Monday, July 09, 2007

Why We Grill - An open letter to America's barbecue widows

Dear Ladies,

Soon you will notice the constant plumes of hickory-scented smoke out your window that herald another grilling season, the time of year when we men polish up the barbecues, whip out the tongs and get cooking. Thankfully, some of you have spent the spring embracing this, and looking forward to attending and enjoying every backyard barbecue you can find and perhaps even taking up the tongs yourselves. Others of you are less enthusiastic, already dreading the hot dogs, greasy pork ribs, T-bone steaks, crispy chicken wings and barbecue sauce-stained sun dresses that will soon be in abundance. Dinners out will soon be replaced with the refrain: "But honey, it's a nice evening. Let's barbecue."

Worrying, of course, is fruitless.

At some point—weeks or months out, depending on your tolerance level—you will become so exasperated with our endless grilling and barbecuing that you may want to beat us with our own marinated drumsticks. Please refrain. Not only are drumsticks terrible things to waste, but cooking meat outdoors is something we have to do. It's in our blood. It is a part of our man-DNA.

Our need to grill dates back eons, when our hearty cavemen forbears, known among grilling scholars as homo erectus barbacoas, grew tired of dining on raw meat—what we now call steak tartare—night after endless night. So they retreated into their cave-workshops, discovered fire, strapped on simple tool belts and invented primitive grills which they used to cook saber-toothed cat ribs and Wooly Mammoth thighs.

These early grilling endeavors resulted in delicious dinners for their families (we know this from early cave paintings featuring mothers, fathers and children next to grills, pointing to their bellies and smiling). But there were important side benefits to grilling, too. As they cooked, the men of homo erectus barbocoas learned the art of conversational speech, gathering around their hibachis and discussing the news of the day. Grilling became an important pastime for us, intimately connected with early bonding experiences and our identities as men; nothing less, in fact, than our very survival as a species.

Of course, you say, there have been many advances since those happy cave-dwelling days. Things have changed. We now have 60-inch plasma TV screens, wide-bodied jets and microwavable macaroni and cheese. Thanks to science, we have antibiotics to ward off disease and light beer to minimize our calorie intake. Most of us no longer hunt for our dinners, beyond brief forays to the butcher section of the grocery store.

While we're generally happy about these advances, there is a part of us that has become alienated from our ancestors, that yearns to run wild in the primordial forest, to hunt wild beasts with bamboo spears, to make fire and cook up a bison leg now and again. So profound is this need that even those vegetarians among us—men who have consciously sought to distance themselves from their carnivore instincts—still yearn to grill items like "veggie burgers" and "tofu dogs," items that conspicuously resemble meat.

So, barbecuing, you see, allows us to express this repressed yearning—the instinctual urge that Sigmund Freud so aptly called men's "Q Complex." It links us to a simpler time. Making that connection is healthy. It's good for us.

If only it were so simple. By now, you have probably discovered that the major backyard-appliance manufacturers have recognized this need in men. This is another complicated issue, and we must again ask for your patience and understanding. We men are now manipulated into purchasing larger and ever more dynamic barbecues than the ones we already own. When we make pilgrimages, as we call them, to the big-box home improvement stores, we are confronted with a dizzying array of styles to choose from.

There are sleek, shiny stainless-steel models with half a dozen burners and electronic igniters. Some come equipped with an infrared, rear-mounted rotisserie burner. Others feature 700-square-inches of prime cooking area and can produce temperatures exceeding 500 degrees—500 degrees! Needless to say, choosing a grill is nothing short of overwhelming for us.

It doesn't get any easier when we head to the barbecue sauce aisle in the grocery store, either. How to choose among so many flavors and sauce makers? (Note their names, such as Bull's-Eye, cleverly designed to appeal to us at our basest "hunt-that-animal" level.)

Grilling and barbecuing are, in a way, symbols of our postmodern condition. We men yearn to return to a simpler time, before cooking meat became so impossibly complicated. We have no hope of success, and yet we must try. It is the perfect expression of who we are.

All we ask of you is that you allow us this seemingly frivolous pleasure, at least for the summer months. Look at it this way: At least the men in your lives know how to cook.

Jim Benning is a Southern California-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. He co-edits the online travel magazine World Hum

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