I hate how much I love to grill. It’s not that I’m inclined to vegetarianism or that I otherwise object to the practice itself. But I’m uncomfortable with the pleasure I take in something so conventionally masculine. Looming over the coals, tongs in hand, I feel estranged from myself, recast in the role of suburban dad. At such moments, I get the sense that I’ve fallen into a societal trap, one that reaffirms gender roles I’ve spent years trying to undo. The whole business feels retrograde, a relic of some earlier, less inclusive era.
I take food prep a little too seriously, curtly brushing others out of the way when I step up to the kitchen counter. In my online dating days, I tried to spin this fault as a feature, describing myself as “a finicky, meticulous cook.” On reflection, I’m probably just kind of a jerk, but when I’m grilling I worry that I’ve become something even worse. Am I shoving others out of the way because it makes me feel like a man? Have I become some sort of monster?
Paging through photographs of my years in grad school recently, I came across one in which two colleagues and I stand in a semicircle around a kettle grill. Though my eyes are downcast in the image, I’m not sad. Instead, I’m studying the burgers in front of me, and I’m happy. Our friend Katrina—the only woman in frame—leans in from the left, somehow outside of the scene, despite her presence in it.
This picture captures so much of what delights me about grilling and so much of what embarrasses me about that delight. On the one hand, there’s the peculiar alchemy of sun and smoke that makes summer days sprawl. On the other hand, it bears the stain of unintentional masculine cliché. Gathered around the coals with beers slung low, we’re all but enacting a myth of the American man, telling a story in postures and poses. No longer mere Ph.D. students, we have become bros.
It’s not that I think we’re doing anything consciously sexist. Friends who were there that day remind me that we were actively making light of cookout customs even as we were participating in them. I suspect that everyone in the photograph identifies as a feminist. Yet the three of us look suspiciously like characters in a commercial, one where masculinity itself seems to be for sale.
I’m thinking—maybe you are too—of Hillshire Farm’s obnoxious “Go Meat” television spot. As it opens (watch it if you must), a man works a grill alone. Without warning, a man in another yard begins a call-and-response chant about the meat he’s cooking, and after a brief moment of confusion, our hero and two other solitary grillmasters join in. The camera cuts for a moment to a crane shot, showing us the men isolated in their adjacent but fenced-off yards. In the final scene, all four have gathered around a single grill, united in celebration.
Men, this commercial suggests, come together as men when they do a manly thing. Their grills become symbolic meeting points. They enable what scholars call homosocial contact, a kind of same-sex intimacy that deflects the supposed dangers of sexual contact between men but allows them to confirm their masculinity by excluding women. Grilling, in other words, allows these characters to cozy up to one another while still maintaining their understanding of themselves as truly manly men.
Significantly, the notion that grilling is a manly thing for very, very manly men is far from universal. In an article for Forbes, Meghan Casserly proposes that men like to grill because it’s dangerous and because they don’t have to clean up afterward. Yet “women preside over the grill” in much of the world. Though many claim that men grill because they’re somehow drawn to fire, presumably by some atavistic impulse carried in our chromosomes, the masculine connotations of grilling are culturally specific, and hence culturally constructed.
Many claim that the association between modern grilling and masculinity originates in the former’s prehistory, when barbecuing meant heavy logs and whole animals. (Slim as my buddies and I were in that old picture, I doubt we would have been able to join in.) Ironically, it wasn’t until grilling became much easier—thanks, as the historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman explains, to the midcentury invention of the kettle grill—that the connection began to take hold. It derived from the way these new grills were marketed and sold rather than from anything essential to the practice itself.
Lohman suggests that advertisers in the United States, starting in the 1950s, targeted men because they constituted an untapped market. Where women felt “they could just use their stoves,” men could be more easily persuaded to try out a new device. Adweek’s Robert Klara traces a direct lineage between these early commercial overtures and more recent ones. “Whether the product is a Swift-brand T-bone in 1960 or a Weber S-470 today,” Klara writes, “the man at the grill has always served up the branding.”
There’s another reason why advertising has so successfully linked grilling to masculinity, which has to do with long-standing cultural conventions that associate women with the private sphere and men with the public. This assumption has long contributed to the scarcity of women in professional kitchens. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts 364,000 employees in the role of chef or head cook. Nearly 83 percent of them—fully 302,000—are men. A variety of factors contribute to this imbalance, from the aggressive bro culture of the culinary brigade system to the lack of child care support. Underneath it all, however, is the idea that women are so beholden to domestic kitchens that they don’t belong in professional ones.
The association of grilling and masculinity partakes of a similar logic. Unlike most other traditionally “feminine” forms of domestic cooking, grilling typically happens outside, and hence in the public sphere. The putatively masculine quality of grilling may derive in part from the old public-private gender split. In that sense, it shares a common cause with the belief that women belong in the home.
Of course, having all this context doesn’t stop me from grilling, or from enjoying myself when I do. The other night, a few friends and I gathered out back to cook some sausages. We stood around the grill together, watching the meat cook. I was happy in their company and only a little embarrassed that I wouldn’t let anyone else take the tongs.