Anthony Rubano doesn't need to start a fire to assert his masculinity. But he recognizes that man's need to control flame persisted long after he stopped killing his own meat and burning it outside the cave.
Rubano, who lives in Springfield and brings home the bacon as a project designer for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, has subjected the "primal" phenomenon of the postwar suburban American barbecue to the cold, objective light of scholarship. So far, that's where he's kept it.
"I am actually very poor at barbecue cookery," says Rubano, who grew up in Buffalo Grove and got a master's in architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "In my family you'd go outside and cook on the grill, but it was never this be-all and end-all of suburban experience. So I'm not sure why I chose it."
Rubano began with a graduate term paper, looking at the roots of suburban barbecuing--or more properly, "grilling"--in California in the 20s and 30s, when people began installing outdoor fireplaces in their backyards. Guided by lifestyle periodicals such as Sunset Magazine, stylish home entertainers considered the outdoor barbecue pit a necessity. The rest of the country didn't catch up until after World War II, when the GI bill caused home ownership to spike and dad's inner ape-man got hungry.
"This was after the Depression and hard times, when your father worked in the coal mine, dammit, and sweated and saved," says Rubano. "And here you are in management or even a blue-collar job where labor has won and you work an eight-hour day. Perhaps subconsciously you weren't as manly a man as your father. Perhaps this barbecue thing was some kind of way to reclaim the masculinity that may have disappeared after the war. Your wife may have been making bombers, and now you come home, and she returns to the home. Now where's the manly man stuff for the guy to do? There was the yard work, or home improvement--or this transparent control of fire that barbecue offered."
In 2000 Rubano worked up a presentation on the iconography of the suburban barbecue and delivered it at a conference on 20th-century domestic technology. He went over big, using supplementary photos and clips from the primary literature, like this one from the 1956 Better Homes and Gardens Barbecue Book: "This is Dad's domain. Sit back, Mom; admire the chef....Tie on your aprons, men! You're the boss of the barbecue when steak's the special attraction."
It would have been easy to snicker, but Rubano went deep. "As far as I can see," he says, "this is one of the only places in the postwar era--or at all--where it was OK or actually preferred that men do food preparation. Like it's too dangerous for women to use the barbecue. This isn't the Cuban missile crisis, but it symbolizes cultural identity and gender roles, and it's a very vital part of our history. It's a very sobering thought to realize that if we keep dismissing all of this crap we'll have no point of reference for ourselves, we'll have no context to what we're doing now."
As the houses of the 50s and 60s age and come into his purview as a preservationist, Rubano expects to run across more and more examples of the built-in outdoor barbecue. In the meantime he's moving out of his "space-age bachelor pad" and into a 1955 modernist home. The main chimney features a waist-high barbecue pit, part of what the blueprint calls an "outdoor living room." He figures he'll step down from the ivory tower to give it a try. "Well, now I have to cook something on it," he says. "Even if I burn the hell out of it."
As part of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois series "Preservation Snapshots," Rubano will present "The Suburban Barbecue: An American Icon" at 12:15 on Thursday, July 17, in the Chicago Cultural Center's Claudia Cassidy Theater, 78 E. Washington. It's free. Call 312-922-1742 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nick Steinkamp.