Grill, Baby, Grill!

Historian Loren Moulds tells us how social scientists helped hook American men into cooking for the family.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

BRIAN: This is BackStory, I’m Brian Balogh.

This summer, as millions of Americans throw steak and dogs on the grill, they’re indulging in one of the country’s favorite pastimes; eating lots of meat. Back in 1946, the barbecues weren’t nearly so plentiful. The price of meat had skyrocketed and so had American anxieties.

FEMALE SPEAKER: You have restaurant owners jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge because they have no meat to serve their customers.

BRIAN: Today, on BackStory, we’re cooking up a history of meat in America, from colonists who marveled at the land of abundance, to the history of the hot dog.

MALE SPEAKER: We protect our recipe incredibly.

MALE SPEAKER: What is it?

MALE SPEAKER: It’s a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.


BRIAN: Coming up on BackStory, America’s meat eating history.

MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the Shiocan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanites, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Hello, gentleman.

BRIAN: Today’s show is about meat. So we’re going to kick off the hour by asking you, our listeners, to imagine a suburban summer weekend in the 1950s. Let’s add in a manicured lawn in the backyard, casually dressed neighbors, and of course, an apron clad dad standing next to the grill.

LOREN: Glowing coals, giant asbestos gloves, oversized tongs.

BRIAN: This is Loren Moulds, a librarian at the University of Virginia Law School.

LOREN: Smoke wafting over the neighbor’s fence and his adoring family waiting for the grill to get just right for that giant hunk of meat that’s going to go on there and sizzle, and spit, and taste like Saturday in America.

BRIAN: It’s an idyllic image. And Moulds says it’s completely choreographed. Grilling was an antidote to problems that psychiatrists and family experts saw in the American middle class two decades before in the mid 1930s. These experts thought fathers were too absent from the home, and worried about the development of American children. So Moulds says, in journals and magazines across the country there was–

LOREN: A call for men to have a stronger presence in family life, to balance out the effects of over mothering, to be a great role model for their children in order to ensure that their daughters know who to look for in a man, and their sons know what a good man is.

BRIAN: But if experts wanted Dad to be around as a manly role model, he couldn’t just rush to a dustpan and broom. Household chores were women’s work. Dad needed a space for distinctly masculine projects. Moulds says the popular magazines of the 1930s were a wash with activities for Dad that wouldn’t turn him into Mom. In a 1935 article for American magazine, former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey suggested the manly art of cooking. And the key to its manliness, well, that was meat.

LOREN: Well, he’s saying, basically, that men have an innate ability to spice up meals. Right? Because men are really good at specialization, men are really good at fun techniques and spectacle, and so he associates men’s cooking with various masculine activities like Boy Scouts, camping, hunting trips. He says, “When a man’s sets himself to cooking, he can outdo a woman any day.” And men spar with every kind of cooking stove imaginable, and put unexpected uppercuts in ordinary dishes and make them really knockout fair.


BRIAN: Quite the wordsmith along with being a chef. One, was meat always what’s for dinner? I mean, what is it about meat?

LOREN: Well, I think meat’s the perfect thing, right? Meat is carnal; there’s something primal about meat. About cooking meat hearkens back to the cave men, it hearkens back to cooking over fires with a group of dudes, you know. It’s really something that only men can do. There’s a bit a danger to it. There’s a bit of expertise. So, that’s why the barbecue just resonates, I think, I argue, with these fathers. Because it’s not something that’s every day, it’s something that requires man.

BRIAN: I love you, man.

LOREN: I love you too, man.


BRIAN: Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Moulds says that the grill is a distinctly masculine domain really caught fire in the 1950s, after the scarcity of the Great Depression and meat rationing in World War II.

LOREN: I think it comes out of this distinctive postwar moment based on prosperity and property. Where I think the suburbs are a perfect place for something like this to happen, because you have unprecedented amounts of families moving out into the suburbs, and they have all the space in the backyard, and their need to fill that void with rituals–

BRIAN: Magazines like Esquire and a growing industry of cookbooks for men showcase those rituals. Moulds says there was another reason to fire up stakes in the 1950s, the Cold War. Americans were expected to stand up to those lean mean communists with veracious, capitalists appetites. Grilling became a part of American exceptionalism.

LOREN: Buying the meat that is part of that grilling experience proves that the American way of life and consuming meat is such a distinctive and important way of living. It goes to show that we live in a country of marvels, where every place in the suburb can have a giant steak, or hot dogs or hamburgers every night of the week, can do it in a very gratuitous way. I don’t know how to explain it, but I think it’s a wonderful celebration of Americaness amid a very uncertain geopolitical circumstances.

PETER: In a way, the American appetite, for me, is exceptional. Today, more meat is eaten per capita in the US than nearly any country in the world, and the tendency goes back long before the Cold War. In letters home, immigrants and foreign travelers as far back as the 19th century noted meat-centrality in the American diet. One cited the odd American practice of eating meat every day, while another listed the three or four different types of meat eaten at breakfast alone.