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19 August 2010
The barbecue grill as cultural artifact

Summertime, and the smoke wafts heavenward from back yards, patios, rooftops, and balconies. Like so many pieces of the American dream, this one starts cheap—$20 or so at Wal-Mart—and goes as high-end as you can imagine (and probably higher). But is it just us, or does this little piece of Americana really deliver on its promises, more truly than most things you can buy at a big box store? Maybe it is just us—our sorry suburban selves, lost in the suburbs’ dream of just enough rustic touches to keep alive a vestigial memory of wilderness. But maybe the grill, and the close encounters it delivers with both raw meat and searing flame, is a signpost to a better way.

The questions below come from Andy’s book, and in the coming weeks and months we’ll apply them to a wide variety of cultural artifacts, looking for the ways these artifacts shape not just our lived experience but our hopes, fears, and dreams. (If you’ve got an idea, email Andy or Nate and we’ll do our best to use it.) Pitch in—you are certain to notice something no one else has. Let the five questions begin.

Update: Also check out the conversation prompted by this one at Rod Dreher’s ever-excellent Crunchy Con weblog.

1. What does the barbecue grill assume about the way the world is?

The barbecue grill… now here’s a difficult question to answer. I’d say it assumes the existence of hamburgers and hot dogs (the most commonly grilled foods), as well as some other meats (chicken, etc.) and fish. It also would assume that people definitely like grilling foods… otherwise there would be no barbecue grill, and by extension, no question posed here. :)

—Timothy Crouch

Everyone, I’d like to just observe that the very first person to post about the barbecue grill is none other than my 11-year-old son. :)

Andy Crouch

* Very basic assumption: we don’t want to eat completely raw meat.
* Most of us want to—or feel we must—stand while cooking.
* We have access to refrigeration (and hence don’t need to smoke or dry cure our meat).

Ashleigh

It assumes that most people don’t want to build a campfire every time they want a ribeye or a pork burger.
It assumes an abundant, accessible, controllable, easy-to-use fuel source.

—Chris Francis
2. What does the barbecue grill assume about the way the world should be?

I suppose that we should have leasure-time and leisure-space (and decent weather) in which to do our grilling. My guess is a lot of the shiny BBQs bought and installed but then not-that-often-used still signify the owners’ and the broader culture’s sense that our lives ought to have room for the BBQ’s offerings and requirements.
I recall a line from the end of Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins”, in which the protagonist Dr Tom More, just home from Catholic confession, fires up the grill. “Barbecuing in my sackcloth.”—it’s such a lovely compact summary of the mystical and the everyday, of repentance and sustenance.

—Nate Barksdale
3. What does the barbecue grill make possible?

This seems like an appropriate question having just finished a meal of summer veggies right off the grill.

My wife and I recently moved into the upstairs of a hundred year old house in Chicago.  The home owners live downstairs.  When we moved in they agreed to let us keep our gas grill in their backyard.  We asked that they use our grill as much as they want.

This arrangement has led to many spontaneous conversations in the backyard as one of us is bringing food to the grill.  Two weeks ago it led to a spur of the moment shared dinner on the back patio.  On Friday we’re having our first “official” meal together…food from the grill, of course.

I’m sure we’d have gotten to know our landlords at some point.  I’m not sure it our relationship would have progressed as quickly without our 10-year old grill.

David Swanson

That’s a great story, David. It’s notable that one of the key ingredients in it is a shared item . . . there’s something remarkable that happens when, against all American training :), we share the use and care of something with our neighbors.

Andy Crouch

At my house, the barbecue grill’s most important contribution is that it allows us to to do more cooking in the summertime without heating up the kitchen.  We don’t have air conditioning, so the grill is very important (we have one with a side burner).  My wife is a pro with the grill,  in addition to a vast array of meats and fish, she also regularly grills pizza.

—ben
4. What does the barbecue grill make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

it makes it impossible to cook indoors. (without an incredible venting system!)

john holland

. . . and, I would add, quite a bit more difficult to be satisfied with, say, broiled chicken.

Andy Crouch

Ah, but barbecuing indoors is a staple of many Korean restaurants! (And you don’t even need an incredible venting system, a mediocre one will do if you don’t mind walking out of the restaurant with clothes that announce to the world what you ate for dinner.) So what one might deem impossible or very difficult from one’s own cultural perspective may in fact be exactly the opposite in another cultural setting. In Korea (or in Koreatowns all across the U.S.) you will find restaurant after restaurant equipped with grilling equipment built right into the tables of the diners so that they can cook the meat right in front of them (and share together family-style). To add onto Andy’s comment, bulgogi (Korean-style marinated beef, which Andy mentions briefly in his book) and other Korean meats are all best enjoyed grilled; pan-fried and broiled just don’t provide the same experience so it’s impossible to imagine a full-blown experience with Korean cuisine without a grill (indoors or out!)

Helen Lee
5. What new culture is created in response?

Am I stating the obvious here in suggesting that various BBQ accessories (tongs, scrapers, “Master Chef” aprons, prepackaged sauces and rubs), not to mention BBQ contests, communities, recipe books, how-tos, websites ... and of course the sort of culture that allows for simultaneous outdoor cooking and socializing: small-talk, sharing cold drinks, plates of veggies and dip.

Also, I don’t think anyone’s mentioned that the BBQ is (though needn’t necessarily be, and certainly isn’t universally) in American majority culture a more male-gendered form of cooking than the usual kitchen sort—“domesticating” the blazing campfire just enough to bring it close to (but not inside) the home.

—Nate Barksdale

And I would add that it creates a culture that says you aren’t really a man if you aren’t skilled with grilling tongs.

—Chris Francis