The hunting, preparation and cooking of meat has long provided a rich seam of study for anyone wanting to understand the way a society orders itself. And for those who spend their time pondering the contemporary west, the ritual of the beer-soaked, chest-thumping suburban barbecue remains a subject of fascination.
Although we applaud domesticated house-husbands and corporate career mothers, the practice of charring raw steaks and burgers over charcoal stubbornly remains the natural arena of the “manly man”.
In keeping with this perception, the manufacturers of the expanding world of barbecue accessories tend to remain loyal to their target audience. Bigger is better and often a product’s selling point appears to be the promise of the ever-greater bragging rights it can confer on the proud owner.
As July 4 approaches, the traditional holiday barbecue represents one of the most important grilling events of the summer, allowing millions of Americans to showcase their superior outdoor apparatus to families, friends – and rivals.
“Barbecues have something quite primitive about them – something that maybe goes back to being a caveman,” says Jack Bacon, who oversees the Barbecue World Championship fundraising event created by the charity Prostate Action to appeal to men. “Men like to feel the heat, to get their hands dirty”.
Because the barbecue often involves having large groups of people in your house, grillers are provided with a competitive opportunity where larger grills and hotter flames help them to reinforce their status among their peers. Or, as Bacon puts it: “By asking people to raise the most money by holding a barbecue, we are asking people who can be the manliest man, who can make his mates the best burger, who can be King of the Grill?”
One approach to securing this esteemed status is to focus on acquiring the largest or most ostentatious grill possible. The Beefeater gold-plated barbecue, whose every part (aside from its cooking surfaces) is coated in 24-carat gold, and has six burners and even a wok compartment, is built by hand and costs about £22,000.
For those looking to spend less but make a similar impact, there is the custom-made Bar-B-Q Concession trailer, a large wooden towable shed with a “rotisserie pit smoker” protruding from the back. Starting at $40,000, the various designs made by the US-based company Southern Yankee feature a full kitchen, four stereo speakers and a smokeproof metal screen to cover the grilling area.
The ready supply of beer – or merely the symbolic suggestion of beer – is another recurring motif in grill designs. The so-called Keg-a-Q, a simple steel barbecue in the shape of a beer keg, claims to “cook as good as it looks”, and comes in designs ranging from a simple one-grill affair to the luxury gas-powered “Meg-a-Q”.
Elsewhere the Mobile Beer Bar, costing just over £7,000, combines a gas-powered grill with an integrated beer pump, on-board refrigeration system and even a glass-washer.
The most fiercely competitive grillers may, however, decide that only completely unique barbecue status symbols can give them an unassailable advantage, meaning a custom set-up tailored to their individual meat-related fantasies.
Barbecue Pits by David Klose is a Houston-based “pit”-maker that offers its clients some of the most extreme designs available. These include long cast-iron steam trains containing multiple grilling platforms. Others include barbecues housed in phone booths, submarine torpedoes, outsized metal beer bottles, and a Boeing 777 jet.
After making a significant investment in a luxury grill, barbecue enthusiasts can build on their kit with a myriad of barbecue accessories, ranging from the practical to the ridiculous. In the case of any owner needing to further emphasise his “manly man” status, the Pitboss barbecue utility belt, based on a DIY equivalent, contains space for every possible tool a griller could need, including space for sauces, beer bottle openers, beverages and a grease rag.
Similarly, the Wild West-themed “Grill Slinger” belt allows for the quickfire draw of an array of spatulas, burger flippers and tongs, along with the obligatory insulated beverage holder.
Not included are the novelty Three Musketeer-themed BBQ Sword meat prong and Zorro-style mask, and the pistol-shaped ketchup spraying “condiment gun”, which retails at just under €20. The BBQ Branding Iron, meanwhile, allows grillers to slot letters into a branding iron to plaster a personalised message of their choosing over their guest’s dinner.
For Richard Shweder, a professor in the University of Chicago’s department of psychology who has written extensively on the cultural significance of the barbecue, the enduring masculinity of barbecues is intimately tied to ideas of male and female spaces in the household.
While cooking was a practice traditionally seen as a feminine role, the fact that a barbecue takes place outdoors meant that it was viewed as a ritual belonging to the domain of the male. The man would see his duty as operating and harnessing the outside world, be it in the form of hunter-gathering or in the commercial market place.
This link to earlier conceptions of the sexual division of labour, Shweder argues, helps explain why barbecues retain an element of machismo in contemporary western societies. “When the house moves outdoors, it moves into what is traditionally seen as male space,” he says. “When there is a separation of male and female space, women have been associated with indoor practices, with men taking over when this moves into the outdoors.”
But, Shweder notes, advances in grilling technology to more closely resemble ovens rather than charcoal-powered grill pits, could result in a weakening of this association and lead to men relinquishing their grip on the barbecue ritual. “It is an interesting angle,” he says. “I have noticed women cooking outside on grills more than before. I wonder, as we see outdoor apparatus that more closely resembles kitchen appliances, whether this divide is going to break down”.
Indeed, away from the hyper-masculinity of the gold-plated bling grill or oversized custom rack, you can also opt for smaller, sleeker modern grills that move cooking meat outdoors away from the traditional image of the fiery coal-stained pit.
The Cook-n-Dine barbecue, consisting of sleek stainless steel circular table with a barbecue in the centre, allows for a civilised sit-down while the meat sizzles in the middle. Once the removable cover is placed back on the central grill, the table resembles an item of designer furniture with little evidence of it containing a barbecue at all.
What some barbecue enthusiasts may consider to be creeping sophistication is also on display with the iGrill, a device that can be placed next to your meat as it cooks to relay back temperature and readiness to your iPhone.
With the advance of more civilised technology, Shweder foresees a distinct possibility that the grunting barbecue man is on his way out. “There is a big difference between roasting vegetables and cooking steaks on charcoal,” he says. “The gas grills have changed the dynamic slightly”.
Whether such gadgets will drag the ceremony of the chest-thumping holiday barbecue into the age of sit-down dinners and keg-free civility remains to be seen.
Miles Johnson is the FT’s Madrid correspondent