With Memorial Day coming this weekend, I’ve been thinking about the holiday’s most persistent social activity: grilling. My grandfather grilled, my dad grills, and I grill. I like to think it’s hereditary, but my interest in grilling is only now asserting itself. For years, on various patios and decks, other people manned the grill, and I felt it was my place to occupy myself elsewhere and leave them to their fun. I’d make a salad and drink some rosé and feel completely content until it came time to actually eat. Carbonized kabobs, salmon fillets with the texture of sawdust, hot dogs so split and twisted they’re nearly unrecognizable—I’d load up on my salad and ponder how, if the grill was the centerpiece of summer gatherings in theory, the fruit of its grates was rarely the highlight in reality.
A few years ago, I had it, and in the name of quality control, I staked my place at the grill and privately resolved to get good at it. Since then, never once have I grilled anything in a social situation without some dude popping in to make sure it’s all under control.
Are those tongs big enough?
You might want to put a few more briquettes on there.
Are you sure that’s cooked all the way through?
Don’t worry, I can light it for you.
Oh, you can? So can anyone who can read, since this gas grill has succinct ignition instructions clearly printed on its cabinet door. And no one ever asks me if meat is cooked all the way through when I’ve prepared it indoors. Nor do they show concern about my utensil selection. I’m a chef, and I make a living by developing recipes and teaching cooking classes, so the chatter from the peanut gallery especially chafes. Somehow the knowledge I’ve gleaned from an entire career becomes disputable just from moving the heat source outside.
This April, the grill manufacturer Napoleon released a market research study called “Grilling the Nation.” It offered a list of America’s Top 10 Grilling Hot Spots, plus some bullet points about how political affiliations might influence grilling behavior.
But what caught my eye was buried toward the bottom of the press release. “Despite the fact that men are more likely to own a grill, and to grill more frequently, nearly half of all women who have a grill are the primary grillers in their household,” it read. “And although men surpass women as the primary griller in their household, the majority of women who aren’t the primary griller said they would like to pick up the tongs more often.”
So why don’t they? Why didn’t I?
Chris Hondros / Getty
My grandfather used to buy strange cuts of meat and cook them over big two charcoal grills for family weekend cookouts. He was an accomplished cook out-of-doors, and I now realize my grandmother, who was busy raising six kids while he frequently was off carousing at the bar, probably enjoyed those summer meals because it relieved her of some of the relentless demand to feed the family. She made the sides, and then hopefully enjoyed the novelty of sitting down for a few minutes as grandpa attended to the sizzling chunks of dead animals.
This was back in the 1950s and 60s, and a real-life manifestation of the American postwar family idyll depicted in populist cookbooks at the time. Look at the pages of a Better Homes and Gardens or Betty Crocker volume of the time, and in its predominantly feminine pages, men suddenly appear when grilling is the focus. Always white, they sport precisely Bryllcreem-ed hair and are admired from a distance by passive wives and children as they gallantly tend burgers on grates and loins on spits. The message is clear: women cook, clean, and raise a family; men are the breadwinners, and sometimes for fun they reconnect with their repressed primal selves by making fires and slapping meat over them.
I thought this was sexist, until it occurred to me the wives of the time were probably too beat to give a crap. A meal off is a meal off—even if in reality, it’s only part of the meal off, since most women are the primary shoppers and planners for the household.
This is still the case today, even with more women in the workforce, and it’s possibly why more women are grilling. If you’ve gone as far as enabling the grilling to happen in the first place, why not just go for the win and get the money shot, too? Grilling isn’t hard. It’s like cooking inside, except you’re outside, and there are more flames and nuance involved.
There are plenty of men who get the nuance, and this is why you don’t notice them as much—they are not oafs strutting around like David Lee Roth brandishing a spatula on steroids. In a Donald Trumpian manner, the least capable grillers are the loudest and brashest. Come May, look in the catalog of any fancy cookware retailer and you’re bound to see the newest crop of nut-flexingly outlandish grilling gadgets: gargantuan mitts, unwieldy tongs nearly a yard long, and grill brushes that weigh five pounds and yet have only three square inches of useful wire bristles. The implication seems to be the bigger the gear, the more potent the grilling prowess (cue the jokes about giant tools).
John Tornow CC BY
Meanwhile, women—always suckers for practicality—tend to be low-key about grilling. And perhaps chronically undervalued, by themselves most of all. This is the part of the Napoleon Grills study that tugged at me the most: “When asked ‘Who is the best griller you know?’ men were most likely to say they are the best grillers they know, while women were most inclined to name their spouse/partner as the best griller they know.” Are all of those women really married to grilling studs, or are they just taking one for the team?
Theoretically, my husband likes to grill, too, but I can’t be too sure, because I’ve not let him get near a grill for about ten years. If grilling is a leisure activity, being a spoilsport is not a fast track to universal popularity, and especially not to domestic harmony. Sometimes it’s best to just stay in your lane and eat the dry steak to keep the peace, but I just can’t bring myself to do this anymore.
Ultimately, maybe I am the mansplainer. Maybe I’m the one who ruins the fun by saying “You need to be grilling that salmon over indirect heat” or “There’s not even any ash on those coals yet—it’s way too early to put your meat on.” But I hate to see good food get ruined almost as much as I dislike eating ruined food. If I had a dollar for every backyard cookout where a cluster of guys in shorts, Pabst cans in hand, congregated around the grill to douse self-lighting briquettes with even more fluid, I’d be able to buy a very nice brisket to barbecue, and I would do it competently, and I’d clean as I go and have the table set in advance because my mise en place is on point. Hmm. Maybe that’s just what I’ll do. But don’t worry. As long as the peanut gallery promises not to give me any flak, it’ll be a coed party.
Sara Bir is Paste’s contributing food editor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Sausagetarian.