Pass the homemade blackberry jam-infused barbecue sauce. Don’t hold the controversy.
As millions of Americans fire up backyard grills this summer, more than ribs, wings and steaks are sizzling in a halo of blue smoke over that (ideally) low heat. A clutch of cultural anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and historians—who link Southern-style barbecue to everything from the evolution of early humans 200,000 years ago to traditional divisions of labor and the flowering of American democracy—are considering new questions about the quintessential American food. Chief among them: whether—and if so, why—women might be better grillers than men.
The question is grounded in established findings by economists and sociologists that women across global societies perform more household chores and manage time more efficiently. Thus, at stake in those grilled steaks: whether the time-management skills required for modern backyard barbecue and its increasingly elaborate menus confer an advantage to women.
“With barbecue, has there been a recent shift in these patterns?” muses Richard Shweder, a leading cultural anthropologist who teaches at the University of Chicago. “It’s an obvious research question” for social science.
Shweder’s influential 1993 essay “Why Do Men Barbecue? And Other Postmodern Ironies of Growing Up in the Decade of Ethnicity” argues that modern barbecue reflects the transition by early nomads to a settled, agricultural lifestyle that in turn generated a sharp division between women-dominated indoor activities and male-dominated outdoor activities.
Millions of years later, barbecuing, an outdoor activity, is the lingering, male-infused expression of that primal cultural division, Shweder asserts. “When the hearth moves outside, it moves into male territory,” he tells Newsweek.
Yet women increasingly appear to be moving into that territory. While there are no scholarly data sets showing the number of women grillers over time, figures from grill manufacturers and barbecue trade groups point to a recent rise.
Weber-Stephen Products, the world’s largest grill manufacturer and mass-market inventor of those iconic, kettle-shaped tripod grills, found in its 25th annual GrillWatch Survey last May that women, at 25 percent, were increasingly manning the grill, up from 20 percent last year and the most since Weber-Stephen began tracking BBQ usage 25 years ago.
Such cultural shifts prompt wonky questions from social scientists that tend to go like this: Are the production decisions involved in modern barbecue practices, in which the diffusion of gender coding in food activity may be reflected in the growing presence of vegetables on the grill and more complex and varied meals, introducing a new cultural coding into the time-pattern allocation of female dominance of indoor home-related activities?
Translation: Are women and their efficiency making the backyard barbecue a better meal?
“Absolutely!” says Shweder’s wife, Candy, a ceramics artist. “You can’t get a full meal on the table unless you can multitask.” Adds Betsy Masters, the force behind the all-female grill team Squeal of Approval of Merriam, Kansas, “Women are extremely organized on the grill.”
Asked if women might be better, not just more efficient, grillers because of their ability to simultaneously cook multiple foods, including vegetables, requiring different cooking times, Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University and author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, tells Newsweek, “It sounds entirely reasonable to me!”
Wrangham has stoked the gender-related controversy by arguing that cooking drove human evolution 1.5 million to 2 million years ago by making food more digestible and spurring brain growth. “My prediction is based on biology but flies against the lack of evidence from digging,” he admits, referring to a lack of archaeological evidence of prehistoric grills.
Still, he suggests, biology drives culture, and the male desire to grill does not come from “from somewhere deep in our genes.” Men, he says, “like to be in control when there is something especially attractive”—a juicy hunk of meat—“to give away.”
The cutthroat world of competitive barbecuing—where teams with names like Aporkalypse Now, Too Sauced to Pork and Natural Born Grillers get up as early as 3 a.m. to light their fires, and certified judges sit at six tables, including the “Table of Death” (your meat rates “meh”) and “Table of Angels" (yum!)—appears to support that.
Chris Lilly, the pit master and owner of Big Bob Gibson BBQ in Decatur, Alabama, who is also a four-time grand champion of the Memphis in May world championship barbecue contest, doesn’t see many women as lead chefs in competitions.
“I would say less than 5 percent of competitive barbecue teams have a female head cook,” says Lilly, the closest thing to barbecue royalty, having married the great-granddaughter of the original Bob Gibson, who opened his rib joint in 1925. Masters, who started Squeal of Approval after she got the family smoker post-divorce and, when it died, bought a new one and painted it pink for smaller regional competitions, says she sees a lot of husband-wife teams competing—with the husband as chief chef.
While a greater percentage of women—perhaps 25 percent, according to Lilly—are members of competitive barbecuing teams, their roles are typically as tasters, meat trimmers, marinade preparers or assemblers of so-called “blind boxes” presented to judges: white Styrofoam containers stuffed with grilled meat on beds of artfully arranged parsley or lettuce.
“Women are good managers of time and process, and they’re great at marinades, but the culture is by and large a man’s game,” says Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the world’s largest grilling organization and self-proclaimed capital of American barbecue. Masters argues that because serious competitions are blind-judged, meaning that judges don’t know the gender or identity of who cooks what, women will emerge more frequently as winners as more women enter competitions.
While sales of gas grills peaked in 2009, at nearly 10.3 million, they have outnumbered those of charcoal grills every year since 1994, when just over 5.8 million gas grills were sold, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbeque Association (HPBA), a trade and lobbying group. “Grills have become much more like ovens,” says Shweder, who wonders if the trend toward moving the hearth ever more outdoors “will become a technological basis for a more egalitarian participation by women in barbecuing.”
Last year, for charcoal or wood grills, men made the decision to grill 62 percent of the time, lit grills 73 percent of the time and actually cooked 68 percent of the time, figures, from the HPBA that have held roughly steady for nearly three decades. But the trend reverses with outdoor electric grills, whose sales reached 302,000 units last year, a record high since the HPBA began tracking data in 1985. With electric outdoor grills, 55 percent of users are women.
For Lilly, who competed last May against teams like Auto Be Grillin’ and Swinefeld, the bigger controversy is what he calls “old school versus new school” in backyard grilling. Forget ready-made, preformed charcoal briquettes versus lump charcoal; the real tension is between those who make their own charcoal with hickory, peach, pecan, mesquite or another hard wood and those who think it’s all right to sneak by with wood pellets on a propane gas grill.
“It’s a fact that with gas, you’re just not going to get the same flavor,” he says.
Blame the controversy on the slow ’n’ low process needed to properly cook a 20-pound pork bratwurst shoulder (for up to 18 hours at 225 to 250 degrees) versus the intensity of life in the 21st century, says Wells. “When you get home from work at 7, you’re not going to be able to smoke brisket,” she says. As Clint Cantwell, the editor of grilling.com, writes on his blog, “I have used gas. That’s right. Not in an addiction kind of way, just a “it’s 8 p.m. on a Tuesday and I need a steak NOW” kind of way.”
That “I want it now” ethos is a shift from barbecue’s original tradition in Colonial Virginia, where roasting whole animals first emerged as a common form of mass, populist celebration in which democratic ideals and community sharing were feted. In the 19th century, politicians realized that community barbecues were a great place to court voters, a practice whose roots are evident today in political metaphors such as “grilled,” “skewered” and “raked over the coals.”
When barbecue moved out to the newly created American suburbs after World War II, it became a symbol of “something idyllic in an urbanizing world,” says Robert Moss, a culinary historian in Charleston, South Carolina. Gas grills with permanent lines hooked into houses’ main gas lines expanded the practice, with gas companies in the 1960s charging users an extra couple of dollars a month. The widespread appearance of the portable gas grill in the 1970s, which later evolved into today’s giant, gleaming contraptions, “should get rid of notions of manliness, but our culture still clings to it,” Moss says.
Andrew Warnes, a reader in American studies at England’s University of Leeds, argued in his controversial 2008 book Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture and the Invention of America’s First Food that barbecue symbolizes America’s record of savagery and oppression against blacks and Native Americans. At the same time, barbecue has turned out to be the great equalizer, at least as far as ethnicities go, he tells Newsweek. American grilling is “a post-racial cultural practice in which cultural fusions and connections continue to occur even in situations of acute racial division,” he says. Wells calls barbecue “color-blind.”
Is that equalizing force now making its way across the gender divide?
“I have a feeling that modern or civilized U.S. life is a bit soft, even effeminate, and that barbecue could give men much-needed release and the chance to cut meat, chop wood, brandish knives and generally get back in touch with their masculinity,” Warnes says.