Smoked: Real men have big skewers

There are places where men should yield to the soft-bellied needs of other men, even if tradition suffers the outcome; even if the need to be right must relent to the need to be ignorantly proud.

There are lines drawn between men that shouldn’t be crossed.

In Armenia, that line is drawn at the khorovats pit.

Khorovats? You may know it as barbecue. It is something I’ve known much longer than I’ve known Armenia. And it is something I am learning. And in the last part, there are plenty teachers. I have come to believe that any Armenian with a penis is a barbecue expert.

I have a barbecue history that stretches from Big Bob Gibson’s on US Highway 31 near Decatur Alabama, where home-hunted deer meat is on the menu, to a BBQ kiosk in Compton, California, where purchases are received through bulletproof plexiglass. I have been to Big Shoe’s Barbecue in southern Indiana, where the hand-painted sign on the building said: “We barbecue everything but the baby. We boil him!”

It is a history that now stretches to the shores of Lake Sevan, where I was recently reminded that the process of preparing khorovats is the Caucasus equivalent of arm wrestling, of tug of war, of seeing which male can write the longest word while peeing in the snow. It is about marking territory and flashing colors.

Have you ever wondered why it was a rib that God took from Adam to create Eve? What is missing from the Biblical creation account is that, after taking the rib from Adam, God made khorovats from it, and only then did Eve evolve.

Making barbecue is our way of trying to get the rib back – of recapturing Eve. It is an entangled issue, the complexity of which is sorely underestimated if you think it is only about eating.

My turn in the pit came by default. I was the senior male of our holiday group.

I worried most about building the fire. I’d watched it done a hundred times, from Proshian Street to dacha backyards, but still feared my ability to achieve the phenomenon that brought our ancestors out of their caves.

It took only one flick of the lighter before flames soon licked through the pyramid of wood I’d laid, and tindered with branches broken by my very hands (!) from the discard of Sevan shrub. Bring on the sacrifice!

Bring on the eggplant, the tomatoes, the peppers, the potatoes, all carefully skewered and (a personal touch) color coordinated. Bring, finally, the meat.

Unfortunately, all that the smell of smoke brought was a five-foot tall, vodka-on-his-breath-before-noon and hair everywhere except his head Armenian named Hakob.

In words that had to be interpreted by the very female I was hoping to impress, Hakob lectured that: the skewers were too small (yes, size does matter), the potatoes were too big, the eggplant should be laid horizontally, not vertically, and that more oil and a bit of celantro would make it all tastier.

The Alpha Male had arrived, and I had to look down to see him. I did the right thing: I left his territory. He could have the fire and the food and the female.

If I’d had a tail it would have been between my legs while I whimpered back to the cottage where . . .

I started cleaning.

I wiped the table, I arranged cups symetrically, I washed out the jazzve. I folded towels that didn’t need folding. I picked up the stubbly broom and bent over it like a Yerevan street sweeper, half fearful that a grandma version of Hakob would show up to tell how improperly I performed the task.

None did, and within minutes the area was nearly antiseptic – free of any evidence that would challenge the integrity of the Armenian Housewife.

With Hakob’s unshaved face on every crumb or caught in every spiderweb, I cleaned with the freedom of movement allowed the lesser-ribbed species, though rarely employed for these purposes.

The female arrived with Hakob’s feast. I went fishing, leaving behind a cottage where the chairs were dusted, the floor uncluttered, the cups aligned.

It looked as good as if a woman had done it.

That’s probably not what I meant to say.