Now that summer has officially arrived, it's time to indulge that eternal desire to roast thick slabs of meat over an open flame, preferably with a cocktail or, more likely, a bottle of beer in hand. That's right: It's grilling season once again. And let's face it: It's mostly a male thing.
According to a recent Weber survey of Canadian barbecuing habits, men are the nation's primary grillers, presiding over the coals in 63 per cent of the households polled. Such results shouldn't come as a surprise: As the cultural critic Andrew Warnes observes in his 2008 book Savage BBQ: Race, Culture and the Invention of America's First Food, barbecue represents a Neanderthal corner of modern cookery, a ritual that encompasses almost every stereotypically masculine impulse there is: slaughtering an animal, building a fire, coveting expensive machinery, bonding with other men also wearing ball caps and bearing coolers.
"The backyard barbecue is bragging territory for men," says John McLemore, author of the recently published Dadgum That's Good! Kickbutt Recipes for Smoking, Grilling, Frying, Boiling and Steaming. "Shiny grills and smokers - charcoal, gas or electric - are the tools of the trade for creating tender briskets, fall-off-the-bone ribs, juicy barbecued chicken and classic burgers and dogs. Every man has his own method for becoming the neighbourhood king of the grill."
As McLemore's mouthwatering man menu suggests, the culinary payoff is something that women, too, can and do enjoy, especially if it's made interesting and contemporary, as is happening in meat-centric restaurants and adventurous kitchens across the country. (For an example of updated BBQ, see food stylist Heather Shaw's accompanying recipe for prosciutto-wrapped filet mignon with a smoky molasses glaze.)
Even so, old machismo dies hard, a factor that the makers and marketers of condiments and accessories are clinging to this season like sauce on ribs. Take popular Bull's-Eye BBQ Sauce, a Kraft product branded as "the only sauce worthy of the [barbecuing]Brotherhood." U.S.-based McCormick is also aiming for the male consumer with a new series of grill mates made especially for men; among them is the Cowboy Rub, "an adventurous blend of coarsely ground peppers and coffee."
"We see the growing obsession with bolder and more exciting tastes reach a fever pitch during grilling season," says Mary Beth Harrington of McCormick Kitchens, suggesting that even the most meat-and-potatoes of guys are also experimenting with their grilling repertoires these days. A hot trend - sure to be popular with macho meat masters - is condiments laced with booze. Among these is a line of barbecue sauces made with Canadian Club whisky, available through select grocery stores in Ontario, Quebec and the West.
Of course, nothing is of greater, almost fetishistic importance to grillers than the grill itself. (Unsurprisingly, the biggest sales period for grills in Canada is around Father's Day, when more than 20 per cent of all units move, according to an earlier Weber survey conducted in 2007.)
For many consumers, "buying a grill is like buying a car," Weber grilling expert Naz Cavallaro says. "You gotta look inside. You gotta feel the construction. It's gotta feel heavy, well made, not at all like something you'll be replacing by the end of the summer."
And indeed, some of the latest barbecues are especially heavy-duty, incorporating, as Weber's new, $4,000 Summit Grill Centre does, prep surfaces and storage units. (Not to be left out, Canada's many condo dwellers can choose from the wide array of balcony-sized barbecues that have hit the market of late, says Duff Dixon of Ontario Gas BBQ in Concord, Ont.)
Also popular this year are smokers, an accessory filled with wood chips and placed under the barbecue grids to infuse food with a smoky flavour. (A stainless-steel version by Master Chef sells for $8.99 at Canadian Tire.)
Finally, tools are likewise smoking this summer: The Fire Works Remote Digital Thermometer, available for $49.99 at Home Depot, lets barbecue kings monitor their cooking progress without being tied to the grill, giving them more time to open another bottle of Canadian. For pouring on the meat, natch