Column: Have it my way

Published 6:44 am Thursday, July 4, 2019

Independence Day: a day of parades, celebrations, fireworks and the most American of all activities – the cookout. Grilling is a way of life for most of us. A summertime activity that conjures up images of family and friends all gathered around a picnic table enjoying each other’s company. I haven’t grilled in years and I don’t intend to start again anytime soon.

At my house, grilling became a litmus test of red blooded American manhood. It was a test I couldn’t win. It seems – although I have never seen it written anywhere – that men are expected to grill and women make the salad. It was a chapter in prenuptial counseling I must have skipped, but Annie assures me it is true.

Soon after I got married, we would invite friends over and I would fire up the grill, throw a steak over the fire and wait for the tasty result. To me it was a perfect meal, but soon it became apparent that my skill was being graded. My wife would say “it’s pretty good” and then relate how her father could always grill the perfect steak. But in my mind, the implication was clear. If you can’t grill, then you really aren’t a red blooded American man.

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Understand that Annie’s father never grilled steak for me. He did occasionally offer me a beer and we would stand around his yard like Goober and Gomer. That was as close to a bonding experience I ever participated in with him.  I had no reference point to this perfect steak. I didn’t have a clue how to compete with this mythical meal that had grown almost legendary in stature over the years. Images of Neanderthals gathered around an open fire throwing chunks of raw meat into the flames flooded my mind.

I wasn’t giving up. I switched my tactics. No more steaks, I would only grill hamburgers. You couldn’t go wrong with an American classic. I had underestimated the expectations of the barbecue connoisseurs that would gather. “I like my burger rare,” one would shout out. Another wants their burger medium with just a hint of pink, while a third would like a well done burger, but not too well done. My head was swimming like a novice short order cook. Needless to say, for me there was never going to be a victory. I learned when it came to grilling, failure was a viable option.

I wasn’t raised in a world where food or its preparation was gender specific. I would quickly learn that it is apparently a thing. Once when we were dating, Annie and I went for ice cream cones. It was one of those whims couples do while strolling down the street. “Oh look, ice cream” one will say, “let’s get a cone.” As the server asked, what will you have sir?  I replied “a peach ice cream cone please.” You would have thought I just told the world I played with Barbie dolls. “Peach!” my lovely date exclaimed and loudly repeated . . . “peach!” “Don’t most men eat chocolate,” she asked. “I like peach ice cream,” I whimpered.

There are three foods my summer isn’t complete without. One is peach ice cream, another is a tomato and cheese sandwich and the third is a dozen or so hard crabs washed down with a dark draft. I can’t tell you if a tomato and cheese sandwich is manly enough, but I can assure you it is a delight. A thick slice of fresh, homegrown tomato with a slice of cheddar and a little mayo on white bread is a summertime treat. If this is a girly food group on the list created by those gender specific foodies, well then call me miss and pass the salt and pepper.

In spite of all the gender role confusion grilling can lead to around my house, each summer I consider grilling again. I wonder if I should go charcoal or a gas grill. I think of the effort it can take to light charcoal. The time it takes to make sure the coals are at their maximum temperature before tossing a burger or two on the grill. I wonder if I’m up to the task.

I could go with the gas grill. Expensive, but temperature controlled. Is this really grilling? I mean, it’s like cooking on a Bunsen burner. What’s the point? A gas grill also has the potential to become a bottle rocket setting off your own fireworks display. I wonder, would true red blooded American men worry about blowing themselves up for a chance at producing the perfect steak?

If I do decide to grill again and if you are invited to my barbecue or just drop by, know you are welcome. But when I ask you how you want your burger, just understand that when I grill, your burger will be done my way. The burger will be perfectly charred on the outside, yet the inside could resemble steak tartare or the charcoal it was grilled on. I will serve the burger with the assurance that it is done just the way you like it and then I will smile.

If the burger isn’t done to your specifications, don’t worry, put a slice of tomato and cheese on it. Casually slip the burger off the bun and let it fall to the ground. My aging, almost blind dog with a nose that would make a 2-year-old bloodhound jealous will soon eliminate the evidence. Then sit back, crack a can and enjoy your sandwich. Because nothing says summer better than a tomato and cheese sandwich.