I'll admit it. I'm a girl, and I'm scared of the grill.
I'll cook just about anything when I'm surrounded by four walls. But when it comes to outdoor feeding, I'm the one picking the berries, not tending the fire. At barbecues, I stay inside and make potato salad or frost cupcakes. I'm happy to slosh raw meat around in a marinade or pat on a peppery rub, but when it comes time for the fireworks, I hand off to the grill chef and stand way back.
As antiquated a notion as it may be, grilling just seems like something that, as a woman, I'm not supposed to do. Retail tells me so. Home Depot, local hardware stores and malls exhort that grills are the gift to give for Father's Day, not Mother's. There are no barbecue brochures in a nail salon. And grilling tools? Decidedly un-cute.
Furthermore, leading grill manufacturer Weber's annual GrillWatch survey states that of those who didn't teach themselves to grill, 33 percent learned from Dad, with a paltry 8 percent getting fiery tips from Mom. The survey also says that men are slightly more likely to prefer cooking outside (82 percent of men vs. 75 percent of women). Women might be making their own barbecue sauce (51 percent of women vs. 44 percent of men), but the dudes are the ones applying it.
The man-grill bias runs deep: Sharon Senter, who along with her partner, Diane Santucci, owns North Portland's Russell Street Bar-B-Que, grew up in East Texas, where barbecue was a way of life. She says she constructed her first smoker in high-school shop class—but couldn't use it much at home. The "grillmaster" in her family was always a man.
Chasing chick 'cue answers, I got in touch with Karen Adler, one half of the "BBQ Queens." Adler, along with her business partner, Judith Fertig, has published 20 cookbooks, including Weeknight Grilling with the BBQ Queens. The two women are frequent winners of "battle of the sexes" barbecue contests—all while wearing tiaras and rhinestones.
"As men came home from [WWII] and moved to suburbia—and with the marketing of affordable grills—guys were targeted as the outdoor cooks," Adler says. "Then, in the 1970s, more couples divorced and women began having careers.... More women started buying grills and cooking on them."
That was it. It was time to end my food sexism. Time to avenge girly cooking. To lose my grill virginity.
Help came from Jenni, one of my running-club friends from Team Red Lizard, who offered her house and gas grill for a barbecue. Not wanting to burn either down, I called up a couple of Portland's grill gods for some pre-party advice.
Rodney Muirhead, of Northeast Portland's barbecue HQ, Podnah's Pit, says that beginning grillers might want to start with a pork tenderloin. "It's always going to be good if you don't overcook it."
And Gabe Rosen, chef at local Japanese grill Biwa and formerly of Viande Meats, is an old hand at instructing people how to cook meat. "It need not be daunting," he consoled. "Don't be afraid to cut into the middle and throw it back on the grill. Taking a good look is a way to avoid disappointment."
That sounded more like online dating advice than a grilling guideline, but whatever.
I picked up boneless ribeye at the market. I bought some veggie burgers. I even got bacon to wrap around jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and then grill.
But as I gathered my bags, panic hit. Was there more to grilling than just slapping down something raw on hot grates and waiting for it to change color? I needed some last-minute reassurance.
Diane Morgan, Portland-based food writer and author of many cookbooks, including her own barbecue bible, Dressed to Grill: Savvy Recipes for Girls Who Play with Fire, praised my grilling exactitude. Women may think grilling is complicated, she says, but researching pays off in the quality of what they cook.
That distinction serves us well when it's time to actually eat the dinner we make. How often have we been subjected to Weekend Warrior Sport Grillers who serve up blackened everything from multi-thousand-dollar equipment? Men tend to char "big hunks of meat" as a sport, Morgan says. "They have the grill on high—or it's off." Women tend to better understand the importance of heat and nuance (something my lesbian friends tell me often, but I digress).
After I spoke with Morgan, I happened upon a wondrous phone number: the Weber Grill Line. Just like the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line at Thanksgiving, but year-round.
I connected with grill expert Sally, who advised me how long to preheat, what indirect heat actually meant and whether or not to oil the grill. Don't flip the steaks like pancakes; the less you move food around, the better, she says.
I asked her what kind of strange calls she received.
"A lot of men call in for advice and don't want to talk to a woman," she says. "They'll hang up, or even worse, request a supervisor—only to be connected with another woman," Sally sighs. "And I can put a grill together quicker than any man I know!"
So with confidence and a fire extinguisher within eyesight, I threw down a steak.
It made a sound like a beer commercial.
All of a sudden I felt primal. Liberated. I was grilling, goddammit.
Russell Street's Senter had commented that the grill was always the heart of the party.
I had to agree. It's one thing to hover over a steaming risotto with a glass of wine at a dinner party, but it's a hell of a lot more fun to slam on some meat, close the grill lid, and stand around goofing off with a cold one while delicious smells quickly emerge.
Since grilling's so much fun, why are men keeping it to themselves? Probably because men run most grill manufacturers, says Adler, also a member of the Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association. "[Companies] have been slow to look at women barbecue experts as spokespersons, but it is coming around," she says.
When it came time to turn the steaks over, I slid the spatula under the first one and flipped it. Perfect grill marks.
"No, that's not right!" cried my Grill Advisory Team (composed of a bunch of dudes, who I had to physically restrain from stepping in). "You have to grunt when you flip! That makes the food taste better!"
I obliged, and Senter's words rang true. "There's nothing to be scared of. The grill will serve you well, every single time."
The male draw toward grilling might still be one of those (hopefully) few remaining vestiges of sexism. But for me? The grill and I? We respect each other now. We're going to be spending more quality time together.
And the food? The steaks drew raves. The burgers delighted. The only mildly problematic dish was the jalapeños, which dripped bacon grease on the veggie burgers directly below. But that just made them manlier, somehow.