Domestic Disturbances — Barbecuing

Fun family activity or macho aggro sport?

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Warning: This story employs sexist male stereotypes (in case you couldn’t tell from the headline).

Have you ever noticed that if you ask a man to cook pasta, rice, or any type of vegetable, he’ll invariably say something like, “You better do it. I’ll just screw it up”? (And if he does, grudgingly, agree to help out, there’s a good chance he’ll intentionally overcook everything just to prove his point.) But throw something on the grill during a party, and you’ll have a gang of men, wielding double-prong forks and tongs, fighting over cooking rights.

You’ll hear discussions of proper basting technique, fat-content variables, blackening vs. browning, interior temperature. What? These are advanced culinary skills. What happened to the man who claimed he couldn’t boil an egg? Where’s the guy who didn’t know a spork from a spatula?

Apparently to some men, the kitchen is women’s territory. Barbecuing is man’s turf. Of course it is. There’s danger involved. “Step back,” you’ll often hear men warn while elbowing amateurs away from the grill. The implication is that you’re dealing with a process every bit as hazardous and complicated as dismantling a land mine.

Of course, we all know that the kitchen is the real danger zone. Just ask people who spend time preparing food, and they’ll show you multiple battle scars from cuts and burns.

But back to barbecuing. According to those male extreme-grilling athletes (you know who you are), owning a gas grill is as good a reason for increasing your insurance coverage (homeowners, health, and life insurance) as any. The potential for a horrendous holiday tragedy is so high that only men are capable of protecting innocent women and children from the risky, thrill-seeking activity known as outdoor grilling.

We should all be grateful for that. After all, who but the most fearless man would dare to tackle an activity that involves (in his view, at least):

  • a tankful of a highly combustible HAZMAT.
  • flames that can sometimes shoot up to the height of a three-story building.
  • face-scalding steam and noxious fumes that are capable of rendering one unconscious in seconds.
  • a piece of equipment that will burn you if you touch it anywhere — not just on the cooking surface, but anywhere, including the little wheels.
  • the possibility that the whole thing could explode. At any time.

And, whatever you do, DON’T touch that ignitor button. Just as only the Commander in Chief is allowed access to the red button that will set off every U.S. nuclear device worldwide, all at once, the overseeing of the ignitor switch is reserved solely for the man of the house, who knows best how to handle this responsibility.

Of course, chances are the ignitor button won’t work. The warranty on those things is about one week. Which means once you turn on the tank, you’ll be overcome by carbon dioxide long before you have managed half a dozen ineffectual clicks.

And then the whole thing will explode.

In case of a faulty ignitor switch, the only alternative is to toss matches through the grill, or risk branding yourself with stripes if you try lifting the grilling surface up to plant a match. Either way: Danger! Beware! Men only! If you’re lucky, only your eyebrows and eyelashes will be singed. Worst-case scenario: Your face will melt off, the house will catch on fire and …

… The whole thing will explode (and we’re talking a mushroom cloud–type explosion here. One that will rock the entire neighborhood).

I’m certainly not trying to downplay the danger, or claim that barbecuing doesn’t come with risks. As with anything involving fire and compressed gas, it is an activity that should be approached with caution and a healthy dose of fear. But women are certainly just as capable of grilling a steak over an open flame as, and are no more fragile (or combustible) than, men. And women are far less likely to want to increase the risk factor by indulging in games like (DO NOT try any of these): squirting unnecessary extra lighter fluid onto a flame to see how high it will shoot; tossing plastic plates and other toxic-when-burned materials into the fire to watch them melt in interesting ways; testing to see how long one can hold onto a flaming newspaper torch without getting burned; and getting really drunk, accidentally knocking something into the flames, and forgetting that you shouldn’t attempt a rescue mission by lifting up the grill plate barehanded.

What fun would a barbecue be without the possibility that someone might end up in the ER?

Or that the whole thing might explode.