Hot take: do Canadians say “grill” or “barbecue?”

Published: September 17, 2018

pork-cutlets-on-barbecue-on-deck-overlooking-a-lake Photo by MasterPhoto/Shutterstock

It’s official: I have reached that stage in life when creeping societal change has me thinking the whole damn world is going to hell in a handbasket. I blame my current state of angry bewilderment on Gerry Dust, a retired lawyer who’s owned his off-grid cottage for 14 years. For the record, Dust is a nice man and has done nothing wrong. All he did was email a polite letter to Cottage Life questioning some word usage. “I was astonished by the predominance of ‘grill’ and ‘grilling,’ ” he wrote. “Is this not a Canadian magazine? As far as I know, we ‘barbecue’ on a ‘barbecue’ and leave the grilling to the Americans.”

I was happy to help explain. After all, I’ve written about outdoor cookery for decades. And, as a former editor, I worship at an altar stacked with the icons Oxford, Collins, and Merriam-Webster (the dictionary trinity), as well as Roget’s Thesaurus and The Chicago Manual of Style. Any disputes between these founts of certainty can be rectified by consulting Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer (like the Ten Commandments, but less preachy). When it comes to word usage, I like to paraphrase Walter Sobchak, John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski: “Smokey, this is not ’Nam. There are rules.”

Basically, anybody who knows anything about the classic forms of outdoor cooking—from pitmasters to backyard savants—knows that “barbecue” is a noun describing meats that have been cooked long and slow in the presence of wood smoke. You eat barbecue. Barbecue sauce is a condiment you put on barbecue. You make barbecue in a pit or on a smoker or with a gas or a charcoal grill set up to act like a smoker. Barbecue is a style of food, not a method, nor a cooking device. You don’t “barbecue on a barbecue,” because there’s no such thing.

A grill, as everybody also knows, is a thing, what some people erroneously call a barbecue. It can be found indoors or outdoors. It can burn propane or natural gas or charcoal or electricity. It can also be an adjective. Things that are cooked over direct heat, with the food supported on a metal grill, are grilled. Hence “charcoalgrilled” steaks. So you grill burgers and dogs on a grill. And you can make barbecue on a grill with a lid. But you don’t barbecue chicken wings anywhere, specifically not on barbecues, because such contraptions don’t exist.

In Canada, we have been on the wrong side of this debate for decades, and some grill manufacturers even call their products barbecues. Americans use “grill” and “grilling” because they are being accurate. Our southerly neighbours invented and perfected the modern concept of barbecue, and they have been doing it for a very long time, so I will use their terms. Dust was right when he observed that Canadians “barbecue” on a “barbecue.” It’s just that we are wrong because we are innocently lazy and a backward nation when it comes to barbecue (though that is changing). I think Canada only started learning about grilling, never mind barbecue, as recently as the 1960s. That might explain the egregious error on the sign for a very popular restaurant in my neck of the woods, which opened in 1963: Webers Charcoal Barbecued Hamburgers.

As I said, Dust is a nice man. But, in a brief chat, he mentioned that 1) he barbecues on a barbecue with a side burner; 2) he and his wife enjoy barbecued burgers and barbecued pork tenderloin; and 3) his first barbecue was an old hibachi he bought 45 years ago, “and I’ve been barbecuing ever since.” Dust clearly has an advanced case of barbecuetosis. I don’t mind helping to solve a language problem, but I worry that correcting this confusion might cause this poor man’s world to split asunder. Nevertheless, there are higher principles involved. “We have long preserved our constitution,” Samuel Johnson wrote in the preface to his dictionary in 1755, “let us make some struggles for our language.”

I knew I had to be gentle. But I also knew that Dust, as a lawyer, wouldn’t be taking anyone’s word in this debate. I would have to present evidence to support my claim. Which was fine with me, because I am a stickler for the facts. My first source, Exhibit A, was The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, whose definition for “barbecue” included “a metal appliance equipped with a grill on which meat etc. is cooked over charcoal or gas flame (barbecues, barbecued, barbecuing).” Clearly a typo I would need to report to the dictionary police. What about Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Exhibit B)? It must have had a printing error or something because it included a transitive verb meaning “to roast or broil on a rack over hot coals or on a revolving spit” as well as “an often portable fireplace over which meat and fish are roasted.” Very disconcerting. More so when I consulted Exhibit C, Collins English Dictionary, and found “a grill or fireplace used in barbecuing” and “to cook (meat, fish, etc.) on a grill, usually over charcoal and with a highly seasoned sauce.” Was this some sort of sick conspiracy? Apparently so, because even my stalwart Larousse Gastronomique had gone mad, calling a barbecue “an openair cooking apparatus or outdoor grill” and mentioning—horrors!—that “some barbecues operate with lava stones heated by butane gas or even solar energy.” At this point, I fainted and hit my head on a stapler.

Okay. So Dust might have taken this round. But, more importantly, the world has shifted under my feet. What’s left to care about when you can’t even trust reference books anymore? Because I did some checking and discovered my dictionaries are full of “words” like “awesomesauce” and “mic drop” and “twerking.” It’s a sorry scene when the world’s lexicographers screw up the definition of “barbecue” because they’re too busy compiling an entry for “manspreading.” If that’s considered progressive change, I’ll do without, thank you. Right now, it’s time for some deep breaths and a mug of herbal tea. Then I’m heading outside to polish my barbecues.

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