With barbecue cooking finally getting the respect it deserves, Stylist decides it’s time women got in on the action
Photography: Dennis Pedersen
A regular scene in any British summer is that of the backyard barbecue: intermittent drizzle, a bucket brimming with ice and bottles of Brewdog and, of course, the backs of several men clustered protectively around the flickering flames, their perspiring faces glowing cherry red from the heat as they mutter about “core temperatures” and “optimum coal glow” while silently judging the tong-holder’s grilling technique. There’s something about meat on coals – that heady billowing of smoke mingled with a fleshy musk scent and the ‘tsk tsk’ sound of dripping fat – that prompts even the most progressive of men to revert to hunter-gatherer stereotypes. Relying, as it does, on hard graft at an open coal-face – cheeks flushed, sweat pouring and the very real danger of serious injury all in the pursuit of the perfectly singed halloumi – barbecuing screams ‘rugged outdoorsiness’ more than any Victoria sponge recipe ever could. I’ve always been drawn to the flames, happy to ignore my smoke-infested eyes to get ever closer, but inevitably even men who normally shirk kitchen duties feel entitled to grab the tongs and the beers and shove women in the direction of a deckchair and the rosé.
In 2016, barbecue cooking has never been ‘hotter’ – and it’s time British women woke up to what we’re missing. The aroma that recalls a lifetime of campfires, the warm glow of charcoal, the therapeutic effects of building something as tangible as fire in an increasingly digital world, and the in-your-face flavour of that first bite – I intend to reclaim my right to this simple yet profound pleasure. Testosterone, I’m afraid, adds nothing to the flavour of barbecue.
And this is the summer to do it. As the barbie goes gourmet, hit barbecue restaurants and cult food trucks are dominating the summer dining scene in cities as far afield as Austin, Singapore, Perth and Helsinki. Barbecue festivals such as London’s Meatopia and Bristol’s Grillstock are now major dates in any food-lover’s calendar. Women, we’re missing out, and I say we rightly need to reclaim the flames.
I say ‘reclaim’ because barbecuing is in our DNA. It was (hu)man’s ability to cook meat over flame that enabled us to consume sufficient nutrients to develop our brains and ascend to the top of the food chain so, quite literally, barbecue is what separates us from beasts. Over five centuries ago, Christopher Columbus first witnessed indigenous tribes on the Caribbean island he named Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) cooking meat over an indirect flame, using green wood to keep the food and the wood from burning. Historical records indicate that the Spanish explorers named this cooking style ‘barbacoa’, and as they turned their expeditions north, they carried the technique with them to the colonies, travelling as far north as Virginia. By 1732, Alexander Pope was writing about the all-familiar craving: “Send me, Gods! A whole hog barbecu’d.”
Other nations have their own barbecue heritage. In Australia, for example, women would steam, roast and barbecue meat and vegetables in traditional Aboriginal earth ovens. The Argentine asado, where non-marinated meat is cooked in a smokeless pit, goes back centuries but today is a huge half-day family tradition. However it was in the Southern states of the US – the so-called barbecue belt – that the art of coal-fired cooking was truly honed, giving rise to four distinct styles named after the areas they came from – Carolina, Memphis, Texas and Kansas City.
Barbecue belt purists would argue that the beef-based barbecue of Texas, or the mutton-based barbecue found in Kentucky, doesn’t constitute authentic barbecue; whole hogs cooked over smouldering coals in long pits was the original methodology. But the influence of European colonists and immigrants is written all over the history of barbecue. North Carolina’s vinegar-based sauces derive from the British colonists’s technique of basting to preserve the juices within the meat, whereas in South Carolina, with a strong contingent of French and German immigrants, a mustard-based sauce was born. Always community affairs, by the 19th century, barbecue was so popular it had created its own language. Politicians were using community barbecues to court voters, giving rise to political metaphors such as “grilled”, “skewered” and “raked over the coals”. Barbecues were also, unusually, mixed-race occasions – at first, African-American slaves would cook for their white masters, but later they came to eat together at community pits. “It was said that the slaves could barbecue meats best and when the whites had barbecues slaves always did the cooking,” wrote former Virginia slave Louis Hughes in his 1897 autobiography Thirty Years A Slave. After the civil war (1861-1865), barbecue became central to black identity in the South, although the Encyclopaedia Of Southern Culture records that “whites, in a strange reversal of Jim Crow traditions, made stealthy excursions for take-out orders” from roadside barbecue stands.
Slowly, the barbecue became gentrified, but it wasn’t until the Fifties that its popularity really boomed. At that time, Weber-Stephens Products began to heavily market its phenomenally successful kettle-shaped charcoal grill to a newly prosperous white American middle class, deftly repackaging the barbecue tradition as a family leisure activity. Billboard adverts portrayed cheery, Ken-like fathers brandishing skewers in newly created suburban gardens. Men who would never dream of pulling on an apron indoors were happy to do the cooking. And unsurprisingly – given that they did the cooking the rest of the time – women let them. For the next 20 years the backyard barbecue business sizzled, as Americans moved to the suburbs and tossed steaks onto their grills in record numbers. Year after year, the barbecue industry witnessed double-digit growth; and every year, the barbecue gender divide solidified.
But outside of America, the barbecue evolution has been a little different. Culinary writer Steve Raichlen assessed over 50 barbecue cultures around the globe in the book Planet Barbecue and he observed that in Malaysia, Thailand and most of Southeast Asia, plus Serbia and Mexico, it has traditionally been women who preside over the grill. “Fire meant the shared communal activity of cooking, fire meant a division of labour, first between man and woman, then between hunters and gatherers, and eventually between people who tended the home fires (literally and figuratively) and people who did their work (as it were) in the world at large,” he writes. Overall, Raichlen estimates that between 60-70% of grilling and barbecuing in the world is done by men, however. “It’s true that when you grill, you bring testosterone and fire and sharp instruments together,” he admits.
This lingering macho culture not only denies women a glorious, primal pleasure, it also dilutes a culinary art form into beer-fuelled macho posturing and badly grilled bangers. “Within professional chef circles, barbecue has become steadily more sophisticated and there really is no gender divide at all,” says chef and food writer Gizzi Erskine, author of Gizzi’s Healthy Appetite. “But the rest of the country has a lot of catching up to do. People still think barbecues begin and end with burgers and sausages, they’re still using barbecues to grill rather than cook, and they’re using disposable barbecues without thinking that they’re literally infusing their food with petrol.” Happily, female barbecue queens, both amateur and professional, are unequivocally on the rise. “For me, there are few proteins which aren’t improved with a lick of smoke and some charring,” says Rosie Birkett, author of A Lot On Her Plate. “There’s something wonderfully immediate and primal about grilling over a barbecue – applying heat from flames directly to what you’re cooking. It’s mesmerising, and the caramelising that occurs adds layers of flavour.” Erskine agrees: “Grilling food over hot coals adds flavour, but it’s also a very traditional social ritual that brings people together, and that’s what eating should be about.”
Barbecue’s new dawn isn’t just a positive step for women, who now get their share of the flames. It’s a positive thing for food lovers as the culinary art is finally getting the respect it deserves. In 2012, friends Shauna Guinn and Samantha Evans quit the rat race in London and embarked upon a US road trip. “We were what’s known as ‘backyard barbecuers’, dabbling in a little grilling and smoking at weekends,” says Evans. “But on our trip across the southern states of America, we discovered that barbecue has a real synergy with music, lifestyle and southern hospitality – and we fell in love.” As Guinn puts it, “Texas was our lightbulb moment. From the ancient cinder-block pits in Lockhart, German-style round stone pits in Driftwood to table-thumpingly good barbecue in Franklin, Austin. The reverence to the smoke pit was like nothing we’d seen before.”
Three years since they landed back in the UK, their Cardiff restaurant, the Hang Fire Smokehouse, has a cult following and they have notched up various awards and nominations. “There is a lingering macho cliché attached to barbecue, both here and in the US,” says Evans. “However, there are some incredible women making incredible food on smokers and grills on both sides of the pond. Over the past five years, we’ve noticed a shift towards a more ‘gourmet’ take on British barbecue. People are buying better kit, better quality meat and understanding heat and temperatures. This allows people to be more creative, even on a budget.”
As opening chef of Pitt Cue Co in Soho in 2012, Neil Rankin was one of the first to whet London’s appetite for perfect pulled pork and ribs, and now, at Islington’s Smokehouse, he continues to elevate the simple barbecue to a serious culinary art form. “I avoid all the macho clichés about barbecuing like the plague,” sighs Rankin, author of new barbecue bible Low And Slow. “The cooking medium doesn’t have a gender, and my customers are testament to that, because they are mostly female. To me, barbecue is the original form of cooking. It’s the primary reason we developed as human beings. Dismissing it as some grubby, blokey, amateurish waste of time is a really outdated idea.”
It seems fitting that as women rediscover the barbecue, cooking on the naked flame is similarly getting in touch with its feminine side, and more subtle, sophisticated – and much less meat-centric – dishes are being served with flair across the UK. “Barbecuing has come a long way in the past five years,” says Laura Rowe, editor of Olive magazine. “We don’t want just burgers and bangers any more. And as well as slow-cooked brisket, we want blistered corn with flavoured butters and whole fish stuffed with herbs, ginger and garlic.” Vegetables are no longer a side dish either; they’re taking centre stage. We’ve got Sarit Packer of Honey and Co serving up silken barbecued aubergine with jewelled rice salad, and Persian chef Sabrina Ghayour, author of Sirocco, slow-roasting vegetables to create smoky Afghan-style dips. Salt Yard’s Ben Tish, author of Grill Smoke BBQ, is on a mission to make us view barbecues as so much more than just meat; his roasted cauliflower with Moorish spices and mojo verde will convert the most hardened of carnivores.
This summer, as I prepare to move into my very first flat with a garden, I’m excited about reclaiming the flames. My housewarming present to myself isn’t a swish sofa, it’s a Big Green Egg, the F-type Jaguar of barbecues. I’ve been in love with outdoor cooking since soggy camping trips around the Antrim Coast as a child. Cooking over flickering flames is more real, more unpredictable and the results are infinitely more delicious. My partner Sean will always be a more willing chef in the kitchen. But in the garden this summer, it’s my turn to take the tongs.
Light my fire
Browse the gallery below to find the only gear you need to get your flame on this summer
The Hang Fire Cookbook: Recipes and Adventures in American BBQ, by Sam Evans and Shauna Guinn, is out now, buy it here
Photography: Dennis Pedersen
Props stylist: Tamsin Weston
Food styling: Katherine Lunt
Model: Erica M at hiredhandsmodels.com
Nails: Tinu Bello at One Represents using Dior Vernis Summer Look and Capture Totale Nurturing Hand Repair Cream