Straddling the Barbecue Divide

I.The Urban Grill

Barbecuing in Baltimore is a communal affair, like much of city living when the weather gets warm and people spill out onto their stoops or porches, setting up lawn chairs on the sidewalks, perching on car hoods to monitor kids who wobble up and down the sidewalk on bikes, barricading toddlers onto front porches so they can play outside without tumbling down the steps. They brush their dogs, braid their daughter’s hair, wash the car.

Conversations with neighbors unwind leisurely. No longer shivering out of gloves to get the key in the front door and limiting exchanges to curt hellos, talk turns to the elections and the city’s new garbage cans and “Did you notice they finally fixed the giant pothole on 25th?”

And the barbecues are creative, of necessity. I’ve seen City Arts residents barbecuing on a narrow green traffic island in the parking lot, surrounded by cars, a giant dumpster, and the adjacent rubble-strewn empty lot because hey, it is a warm spring evening and doesn’t the air smell good?

In the suburbs, it is all about privacy: Cul-de-sacs, covenants, and colonials that emphasize sweeping lawns and fenced backyards and rules about hedges that assure homeowners they’ve purchased the good life and can live it insulated from the scrappy minions. Peace and quiet equals prosperity, etc., so standing alone on the patio barbecuing with your sliding glass door opening to the pristine kitchen appointed with stainless steel appliances and marble countertops must feel like that smooth pebble you secretly caress in your pocket. Here you are, master of your perfect world, caressing it, alone.

But summer in the city is good people watching.

During the winter, it is a distant kind of voyeurism that city dwellers engage in, a silent movie of your neighbor’s life seen across the alley through dingy windows. You know when they are eating alone in front of Netflix on the laptop or when the new baby has croup and they pace the floors and then turn the bathroom light on, knowing they are running the shower to steam the barking cough out of him. But in the summer, the soundtrack is laid down and floods out of the radio they are listening to and filters in through open windows. You hear the argument over whether the niece is still vegetarian and which one of them needs to pop out to the store to get Tofu Pups for the grill or when the argument they get into at a restaurant carries over to their arrival home and they stand on the sidewalk yelling so fiercely about betrayal that the dispute is flung up through your bedroom windows to slip into your dreams and you wake in the morning, angry with your own partner for that dream in which they behaved so brutally.

But you have to be nice, always, because you are living on top of each other. For years. You don’t get to complain about the loud, lasting Preakness party that the Hopkins students—or MICA or Loyola or Morgan or UB students—are having on the back deck two doors down on the third Saturday in May because hey, you’ll be doing the same thing the following weekend with a Memorial Day barbecue.

Your deck railing is exactly 11 inches from your neighbor’s deck railing, so if she is finishing her work day in the peaceful dusk over a glass of wine and a stack of papers to be read, there is a complicated dance of timing to be done, a negotiating of her cocktail hour and your dinner hour. Can you wait to fire up the barbecue in what is really a shared space?

Barbecuing in the city is a chess game.

 

II. The Beef

That subtitle is a ruse. This is less about tips for grilling beef and more about who grills the beef—less “the beef,” more “a beef.”

I’m irritated by the gender assumptions that go with barbecuing. Sometimes, while grilling, I puzzle over their origins. Even now, in 2016, barbecuing is a man’s world. The utensils are hawked in Father’s Day ads. The grills get their special little manly corral at Home Depot that is aisles away from the domestic notion of cooking that flourishes in the kitchen remodeling section and protects buyers from a whiff of feminine contamination. Tips for grilling in the current Gas v. Charcoal debate deliver masculine edicts: “Real men don’t use gas.”

But women have long barbecued, of course. American heritage is steeped in their images. Native American men who hunted and dragged home their prey for women to cook over an open fire. Pilgrims who hunkered down in primitive cabins and cooked their meals in stone fireplaces. Women on the Oregon Trail who capably fed their families around a campfire.

My admittedly cursory research (not much written on this topic in the annals of feminist critique; perhaps they’ve got bigger fish to fry—not to mix my metaphors—when it comes to inequalities than parsing the origins of the grilling gender-divide?), shows most domestic struggles went in the other direction, women trying to get men off their butts to do some cooking, childcare, cleaning. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s seminal feminist text “The Second Shift,” published in 1989, was a deep dive into the division of labor (or lack thereof) in the modern home, looking at how women, even as they migrated into the paid workforce, still shouldered most of the burden of domestic work. Feminist academics, when they tackled the topic at all (no mean feat in an ivory tower dominated by men who were quick to dismiss such trivial topics as housework and cooking), leaned in to question assumptions about the oversized role women played. Research on how men came home from the factories, shops, or offices to slip into Bermudas and fire up the grill are scant.

But one can extrapolate from the research.

In the women’s studies bible, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s 1978 “For her Own Good; 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women,” a fascinating section on the rise of domestic science and the ensuing popularity of a scientific approach to housework in the form of “home economics” describes a massive shift in perceptions during the 1950s.

As readers surely recall, that’s when Rosie the Riveter was booted from the wartime factories so men could take their rightful place on the assembly line and she could return to her rightful place at the hearth, or G.E. range—only the factory crept into the home, as efficiency experts expanded their gaze beyond manufacturing and put domestic life in their sights. The result was a set of rules, packaged in advice columns and high school classrooms, about the right way to cook chicken and vacuum rugs and serve dinners.

Along the way, as American gender roles were rigidly codified in the ‘50s, cooking over an open flame was suddenly recast as too arduous for the weaker sex. What if she gets charcoal on her purdy picnic frock? Or stabs her dainty self with those oversized utensils? Or catches those apron strings on fire as she wrangles the erupting flames into submission. Oh, no, this is clearly man’s work.

And I imagine, because this was most men’s only foray into domestic work that the womenfolk happily gathered in the kitchen snickering to themselves as they ceded the patio to the men, thinking, “Well, for chrissakes, at least he’s doing something to help get dinner on the table.” Our history is rife with such subterfuge.

Fast-forward sixty-some years and the Brinkmanns and Char-Broils are a man’s world. The target audience is clear and ads typically feature a statuesque fellow shot from below next to his giant grill—size matters, they hint—and the products have names like Jumbo Joe, Performer Series, and Master-Touch.  The tongs are always in the dude’s hands and women continue their supportive role on the sidelines.

Still, perhaps it is my contrarian nature or a desire to challenge all things macho but I long ago took to grilling.

Barbecuing is my quiet “Fuck you.”

 

III. The Wilderness

Plus, I like it. I can totally see why men, if they were inclined to help get dinner on the table in the 1950s, might co-opt the grill. Hmm, stand outside with beer in one hand and barbecue tongs in the other and leisurely flip chicken thighs in the cool evening air or stand in a sweltering kitchen scraping your knuckles as you grate cabbage into slaw only to turn around and wash all the dirty dishes over a steaming sink of hot water? Not much of a dilemma.

Interestingly, my husband—who does most of the cooking at our house—disagrees.

“I like to have an intellectual engagement with my food rather than caveman-esque throwing it on the fire,” he says, dissing my culinary skills one evening.

“Barbecuing reminds me of camping,” I say. “That’s why I like it.”

“That’s why I don’t like it,” he says. He hates camping. This is a long-running dispute spanning the length of our marriage. He’s claustrophobic in a tent, hates bugs, gets cold—or hot—and, like the princess and the pea, will toss all night if some puny pebble gets under his sleeping bag. He complains. “Camping is cooking with none of what you need—utensils, spices—at your finger tips and having to fumble around with flashlights in bins and boxes for every little thing you need.”

“So maybe barbecuing is our compromise,” I say; marriage is full of compromises.

Me, I like the challenge and the creativity of improvising comfort while camping and the way you think about people who used to live like this in the olden days and how does the time-consuming struggle for basic necessities—making a fire to boil even your morning coffee—shift our sense of time, our energy, our focus. (And without Wi-Fi, we get to argue instead of settling every disputed fact or misplaced celebrity’s name with a Google search.)

Barbecuing and eating dinner on the small back deck then becomes all about nostalgia for some great outdoors we experienced somewhere else. It hints at the idyllic, wooded vacation you once went on but insistently interrupts with its urban twist—another compromise. Yes, there is that same whine of the cicadas and whir of crickets you remember from the tent in the woods but the sounds are often subsumed by the whine of your neighbor’s air-conditioner as it shudders into life or the whir of Foxtrot’s helicopter blades as it circles and swings its spotlight across your yard and alley looking for the latest suspects. A car alarm goes off. A siren shrieks by. The dogs bark as they chase another target—rat?—scuttling across the tiny yard.

It’s not Catoctin Mountain Park, but it helps me conjure up the memory.

Barbecuing—straddling the divides of urban/wilderness, gender stereotypes, and marital disputes—is a compromise.

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