Let’s play a game. It’s a warm evening. The pre-dusk glow is thick, and a soft breeze carries the smell of freshly cut grass. Children shout, dogs bark, the night’s first firefly sparks faintly against a blue sky. Smoke, scented with sweet barbeque sauce and pork fat or seared fish and bell pepper drifts under your nose. Someone stands at the grill, deftly grasping a pair of tongs in one hand and a cold beer in the other. Who do you see?
Chances are, if you’ve ever felt the stirrings of the American Dream, you see Dad, out of his suit and tie, tossing Fido a nugget of meat from the grill and watching his two and a half children tumbling through the yard. Or maybe you see a bunch of bros, throwing back Miller High Life and slinging burgers on buns loaded with ketchup and onions.
Whatever you see, chances are good that it’s not me, a petite, fresh-out-of-college woman (gasp – no) pushing hair out of her face with olive-oil greasy fingers and flinging steaks on the grill with panache, all the while swigging from a bottle of Newcastle. If that’s not what you see now, I hope it is soon. Men have steered the grill for far too long, and I’m taking back the tongs.
My goal for this summer is to become a grill master. Lamb chops, eggplant, pizza crust, whole fish, you name it, I’m going to grill it. In facing the grill, a beast I just learned how to turn on a few days ago, I will also come up against one of my other culinary fears – meat. I’m not sure why cooking meat scares me. Vegetables and grains can be taste tested as they cook, so I know exactly when they’re done or whether they need just a little bit more pepper. Meat requires both nuance and blind faith. If you try that cooking chicken breast, and it’s not quite done, let’s leave it at this: salmonella is real.
Either way, I think it’s good life practice to face your fears and learn new skills. So here I am, grilling away. I began with a birthday meal of barbequed ribs, eggplant, sweet corn, and squash, and definitely the best birthday present of the day was learning that you can make your own barbeque sauce. That should show you how much I know about grilling. As I’ve gotten more serious about my pursuit, I’ve done pork chops marinated in yogurt and garam masala and served it with a mango-serrano chile chutney. Yesterday, I tried my hand at fish, which, at two minutes per side, doesn’t leave much room for error. The trout has so far been my greatest success – clean tasting, flaky flesh, flash marinated in a vinaigrette of butter, balsamic, capers, shallots, and rosemary.
What I love about grilling, besides the challenge, is the way it combines every sense of the kitchen with every sense of the outdoors. It’s the smell of smoke and green leaves, the sizzle of dripping fat and ruffling grass, the heat of fire and sunshine. Grilling is perfectly suited for the outdoors. Without the shelter of the kitchen, nature, fire and meat speaks to some Cro-Magnon ancestor, hungry from hunting dinner. Maybe that’s why men gravitate toward it.
Which brings me to the other reason I’m learning how to grill.
A while ago, a friend of mine made this comment: “Don’t let a woman at the grill – or the remote.” It was a joke, I think, but it got me into thinking about why grilling is gendered. Maybe there is something to that primal man and fire bit, but I’m inclined to think it’s the symptom of a much later era, when every fire built was a testimony to the suburban gentleman that no matter how soft his hands were, he was still a man.
I have progressive friends, who I’m sure don’t think it’s their job as men to grill the kebabs I put together, just as I’m sure I don’t let them grill because I think they should. However, I’ve been at more parties than I can count where the men cluster around the grill, and the women make potato salad in the kitchen.
So in preparation for that next party, I’m making better burgers, jucier strip steaks, and more tender ribs.
For myself, I’m cooking anything that tastes good.
Krista’s Barbecue Sauce
I got this recipe from my good friend Krista, who showed me how to make this on my birthday. Krista and I grew up together, and I seem to remember her being the pickiest eater I’d ever met. After trying this sauce, I decided that maybe a picky eater is a good indicator of deliciousness. Because I’m never buying barbeque sauce again.
1 cup ketchup
¼ cup yellow mustard
¼ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon Ancho chili powder
½ tablespoon salt
Blend all ingredients together, then adjust amounts accordingly. Krista likes her sauce with a lot of mustard, I prefer a sweeter version and add more brown sugar. When I called her to make sure I had the proportions right, she said, “I go by squirts. So, like, four lines of mustard is probably what I’d start with.” Judging by this comment and also my last experience doing this, you could probably make the sauce totally to taste. This recipe is also a great base for other ingredients, including, but not limited to, Berebere spice, Worcestershire sauce, bourbon, Dijon mustard, and hot sauce.