the way I chop a salad." Like many couples, he and his wife divide their labor between kitchen and grill when hosting backyard barbecues.
Perhaps men are just as intimidated by the idea of tackling kitchen tasks as women are by giddying up to the grill. This could be a sign that gals who grill should take the first step, and let a man mangle the lettuce once in a while.
It may also mean that I need to be more thick-skinned while ruling over the ribs in the backyard domain. After all, it's pretty difficult to screw it up.