This Fourth of July, millions of Americans will gather around a barbecue to grill the quintessential American meal. They will huddle in groups, shrouded in the smell of sizzling meat, kibitzing over the particulars of crafting the perfect hot dog or hamburger.
The vast majority of them will be men.
“Grilling is one of the last remaining true gender divides in America,” said barbecue chef Meathead Goldwyn, founder of AmazingRibs.com, one of the world’s largest grilling advice websites. As other traditionally gendered roles have become less wholly male or female, the image of the man behind the grill endures. According to Goldwyn, 85 percent of AmazingRibs visitors are male. Barbecue cookbooks suggest a similar gender breakdown: Of the 50 best-selling “barbecuing and grilling” books on Amazon, only seven are written by women.
The maleness of meat seems to expand beyond the grilled and marinated variety. In an attempt to determine whether people perceive that meat, on the whole, has a gender, Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a study in which he provided respondents with a list of male and female names, directing them first to put all the male names into a “meat” group and the female names in a “vegetable” group. Rozin then directed participants to do the opposite, placing women with meat, men with vegetables. It took them substantially more time to complete the second task.
“There was such a big difference,” Rozin said. “People are much faster when putting Harry with meat than putting Harry with peas.”
According to E.J. Roe, a professor of human geography at the University of Southampton who has studied men and meat, the association clearly stems from a “long story of domination.” Men, especially white, Western men, she said, “have always been positioned as the power that has to harness control over nature.” Women, on the other hand, “have been traditionally positioned as nature, as wild beings who need to be tamed.” Eating or grilling meat, Roe said, could be some deeply-ingrained, subconscious attempt by men to assert control.
Men have had a special relationship with meat since the hunter-gatherer period, Rozin said, when men proudly returned to the group with the spoils of their hunt slung over their shoulders. But grilling, back in the day, was women’s work: Men would deliver the meat, women would cook it. In many other countries — Mexico, China, throughout the Middle East — where grilled meat and barbecue is popular street food, that tradition remains, Goldwyn said. Outside of the United States, women still have dominion over the grill.
The particular tie between American men and the barbecue probably emerged in the postwar period, as Rebecca Jennings wrote recently for Vox. As American families moved into suburban homes, en masse, the backyard barbecue was born.
“We’ve seen a territorial divide,” said Goldwyn. “Women have always had the kitchen, and then the patio becomes the place where guys can go.”
Advertisements have long endorsed the idea of the backyard as a manly space — the barbecue, a macho item. A 1974 commercial for a Weber Grill featured Paul Picerni, an actor most famous for his role as an FBI agent on the ABC hit series “The Untouchables.” “Whatever it is, it’s virtually untouchable,” Picerni says of a Weber, sitting on a patio among three grills, reading a newspaper. Today’s ads take a similar strategy, marketing the grill as a symbol of male virility.
“Guys, we all get to a stage in our lives when we’ve earned an upgrade,” says the man featured in one particularly sexist 2018 advertisement for a Napoleon grill. The man then turns to his wife (who is, of course, in the kitchen) and says, “Age sets in” — and then, smirking at the camera, “She’s not as hot as she used to be.”
The connection between males and meat runs so deep that it can be hard for men to become vegetarians — or even choose the veggie option at a meal with people they know, said Roe. In a series of focus groups that she conducted with men who were interested in trying to eat less meat, Roe said, some participants told her they felt “ashamed” of their decision to be meat-free. One vegetarian she interviewed still eats meat when he visits his grandmother, Roe said.
“There are lots of social obstacles that come along with deciding not to eat meat, especially for men.” For women who choose to become vegetarians, Roe said, the same stigmas don’t apply. (The 1982 book “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche,” which poked fun at the stereotypical man’s resistance to vegetables, among other classic tropes of masculinity, went on to sell over 1.6 million copies.)
The gender dynamics of grilling, in particular, might be changing, says Melissa Cookston, world champion pitmaster and author of “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue.” When Cookston first started competing in barbecue contests, 22 years ago, she said, “you didn’t see any women at all.” But since competition barbecue became the focus of several reality TV shows, she said, that’s changed: Now female aspiring barbecue cooks approach her all the time. The president of one of the preeminent barbecue competitions, The Kansas City Barbecue Society, is now a woman.
Cookston isn’t sure how grilling became a distinctly male arena. But she’d challenge any man to prove a love for meat that runs deeper than her own.
“If there is an open fire and a big piece of meat involved, I’m intrigued. The sound of the fat rendering and hitting the fire ... the smell of it, the feel of it. For me, that is utopia.”