I used to think I didn’t enjoy grilled food. I equated summer BBQs with dried out chicken breasts that had the texture and taste of particle board. Burgers and steaks on the grill seemed more to me like blackened boot leather than delicious summer staples. All my life, whenever my family decided to cook out, I’d skip the meat completely. Pasta salad and baked beans basically saved me from starvation during the summer months.
You see, growing up, barbecuing was placed squarely in the realm of men. The guys in my family took out the trash, cut the grass, fixed the electronics, and “manned” the grill. We were a pretty traditional bunch that way, and my dad, grandfathers, and uncles believed that cooking on the old Weber was a hallmark of masculinity.
Unfortunately, none of them were all that good at it, and I think that they were more interested in building roaring fires than they were in cooking edible food. That is why, in our family, medium-rare did not exist. We got meat cooked two ways: charred on the outside and raw in the middle, or charred all the way through. The grill had one temperature — inferno — and the guys knew it was time to turn the burgers over when they finished their first beer. Everything tasted like lighter fluid.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood a whole new world of grilling. At restaurants I tried grilled veggies, which were amazing. I always made a point to order grilled fish when we ate out, and I was intrigued by recipes I saw in magazines for things like grilled pineapple. When my husband and I bought our first house with a real backyard, the first thing I wanted was a grill.
“Okay, get to it! Make me some mahi-mahi!” I told my husband. You know, because grilling was a man’s job, right?
Plus, the grill was absolutely terrifying. No way was I getting near those shooting flames.
Luckily my husband enjoyed grilling, at least most of the time. This had nothing to do with his masculinity, though. He just likes to cook, which is one of the reasons I married him (I value good food). He was pretty good with the BBQ, but the problem was, he often traveled for work.
When he wasn’t away on business trips, most nights he got home late because he has a long, tiresome commute, and after a long day, the last thing on earth he wanted to do was come home after 8 PM and cook me dinner. If I wanted grilled food, I had to wait for the weekend.
That I could work the grill myself never even occurred to me. I know this is ridiculous now, but the idea that barbecuing was “men’s work” was deeply ingrained. At least, until I wanted a grilled shrimp taco and my husband wasn’t home to make it. I realized that I had become exactly like all the older women in my family.
It always annoyed me that my grandmother couldn’t pump gas. She never had to learn because my grandfather had always done it for her. My own mother never knew how to pay bills until she was in her 40s, because my dad took care of them. And here I was, unable to grill shrimp because my husband had enabled my helplessness when it came to barbecuing.
It was time to take charge, I decided. I was going to overcome my grill-o-phobia and become a grill master once and for all. First step? Turning the darn thing on, which was easily the most terrifying thing I had ever done. I practically tiptoed to the grill, which loomed huge and silver before me on its concrete slab in the backyard. It looked dangerous and industrial, like a set piece from the latest post-apocalyptic, dystopian teen movie.
Tentatively, I turned on the propane and the burners. Then I struck a match, threw it in and ran to the other side of the yard, while the grill roared to life. Adrenaline rushing, I tiptoed back as the grill churned and smoked. I could do this, I told myself, and I would not end up looking like Jim Carrey in his old “Fire Marshall Bill” skit.
The best approach, when trying to learn a new skill, is usually to turn to the Internet for help. Trust me when I tell you that there is a YouTube instructional video for everything. There are at least a million videos for grilling alone, and thanks to a group of strangers in Arkansas who had apparently won several pulled pork cook-offs, I learned how to prepare the grill that day. And it wasn’t even difficult!
By the time my ordeal was over, I had made myself a fine dinner of grilled shrimp skewers, and miraculously still had all of my eyelashes. Even better? My shrimp turned out perfectly. I could do this! I’d conquered my fear of lighting the grill, but what I’d really ignited was a passion.
Living in Florida, I can grill year round, so I had plenty of time to practice and try out new recipes. I poured over cookbooks, obsessed on Pinterest, watched videos, and asked for advice from all the great cooks I knew. I also learned a lot by trial and error, and whenever I wanted to grill something new or different, I’d carefully follow a recipe until I got the hang of it and could improvise the next time.
For me, having guidelines about cooking times and temperatures made all the difference in the way my food turned out, and pretty soon, I’d earned the title of “grill master.” I mean, I have even gone so far as to grill romaine lettuce and watermelon. Nothing is off limits these days. The funniest part? Now I’m the one barbecuing for my husband! He’s a big fan of my grilled asparagus and Portobello mushrooms.
Becoming a grill master has been about so much more than expanding my cooking repertoire, though. I overcame a big fear, built confidence, and finally realized there is no such thing as “man’s work.” Conquering the grill made me see that I’m actually pretty badass when it comes right down to it, and whenever I prepare a succulent grilled grouper or a juicy teriyaki chicken breast, I celebrate my independent spirit.More On