Just how did men take control of the grill, a ponderable conundrum because, in prehistoric times, men went hunting while women kept the home fires burning and did the cooking. That’s right, women were the original pitmasters. So what changed?
Let’s first establish the fact that nowadays in the US men dominate the grill for the most part. Then we can try to figure out why, and finally what the future holds.
In the conclusion of a Michigan State University paper “Grilling in America: A Gender-Based Study” from 2018, the authors stated that “Our surveyed female population indicated that only 18% of them were the predominant grillers in their family, while the males surveyed indicated that 67% of them were the predominant grillers.”
Richard Shweder, a leading cultural anthropologist who teaches at the University of Chicago, in a 1993 essay titled “Why Do Men Barbecue? And Other Postmodern Ironies of Growing Up in the Decade of Ethnicity,” explains that society began as tribes of nomads, scavengers, and hunters. Eventually, they settled down and became farmers, growing crops and raising animals. Along the way, a sharp division between female-dominated indoor activities and male-dominated outdoor activities evolved.
If women were the first pitmasters, it is likely that men first learned to grill on the hunt and on the battlefield.
Somehow BBQ became an event for festivities like weddings and political rallies. It was done in pits that were literally holes dug in the ground, and large heavy animals were the popular fare. Much of the cooking was done by male slaves.
Then, in the 1920s, Henry Ford, in collaboration with EB Kingsford and Thomas Edison, made charcoal briquets from sawdust and wood scraps from Ford’s Detroit auto plants. Now that they had briquets, Ford started selling grills to go with his cars to encourage travel and cookouts. The majority of horseless carriage drivers were men so this is possibly the inflection point when the grill became a man’s territory. It’s all Henry Ford’s fault.
Then, in the late 1940s, when the boys on Madison Ave. started advertising for early grill manufacturers like Weber, Hasty Bake, and PK, their commercials were almost all set up around the man providing sustenance for his adoring family with masterpieces from his outdoor grill.
After WWII, in the so-called nuclear family, men went to work and women stayed home and prepared dinner. On weekends men went outdoors to cut the lawn, clean the gutters, organize the garage, and burn meat.
Perhaps this became a territorial battle of the sexes. Since women ruled the kitchen, in fact the entire indoors, the natural division of duties left her there. Not that she minded. The air-conditioned kitchen was her space. She had no interest in the messy grill. Smoke gets in your hair and clothes and you get sweaty. And if you’ve just paid for a manicure, who wants charcoal under your nails?
Worst of all, there is no thermostat on the grill. Women took home economics in high school the 1950s and ‘60s while men took “shop” class featuring woodworking and engine repair. She learned that good cooking depended on temperature control and her oven had a thermostat. Set it and forget it. No wonder the vast majority of cookbooks were aimed at women.
The question was asked point-blank by Wally Cleaver, the eldest son in the nuclear Cleaver family in the popular TV sitcom “Leave it to Beaver” that ran from 1957 to 1963. In one scene, the father, Ward, nattily dressed in his pressed shirt and sweater vest sans his usual necktie, is placing burgers on the grill, Wally asks “Whenever we cook inside, Mom always does the cooking. But whenever we cook outside you always do it. How come?” To which Ward replies “Well its sort of traditional, I guess. You know they say a woman’s place is in the home and I suppose as long as she’s in the home she might as well be in the kitchen.”
Best of all, the grill got him out of her way. The patio became a place for men to gather presaging the man cave. Designated duties evolved. Habits, traditions, stereotypes. He grilled the meat while she did the sides and dessert and set the table. When dinner was served, he took the bows. Was giving the guy the grill a conscious effort by women to let him feel accomplished? Stroke their ego? Like faking orgasm?
Then there’s Hillshire Farm’s 2007 “Go Meat” television commercial. A man is in his yard placing hot dogs on a big expensive gas grill when he hears his neighbor shout from behind a stockade fence “Go Meat!” Then another neighbor from the other direction responds “Go Meat!” A third chimes in as a chant begins “I said a beef hot link!” and all four call and respond “I said a beef hot link!” waving their tongs. In the final scene five of them are all gathered together chanting “Hillshire Farms Go Meat!” No women in sight.
And in 2009 we have a Kingsford Matchlight Charcoal commercial where the wife is pouring charcoal into a grill and the panicked husband runs over to exclaim “whoa who whoa honey honey honey, this isn’t a stove! What if I just walked into the kitchen and started making a salad?” She scrunched her nose and replies “That’d be weird.” He tells here “There’s a technique” and he proceeds to strike a match to the coals pre-soaked with lighter fluid and they ignite. She shrugs, stifling her vexation, and says “Wow. It’s OK everyone,” and mumbles “Thanks hon.”
Is there something about fire that attracts men? Gadgets? Sharp tools? Meat? Fire? Danger? Showing off in public? A chance to escape from women? Or is it that there is very little work involved? We get to stand around drinking beer and occasionally flip meat while our wives chop slice dice vegetables and set the table? Nowadays there are digital thermometers and thermostatically controlled grills managed by Wi-Fi. Classic boy toys.
The downside for guys is that the bros all gravitate to the grill at a party and begin telling you when to flip the burgers, that the grill is too hot, that they read Meathead’s book, and/or that you are doing it all wrong.
Will women someday encroach on the male domain in the US? Until the 20th century, much of the home cooking in the US was done over live fire in wood stoves and fireplaces by women. This is still the case in many poor countries. In Mexico, many Asian countries, and 3rd world nations, women are professional grillers. In Asia it is common to see numerous commercial street grills womaned by females.
In the US the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) says that 70% of US households own a grill. Ipsos Group S.A., a multinational market research and consulting firm, said in their 2021 report that US households with women who are the primary grillers have increased over the past five years and are now at 34% with another 10% sharing the responsibility equally with a significant other. Weber Grills says these numbers are very close to their experience. That’s way up from the 18% in the 2018 MSU study.
The Kansas City Barbeque Society, the sanctioning body for more BBQ competitions than any other, has many influential women in the top ranks: Carolyn Wells was a co-founder and the CEO for many years, Emily Detwiler is the current CEO at the time this article was written, Candy Sue Weaver was the President longer than anyone else, and there are many notable female competitors: Danielle “DivaQ” Bennett, Melissa Cookston, Sylvie Curry, Brooke Orrison Lewis, Robyn Lindars, Dianne Mee, Christie Vanover, Lee Ann Whippen, and many more. There are numerous other prominent female pitmasters: Karen Adler, Erica Blair, Susie Bulloch, Elizabeth Karmel, and Jess Pryles, among others. Regardless, only 12% of the members of the BBQ Hall of Fame are women.
One reason more women don’t grill, I think, is because there were no thermostats on grills so controlling the temperature was tricky, and good cooking, after all, is all about temperature control. Mintel Group Ltd, another global market research firm, also conducted a survey in 2021 and concluded “Similar to the home improvement space, women’s lack of confidence in their skills in part fuels this imbalance.”
But thermostatically controlled grills have arrived and will become more popular in the near future. In 1982, Traeger Heating in Oregon began experimenting with a furnace that would burn wood pellets made from compressed sawdust, a byproduct of the area lumber mills, and before long introduced a home heating system that they sold locally. Since furnaces sold mostly in cold months, before long they began experimenting with a grill that would burn pellets in warm months. Eventually they created a device with an auger to feed the pellets, a blower to help them burn, and a thermostat that controlled pellet and airflow. Today there are more than a dozen manufacturers making increasingly sophisticated machines that make backyard grilling, roasting, and smoking as easy as indoors.
In 2022 Char-Broil introduced a gas grill with thermostat controls. Will others follow? Will they draw women to the patio? I’m betting they will. Now we need a study on how men took over the remote control.
Special thanks to members of the AmazingRibs.com Pitmaster Club who offered insights while I was researching this tender topic. Their discussion “Women and the Grill” is here https://pitmaster.amazingribs.com/forum/pitmaster-general-discussion/904911-women-and-the-grill.
From Adweek “Why the Backyard Grill Is a Guy Thing”
From Nutrition Journal “Who’s cooking? Trends in US home food preparation by gender, education, and race/ethnicity from 2003 to 2016”
From Newsweek “Are Women Better Grillers Than Men?”
From The Telegraph “Why Are Men Drawn To The Rituals Of Barbecue”
From Smithsonian magazine “Why Do Men Grill?”https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-do-men-grill-121562921/
From Forbes “Grilling, Guys, and the Great Gender Divide” https://www.forbes.com/2010/07/01/grilling-men-women-barbecue-forbes-woman-time-cooking.html
From NPR “Women Chefs Still Walk ‘A Fine Line’ In The Kitchen”
From the BBC “Why are our professional kitchens still male dominated?”
Ipsos Group S.A., “Year In Review.”
Mintel Research “Outdoor Grilling.”
For more: Search Google using the keywords “outdoor cooking grilling men versus women”