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The food was no longer recognizable as food.
Somewhere between having handed my husband a platter of expertly-seasoned hamburgers, and his returning to me that same platter dotted with shriveled black discs, the Old Testament social scene of summer’s burnt offerings had officially begun.
Hockey pucks! I gave him hamburgers and he gave me hockey pucks! The hang-dog look on Mark’s face told me he knew this wasn’t his best grill-work.
As the charred remains made their way to the table, I had an epiphany about being Canadian: We may love our backyard barbecues, but that doesn’t mean we’re universally gifted when it comes to cooking with fire, or that flirting with combustibility is always the best outcome for 50 bucks worth of protein.
Lucky for us we Canucks are the bronze medal people—or are we the silver medal people, now? Whichever, we’re still not the gold medal people, meaning our historically low expectations take us seamlessly from national sports to outdoor cooking. If the beer is cold and the potato salad is creamy, what the heck if the meat’s a little burnt, right? It’s not snowing and 2 outta’ 3 ain’t bad!
My guests were visibly shaken at the sight of the carcinogenic food but they were insanely polite about it. They were too Canadian to be believed, saying things like; “Yum!” and “This looks great!” and “Nice job!” Nice job, maybe... if a fire-breathing dragon with Tuberculosis were the sous-chef!
With ketchup, mustard and relish at-the-ready everyone doctored up the doughy buns and made the best of a bad situation. Once again, gluten saved the day. I watched as one woman cleverly shaved the outer layers of blackened meat to try to get at something that resembled food. I should have set the table with razor blades instead of forks and knives.
I know what you’re thinking: Quit your whining woman—if you think you can do a better job, get out there and do it yourself!
Well, you’re right. But, the sad reality is that I don’t think I can do a better job. And I have no intention of firing the summer cook—not now; not ever. I’m terrified of the barbecue, but more than anything, I long for this seasonal break from slaving-away at the stove.
Barbecuing is the last bastion of masculine strength and feminine weakness living together in peace and harmony. I love the old-fashioned arrangement we have where Mark does the heavy-lifting and I sip Chardonnay with my friends, knowing that colourful salads wait patiently under plastic for the main course—a main course he’s sweating over for a change.
If the occasional meal going down in flames is the trade-off for all of this chill-axing, then so be it.
As the meal wore on, and our tooth enamel wore down crunching on the crispy meat, new details began to emerge about the culinary crime that had been committed outside. Apparently, there were too many spectators and they distracted the chef. In keeping with Canadian custom, as soon as the barbecue was lit all of the men had flocked to the deck like dutiful soldiers on a reconnaissance mission, and my precious burgers were more or less forgotten in the melee.
This, of course, brings me to the second truth I’ve discovered about barbecuing: It is a spectator sport masquerading as cooking.
Unless the chef is extremely charismatic, oven-based food is too boring to draw a crowd and casual by-standing in a kitchen can be a risky proposition, so dinner guests tend to avoid it. Who wants to get roped into peeling potatoes, or worst of all, chopping onions, while Mrs. Patmore bastes the chicken?
If she gets it in her head to take the chicken outside, stuff a can of beer up its butt, and set it on fire, though, that’s a totally different ball game. In that case, make way for the whole neighbourhood: “Check this out, fellas, Mrs. P’s doing the Beer-Can-Chicken.”
A man and his barbecue, and the high-jinks he can get up to with it, are the inside-the-park home run, the over-the-wall catch on that fly ball to centre field, the “Hey dude, watch this!” that makes the role of grill master so appealing and so perfectly suited to gender bias.
And even if he doesn’t do anything particularly imaginative or sadistic, the smoke and the flames, the meat and heat, the steel and the beer—all at the same time and in the same place—set the stage for some of the highest quality man-time that men have left these days. Which when you think about it is kinda sweet.
So go ahead and burn the burgers, boys. We’ll toast to you with a cold drink and kick back for a while. And together we’ll all live happily ever after.