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je ne sais quoi : There's just something about boys and barbecue.

Grill Talk

Christina Waters on the male Labor Day grilling ritual.

By Christina Waters

The compulsion to cook outdoors over a fire is not only as old as time, it is also a process for which men appear to be competent. At least according to Williams-Sonoma and the folks at Weber, who hustle enough macho-oriented barbecue hardware to rival Harley-Davidson.

Let's reflect. Between the first taming of fire that occurred in roughly 500,000 B.C.E. and the rise of Neanderthals around 75,000 B.C.E.--somewhere in there--our human ancestors discovered the joys of outdoor cooking. Slabs of meat that humans had wolfed down raw for millenia were brought to full, flavorful glory by the simple application of heat. It's entirely possible that male grill mythology could stem from the cave-era bond between the hunter and his catch. Responsible for procuring that slab of bison, our cave dude was seen as the official hero of the weekend-long food fest that inevitably sprang up around the campfire.

The word barbecue most likely derives from a 17th-century encounter between starving Spaniards and clever natives of the West Indies, who showed the Europeans how to smoke meat on wooden lattice spits. The Carib word for this wood-fired gastronomy was boucan, corrupted in French into buccaneer, and rendered in Spanish as barbacoa. Barbacoa eventually became barbecue, with the testosterone factor already built right into the name.

The colorful, if absurd, association of males and outdoor cooking received media reinforcement during the dark ages of recreational camping in which "real men,"(e.g., Hemingway) lived for days in the remote wilderness with only their wits (and some Jack Daniels) to rely upon. Although today's SUVs can carry a guy and his well-stocked ice chest directly into the outback, the myth persists. Outdoor grill cooking was manly, damn it!

Lacking the ability to multitask, men were patronized as grill kings because grilling was considered to be a primitive skill. Mere child's play. Simple, no-brainer stuff. You just keep the fire from going out. And it's true: males actually are able to start fires. But keeping them lit involved an additional layer of complexity. Which is where the gas-powered megagrill comes in. (The same insecurity addressed by the "bigger is better" grills of today is similarly solved by larger, longer and thicker telephoto lenses on one's Nikon.)

Gas-powered grills not only take the sting out of embarrassing "flame failure." These idiot-proof monstrosities are the Bradley Fighting Vehicles of the back yard. What they lack in romance, they make up for in staying power (think Viagra). For example, the Weber Summit (note the conquest reference), offers $2,000 worth of "I'm in charge" controllable main grill burners, with side smokers, infrared rotisserie burners, another side burner for whipping up that tamarind, lime and chile marinade, automatic grill lights, built-in thermometers--whew!--all packed into stainless steel grills and cabinets larger than most Airstream trailers.

By the way, lest you disbelieve the masculine thrust (sorry) of the barbecue phenomenon, just check out any TV or print ad for outdoor grilling. No female ever wields the tongs.I love to cook over an outdoor fire, using the smallest Weber kettle and mesquite charcoal for a musky perfume finish.

  • First, I chop up regular kindling into smaller, easily combustible sizes, and place the wood kindling on a bed of crumpled newspapers in my Weber.

  • Then I put down my wine glass (only momentarily) and light the newspaper, feeding in more kindling until (after roughly 10 minutes) there's a decent minibed of coals.

  • Then I arrange mesquite charcoal into a loose pyramid (about one-third of a bag) in the kettle on top of the kindling coals. Fan the coals until they smoke vigorously. Continue sipping the syrah until the glass is empty.

  • Once the mesquite coals are glowing white hot--at least 45 minutes later--replace the actual grill surface (which you've cleaned and oiled), wait a few minutes for it to heat up, and then add the fish, chicken, kebabs, chops, marinated veggies, etc.

  • Turn once with tongs--do not pierce with a fork. When everything is done the way you like it (remember that meats continue to cook after removal from the fire), take inside and devour.

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