James Beard: Women, stay away from the grill

James Beard lived a long, full life as one of America’s foremost authorities on food. He wrote books, taught classes and cooked on television before Julia Child did. His legacy lives on in the James Beard Foundation, which tonight and tomorrow night will give out the country’s premier annual food awards.

While the food glitterati are in New York for the ceremonies, I’m at home finishing Mary Drake McFeely’s “Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century,” a good primer — at least from a white, middle-class perspective — on the evolution of the American kitchen in the past 100 years.

McFeely explains how everything from food rations to can openers transformed how women cooked. We take many of the advances for granted (canned tuna and electric or gas ovens), but in some ways, very little has changed since the 1950s.

In “The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery” from 1955, James Beard and Helen Evans Brown wrote: “We believe (that charcoal cookery) is primarily a man’s job and that a woman, if she’s smart, will keep it that way.

McFeely adds: “Unlike their wives, (men at the grill) performed publicly, demonstrating their skill to wide-eyed children and suitably impressed guests. Of course women provided the rest of the meal…”

Around our house, I take pride in being the “fire priestess” who takes on as much of the grilling duties as cooking in the kitchen, which I’d estimate is about an 85/15 split with my husband. (You’ll be reading plenty about this division of labor later.)

But by the looks of all the manly grilling cookbooks I receive at work, as well as the packaging, marketing and product design of barbecue tools and recipes, it seems men are still expected to be masters of the grill.

James Beard died in 1985, but the awards named for him are gaining more and more attention each year. And how do women fare? Last year, Eat Me Daily called the Foundation out for recognizing only 16 women out of 96 nominees, but the number of nominees reflects the overall lack of female chefs in America’s best restaurants, according to Food + Wine editor Dana Corwin.

Too bad there’s not a James Beard Award for starting and cooking over a campfire. I might just give those boys a run for their money.

Top photo from Magnum archives.

5 responses to “James Beard: Women, stay away from the grill

  1. I felt so triumphant the first time I grilled by myself from start to finish! Getting the coals going was always my nemesis, but I’m fully capable now :)

  2. I’m a woman who is nervous about grilling and could use a lesson from the fire priestess. will you teach me sometime?

  3. My father taught me to grill when I was a wee lass. I now own a gas grill, a Big Green Egg, and a Brinkman smoker, and the majority of my protein gets cooked outside, in one or the other.

  4. i’ve always been intimidated by the grill and have always let the ‘boys’ do it. whenever my girlfriends crave a good burger or steak, we try to rope a boy into doing it. this summer I resolve to finally tackle the outdoor grill.

    • Yay! I’m so happy to hear your summer resolution. Just curious: What are the biggest hurdles? The equipment? Starting the fire? Making sure the food isn’t burned? I’m thinking about doing a grilling 101 story and would love to know what intimidates people most…

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