Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Playing with Fire

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Daddy Sparta is angry with me. There are very few things he holds sacred as men's work, but I have managed to tread on hallowed ground. His exact words were, "How can you interfere with The Grilling?"

Many people argue that in ancient Sparta, women had more freedom and respect than in Athens. They were encouraged to participate in athletics and in public dancing, and -- just like the men -- to do so naked. Some scholars point to evidence that they owned significant amounts of property. I feel sure that they did not, however, participate in The Grilling. It's said that Lycurgus, often called the "Father of Sparta," came up with the idea that all the men should eat at public mess halls. This was to encourage brotherhood and to discourage anyone from indulging in "dainty meals." But I think it may also have had to do with keeping women away from The Grilling.

My trespass occurred innocently enough. We like to have dinner at six, so if Daddy Sparta is running late, he will call ahead to ask me to warm up the grill. This is the only phase of The Grilling that I have been allowed to participate in, something akin to an altar boy preparing the bread and wine for Holy Communion. I have been schooled and quizzed on the procedure, and I know it pretty well now. Turn on gas, turn front burner to start, hit ignition button.

Here Daddy Sparta's voice rings in my head, You don't need to hit it three or four times! Once or twice is plenty! Observe that front burner has lit. Turn middle and back burners to high. Close lid.

In general, I am opposed to the idea of women being barred from any activity they might choose to participate in, or of women being expected to take on roles they don't relish. (And the same goes for men, of course.) I worked in construction for several years, rode a motorcycle throughout my twenties, and insisted on being a pallbearer at my grandmother's funeral. Overall, Daddy Sparta has no problem with this, and has in fact appreciated my tutorials on power tool use. (Although he does prefer that I not mention them to his friends.)

I have performed my Grill warm-up duties successfully on many occasions. But the other day, when I went outside and reverently opened The Grill, the grates seemed to be alive! I was not schooled in any Standard Operating Procedure for Massive Ant Invasion of The Grill, so I called Daddy Sparta.

"Honey, there are ants all over the grill! What do I do?"

I might have known this was a mistake. I had already been informed that choice of marinades, length of cooking, temperature, billowing noxious smoke, and black paint-like stuff peeling from underside of the cover were all Not My Affair. I might have considered the time when I suggested that we grill eggplant, or perhaps portabellas.

Sparta was incensed. "Grills are for MEAT!" he cried. "No vegetables! And while we're at it, tell your friends to stop bringing tofu pups!"

Supposedly, Athenian brides, upon arrival at their conjugal home, were presented with a ceremonial bushel of barley, representing their role as chief food preparer. Ugh. After our son was born, one of my most burdensome responsibilities was dinner. Day after day, there was that heavy bushel. My primary coping mechanism was to be in denial until about 5 p.m., and then peer helplessly into the refrigerator for a while. Finally I'd suggest Chinese.

It wasn't long before Sparta took over dinner. He buys giant bags of pre-cut broccoli or asparagus at Costco, immense packets of bacon and eggs, and, most importantly, slabs of pork chops, steaks, and chicken for The Grill. Dinner takes about 20 to 30 minutes for him to prepare, and sometimes he even cleans up.

Grilling quickly went from something we did a couple of times a month with friends to our regular routine at least three or four times a week.

Then came the ants.

"Don't worry, they'll vaporize," he said.

"Wait a minute. You mean, you just cook on top of where the ants were running around?"

"Yes, it happens all the time. I'm telling you, they vaporize."

"You mean, the meat has little charred ant bodies on it?"

"Aw Christ, you've eaten it plenty of times, and you've loved it! Listen, don't interfere with The Grilling!"

That night, I microwaved a frozen burrito from Trader Joe's. Sparta and my son had juicy pork chops. When Sparta had had a glass of wine, and I thought the time was right, I suggested E-Z Off. "You spray it on, and the next morning you just wipe it off. Listen, I'll do it myself." He wouldn't look at me. He just shook his head and murmured to himself, "The Grill . . . my Grill . . . can't understand . . . how could she?"

The next day I tried the E-Z Off. It's not that E-Z. I bravely grabbed a charred grate, wrestled it down into the grass, and tackled it with steel wool. Shortly, the steel wool morphed into little lumps and shreds, and of the black grime I managed to get off, most took up residence on the perimeter of my fingernails. About an hour later, back aching, fingers stinging, I rinsed the grates off as well as I could and declared defeat.

Plan B, I thought, I'll just whip up a little non-Grill delicacy for dinner. A dainty meal. I dragged my son to the store, where we bought a tiny piece of salmon for about $15. My son's balloon popped on the way out, and we had to go back for another. Dinner was going to be a little late, so I made a tomato, olive, onion, and feta cheese salad to try to fill Sparta up. Of course, that just delayed dinner further. At about 6:30, Sparta and my son started surreptitiously eating peanuts. At about 7:30, the salmon, pasta, and asparagus were finally ready. I fed it to my son in his bath.

When my son was dry and in pajamas, I surveyed the kitchen. Tomato juice and onion peels dripped from cutting boards. The poaching dish, the pasta boiler, and the double steamer tumbled over one another in the sink.

I wanted to cry. That damn bushel of barley. I was sinking under it.

I put my arms around Sparta's shoulders from behind. "Sweetie, what's a few ants? They're like your special spice. I pledge never again to interfere with The Grilling." He stood up grinning, hugged me tight, and grabbed his camouflage-print apron.

As for me, I threw that bushel of barley out the window and danced naked.

Sophia Raday is the author of Love In Condition Yellow: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage (Beacon Press, 2009). She lives in Berkeley, California with her Oakland police officer/Army Reserve colonel husband, their two children, a bipartisan dog, and assorted firearms. A founding editor of Literary Mama, Raday’s work has appeared here and in various anthologies, Stanford magazine, and the New York Times.

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