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Catching the soft scene of smoke and burnt sausages in the air on a summer’s evening is one of the purest pleasures of the season. But the gender divide is sadly alive and well when it comes to barbecuing, with women often given the short end of the tongs. Why are men expected to occupy the spot nearest the fire when it comes to grilling meat, when traditionally they haven’t done much cooking?
Watching your food cook on a fire in the open air is a pure, primal pleasure. The ritual of creating flames, watching them die down while you feel the heat on your face and positioning your dinner just so can provide unadulterated joy.
But as well as being a great place to cook ribs, the barbecue is also one of the last male bastions. Along with playing video games, hating shopping and spending Saturday afternoon in the pub watching the big game, wielding a pair of BBQ tongs has become inextricably linked with a sense of masculine, hunter-gatherer pride – but there’s no reason this should be so.
“It’s very much to do with the way we see gender and historical gender stereotypes and assumptions, rather than anything else,” says Professor Andrew Warnes, a professor in American Studies at the University of Leeds who works on the mythology of barbecues.
Judy Joo, owner and founder of one of London’s top Korean restaurants, Jinjuu, started her business to counteract this oddity of gender imbalance, and recently held a pop-up event, Girls Can Grill, to celebrate female chefs at the barbecue.
“The misconception that women can’t grill is ridiculous,” she says. “I guess it is perpetuated by a certain machismo culture around barbecuing and it being the man’s territory. Women know how to treat meat properly and can control the heat. Events such as Girls Can Grill ultimately help break down the stereotypes by showcasing four serious female chefs who know how to handle the fire.”
The event featured prominent London-based female chefs – Freddie Janssen of Lyle’s, Anna Hansen of The Modern Pantry, Vicky Heafield of Berber & Q Shawarma Bar and Jane Alty from The Begging Bowl – who showcased their take on the Korean classic ssam, a dish of grilled meat, a spicy sauce and pickle wrapped in a lettuce leaf.
“Women represent a very small percentage in kitchens,” says Joo. “ They need to be at the top in order to make change and provide role models for the next generation.”
While it’s been suggested that men enjoy grilling more than women because of the supposed links to the era of the hunter gatherer who hunted, killed and cooked animals over a fire to feed their families, there’s not much evidence that this is the case.
What may form the origins of the stereotype is the rise of men spending more time with their families in post World War II America. Having previously spent much of their time with other men in bars and at work, society and parenting guides began instead to place more emphasis on family time. Rather than tidying up after the kids or taking part in traditionally female activities such as cleaning and making three meals a day, barbecuing was an ideal way for men to bond with their children at home while still appearing masculine and virile. This attitude persists today. In 2009, an American advert for Kingsford Charcoal features a woman adding charcoal to the grill when her husband steps in. ”What would happen if I just walked into the kitchen and started making a salad?’’ he asks. ”That would be weird,” she replies, smiling with understanding.
Globally, however, cooking on a fire outdoors does not hold up as being a gendered activity. Not only do women do most of the cooking in most cultures, in many parts of the world (including Indonesia, Mexico, Serbia and South East Asia), selling grilled food is an important source of income for women. Start up costs are cheap; all you need is wood, a metal grate and the food, which means that any woman of any class can make her own money.
“Korean BBQ is popular both domestically and abroad and most celebratory meals centre around a spirited grill,” says Joo. “Koreans love to barbecue and I remember watching my mum cook meat on a small little charcoal grill in our garage as a child. Her mini iron stove was about the size of a shoebox and only housed a few glowing amber coals. She used to squat in front of it, while quickly flipping the meat over adeptly like playing cards, with chopsticks. I still remember the sweet BBQ smoke luring me from my room. My mum would throw most things on her little magic grill – chicken, seafood, pork, and vegetables.”
Professor Andrew Warnes agrees with her. “It’s all a cultural construction,” he says. European and Western culture have made barbecuing a big exception to the fact that cooking is normally a female activity – especially when meat is involved, such as carving the sunday roast or cooking in the back garden. It’s similar in other cultures where masculinity has been a lauded attribute.
“In terms of traditions of non-European or indigenous people taking part of cooking outside on a fire, it’s definitely not the case that’s it’s a male-centric business at all. It’s cultural mythology which associates meat cooking as an exceptional culinary activity for manly men.”