Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
When I was 19, I moved into my first apartment away from home. I have fond memories of the building (allegedly the onetime home of Elliot Ness), which had an enormous porch, perfect for grilling. I threw a housewarming cook-out before the school year started, and when I pulled out the grill, one of my friends generously offered: “I could take care of the grilling, while you handle of the rest of the food.”
“You know what, that would be great!” I said and handed over the bag of charcoal.
Minutes later, I walked out to find my friend grilling over lighter-fluid flames. “No!” I wailed. “You have to let the coals burn down!”
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. Since that day, I have constantly been elbowed out of the way at parties by well-intentioned men who insist on grilling, yet actually know nothing about the grill. I have grilled all of my life. Growing up in rural Ohio, one of the pleasures of the summer was rolling the grill into the backyard where my mom would cook up marinated chicken and steaks. I knew my way around a grill and assumed everyone else did as well.
Yes, it’s a pet peeve of mine — it’s gotten to the point where I threaten anyone who approaches the grill. But it’s not just personal paranoia. Do a search for “vintage barbecue” on Etsy and you will find men — cookbooks adorned with images of men grilling; photos, aprons, and even grilling utensils emblazoned with images of men. So what’s the deal? Why, historically, is cooking in the kitchen the realm of women, but grilling outdoors the realm of men?
In the mid-20th century, families left both the city and the countryside for a house in the suburbs. Suddenly, the summer had become a time of leisure for everyone: before, only the rich could afford to escape the sweltering city heat, and for those who lived on farms, summer was the busiest time of all. Additionally, since suburbanites had their own little patch of land to call their own, leisure activities began to be performed more often at home, with the family, and with the community surrounding the suburban development.
But grilling technology had to go through some changes before it came to the backyard. Before the 20th century, outdoor meat cooking was done on massive grills, or in pits lined with hot coals produced from logs that had burned for hours. Hot, heavy, and time-consuming, this was man’s work. But in 1897, the charcoal briquette was patented, cutting down on time and labor, and in 1948, the classic and compact Weber kettle grill was developed — from a buoy intended for Lake Michigan.
When retailers began marketing home grills, they targeted men because there was a tradition of men cooking barbeque, but also because men were the breadwinners. Would women be interested in buying another cooking appliance when they could just use their stoves? Unlikely, even if they had the capital to do so. By targeting men, advertisers were finding a new market for cooking and men were being motivated to feel that cooking outdoors over a fire was a very masculine thing to do.
Perhaps overworked 1950s housewives were happy to give up the cooking now and again; one vintage cookbook declares that women get a break and only have to prepare the “salad and dessert.” But perhaps women felt the same resentment that I do, suddenly being shoved aside and seen as not being capable of cooking over a grill, despite preparing endless meals inside the home.
I decided to purchase a cookbook from grilling’s heyday in the middle of the 20th century. I settled on the Big Boy Barbecue Book published in 1957, named after a line of backyard grills. Although this book was clearly geared towards dads, I scoured it to see if it could offer me any grilling tips. For example, it advises coating the bottom of the grill with aluminum foil, to reflect heat. It also tells grillers to knock the ash off of the coals before starting to cook. The ash acts as an insulator; knocking it away uncovers the coal’s hot centers. Here were two great pieces of advice I had never considered before.
And the recipes were helpful, too. My first BBQ of the year — on Memorial Day, natch — is at a friend’s house, so I needed something easy to transport. My go-to is fruit. Perhaps that does sound a bit girly, but it’s easy to prepare: for example, when you throw pineapple right on the grill next to the hamburgers, the pineapple’s sugars caramelize and it’s unbelievably tasty. The Big Boy book recommends marinating pineapple in honey before wrapping it in tinfoil and nestling it in the coals. A similar treatment is given for bananas: wrapped in tinfoil with the addition of butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar and then placed in the coals for five minutes. The oranges with rum also sound amazing.
But I couldn’t resist trying out a really strange recipe: Dixie Dogs, which are split hotdogs wrapped with bacon and stuffed with peanut butter! I used the unsweetened kind that you can get ground fresh in some grocery stores. I love trying out these somewhat bizarre, forgotten recipes because you never know when you might find a gem. In this case, Dixie Dogs weren’t bad: imagine a hot dog covered with Thai peanut sauce. But next time, maybe I’ll get ambitious and try the “Barbecued Standing Rib Roast of Beef.” Maybe I’ll even extend the olive branch and invite my male friends to help. We’ll see.