Nothing says ‘man’ more than this jolly, show-off activity, far removed from the grind of daily family cooking
Wed 25 May 2011 16.58 BSTFirst published on Wed 25 May 2011 16.58 BST
Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron
Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron get down to the women’s work of preparing the salad. Photograph: Matt Dunham/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Sleeves rolled up, tongs in hand, smoke blowing in their eyes: what a sight to behold, the free world leaders Barack Obama and David Cameron manning a barbecue this afternoon, just like a couple of normal guys. Normal guys! Because if there’s anything that normal guys (or normal blokes, even, as I imagine Dave would describe himself and his buddy Barack) like, it is cooking meat outdoors. Especially when the women look after the salads.
I’ve long been curious about what it is about the heady scent of charcoal that lures chaps who are otherwise quite indifferent to cooking to get behind a grill: it’s a very special relationship. Dave and Barack may not always see eye to eye when it comes to policy – or, for that matter, ping pong – but cooking meat outdoors is a great uniter of men. As most of us have observed at summer parties, those that have little in common will often come together in intense co-operation over some hot coals (it’s a particularly good thing to keep in mind if, say, you’re introducing your new boyfriend to your dad). But what is it, exactly, that makes this particular form of cooking say “MAN” in a way that a well-executed soufflé never could?
Barbecuing is masculine at its essence, some claim, because it appears to be a descendant of the kind of dangerous cooking that men used to do in hunger-gatherer days, when they went out into the brutal wilderness and killed animals and cooked them over a hot fire, while women stayed home and looked for plants. To be made in to salads. The Weber grill: totally Darwinian.
And, as Elizabeth S D Engelhardt and Marsha Abrahams explain in their book, Republic of Barbecue, barbecues have a long history of significance in American politics. In pre-suffrage days in the south-west, barbecues were agenda-setting, hours-long, male-only gatherings where political types literally chewed the fat. Obama is one in a long line of barbecuing presidents, including Andrew Jackson, Lyndon B Johnson and, of course, ranch-loving George W Bush (Laura puts jalapenos in her potato salad).
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That women are now welcome to munch burgers elbow-to-elbow with men is, it seems, yet another thing that we can thank our suffragette foremothers for. But I’m surprised how often men seem to dominate barbecues in a manner that’s seen far less often in other parts of the domestic sphere (and quite often in the political one). Though British and American men have lately showed more inclination to get in to the kitchen, particularly when it can involve swearing, the fact is that women are still more likely to take on the weight of responsibility for the daily grind of feeding families.
And thus, it’s hard not to feel that men sometimes get a little more credit than they’re due when they offer to do something a bit domestic – whether they’re showing off about how they like to wash dishes (as Obama did in a post-election interview in late 2008, saying he found it “soothing”, much to his wife’s amusement) or incinerating sausages while women and their salads watch. This summer, if the men in your life elbow you aside at the barbecue, I suggest that you elbow them back. Women have more than earned our turn at the most jolly, show-off form of cooking: here’s to the equal right to scorch our eyebrows off.