The true test of a relationship, believes Jordan Shapiro, is how a man answers the question of where the grill resides.
This morning my girlfriend asked me if I would move my barbecue to the patio of her new house. I felt a burning tightness in my chest.
Barbecue is not just dinner. There’s a lot about masculine identity that’s caught up in a man’s relationship to his hot meat. It is best to be mindful, to make these kinds of decisions with intention. One ought not throw his equipment around willy-nilly.
Am I ready for such a serious commitment? Am I ready for all the psychological implications? After all, what does it mean, metaphorically, for a man to move his grill into a lover’s backyard? Barbecue goes best with beer, not tossed salad.
I’m not afraid of commitment. Amanda and I have discussed moving in together many times. We agree it would be a bad idea–adversely compromise the core foundation of our particular brand of intimacy.
We founded our now two-year relationship on a motto from a Radiohead lyric: “I set you free.” Everyday we try to figure out what two natural born rebels with knee-jerk aversion to restriction and constraint need from a relationship. I belong to nobody. She’d say the same. Our mutual closeness is grounded in a kind of distance that’s designed to avoid the you-complete-me cliche. Instead, we share a mutual adoration of the other’s independence.
That’s why something about her asking me to settle in with my fancy Weber Performer–a high-end charcoal grill with a propane starter–feels terrifying.
“I won’t use it,” she adds quickly, “it’s just so you have it to cook on when you’re here.”
I remain silent, pensive.
She knows how seriously I take slow-smoked meat. She knows I get a bit irrational when it comes to my cooking equipment. The absurdly over-priced, yet remarkably functional kettle cooker was a gift from the Weber company, a freebie they gave me for doing television demos back when I was working as a professional chef and touring the competitive barbecue circuit.
St. Louis style ribs, tender pulled pork, slow-smoked brisket. Each is cured overnight in salt, sugar, and spices. In the morning, I tend the coals fastidiously, maintaining the perfect temperature. I monitor the flow of smoke from moist cherry-wood chips for as long as 18 hours at a time. Even if I were to run an errand while cooking, on some level I’d still be psychologically tethered to her place.
Devoted attention is precisely what it takes to craft a perfect meal. Tenderness is a delicate balance between hands on and hands off. Succulence, flavor, and mouthfeel are all directly related to consistency. You need to get the rhythm right: stoking the fire, then basting in the discharge. It’s a multi-day affair. Am I ready to commit to two days of focused brining and heat at her house? Why change a good thing? I’m happy with the current arrangement where I do most of my cooking at home, bringing ready-to-consume meat to her whenever I see fit.
In essence, she wants more predictable devotion while I’m comfortable with self-serving spontaneity. Perhaps it’s a gender thing. Ugh! I hate that the thought even crosses my mind. I choose to identify as a Feminist-Alpha-Male. I intentionally avoid gender normative cultural stereotypes. But in this case, it might be unavoidable.
After all, the barbecue pit is one of those places where remnants of outdated male-female roles prevail unquestioned. You see it appear, unapologetically, in sitcoms and glossy magazines. Scenes of competitive backyard recipe boasting take place around the gas grill. Each father’s day gift-guide includes long-handled utensils, gadget-thermometers, aprons featuring illustrations of meat. Books like Daniel Vaughn’s, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, implicitly separate the fire pit from domesticity, reinforcing women’s arbitrary relegation to the kitchen. The story goes like this: “Work” happens at the barbecue, it’s an art, a craft, a skill; it’s masculine. Meanwhile, instinctual and clearly undervalued “nurturing” happens in the home kitchen.
Of course, any historian worth his or her salt-cure knows that the home/workplace division (and, therefore, all the familial gender “norms” that go with it) is not grounded in ancient human tradition, but rather, owes its existence to social changes that sprouted alongside the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. However, by making a distinction between fire and “the hearth” we get to believe that barbecue belongs to primordial masculinity.
It’s a caveman thing.
With carving knife in hand, men unconsciously draw inspiration from the ancient Greek myth, celebrating the possibilities for technological innovation that came when Prometheus gave humanity fire. Hooray! We’re separate from nature; we rise to the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, the home kitchen, electric stove, and Kitchen-Aid mixer all bear the burden of Abrahamic mythology: original sin not only created the family and its feminine hearth, but also forever doomed us to fall from the natural Eden. The cooking a woman does indoors becomes symbolic of the fig leaves that sentenced humanity to mortal suffering.
Suddenly, I tense up, an embodied manifestation of ancestral guilt. As if generations of patriarchal regret just stabbed me between the shoulder blades.
“Whatever,” she says, obviously disappointed by my prolonged hesitation.
If my barbecue moves to Amanda’s patio, I’ll be throwing more than just baby backs on the fire; that slather of sauce comes loaded with all the mythological baggage of Adam’s rib.
Neither of us want that. Instead, we’re committed to a relationship that redefines romantic attachment on our own terms. I set her free…to the best of my ability. And she does the same for me. First and foremost, we attempt to unchain one another from the unconscious cultural scripts that accompany common gender expectations.
Finally, I answer her.
“Okay, I’ll move it.” I lift my eyebrows and point a finger at her, “But you have to use it too. Barbecue is not ‘men’s work.’ I don’t want us to become a suburban cliche.”
She smiles. We hug. Then I remember that she hardly cooks anyhow. Both the kitchen and the barbecue are my domain. It has nothing to do with gender, just expertise.
Clearly I’ve been overthinking it.
Truthfully, the real problem is my mother. The grill currently resides in her backyard. My kids and I have lived there since I separated from my ex-wife. Upon closer inspection, what at first seemed like a unique relationship struggle, turns out to be the oldest story in every Freudian book.