There are few phrases I hate more than “guy food.”
As it’s now mid-June, Father’s Day has come and gone, and, like any proper holiday, we celebrate it with food. However, as a food blogger and perpetual recipe-hunter, I’ve been bombarded with so many blog posts, articles, and recipe suggestions for “guy food,” “guy-friendly food,” and “meals for dad” that I’m starting to wonder if the gender police are about to knock on my door and arrest my husband and me for willful negligence of the hunter-gather roles we so clearly agreed to in our wedding vows. Because all gender roles are totally fixed and set from time immemorial, and culturally-informed personal preferences have nothing to do with food consumption!
Somewhere along the line, American culture decided that cooking meat over charcoal was the epitome of manly cookery, as it combines the three tenets of heteronormatively masculinizing your home-life: gadgets, the outdoors/the yard, and meat. In regards to the former two points, you generally don’t see weedkillers, grills, lawn mowers, or home repair kits marketed to women.* To shift the topic back to (red) meat, “man food,” and masculinity–this is a food blog, after all–it’s a trope that is repeated over and over, a message we are exposed to from birth.
Case in point: once I was at a area-studies conference, and another participant had brought children with her–several daughters and a son. There was an excellent buffet spread of East Asian foods, both vegetarian and meat-type, and the boy, young enough not to be totally literate, asks me what was in the veggie dumplings. “Vegetables,” I say, and he responds, “Ew!” then takes a meat dumpling as big as his head. Right as I’m about to chalk this up to small kids’ tendency to be weird about food, his mother comments, “Oh, he’s a boy, so he needs meat!”
Readers, it was all I could do not to roll my eyes so hard they detached.
Even if most incidents are not quite so blatant, the gendering of food is all around us, starting with our families and their food issues (dieting, regional cuisine, division of labor) then continuing to our other institutions (peer relationships at the lunch table, post-service brunch, expectations for brides**), extending into our media (inept fathers? Not in my kitchen!) and our economy (Dr. Pepper Ten, 500-calorie MANLY menus), and ending with you, the consumer. You cannot avoid it entirely, but you can be aware of food-gendering, acquires the tools to process it, and call it out where you see it.
I could write a dissertation on this subject, but today, we’re going to talk about Father’s Day, meat and masculinity, and how other foodies perpetuate these stereotypes. For those new to the subjects of “meat = masculinity and masculinity = good!” and “veggies = totally girly food and therefore lesser, because we hate the feminine, even us women!”, let’s get this ball rolling with some literature.
First, we need to examine the gendered way we conceptualize home life and food work in terms of nostalgia and contemporary life. Anna North’s 2010 “Why Should Home Cooking Be Women’s Work?” for Jezebel is a critique of another piece bemoaning “feminism killing cooking” and outlines a lot of the major issues with the gendered division of labor in the workplace and at home. As for meat and masculinity, Jeanna Brynner’s 2012 “Meat’s Macho Image Keeps Guys from Downing Veggies” on Live Science (also briefed on Jezebel with the title “Meats Are for Boys, Veggies Are for Girls, Nonsense Is for Everyone”) discusses research on perceptions of foods as gendered: “‘The food choices and manly meat link likely comes from self-image,’ [Brian] Wansink [director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab] said. ‘It’s very much inconsistent with the image a lot of them have of themselves,’ he said during a phone interview. And regarding vegetables, even protein-rich tofu, ‘it’s not something a strong man can survive on.'” When researchers have internalized the very prejudices that exposed through scientific survey, one has to ask, “What about women focused on building muscle?” and “Are you sure there aren’t other sources of protein for strong human beings?” Finally, Sociological Images has a whole treasure-trove of gendered food advertising on their Pinterest and an extensive set of articles and images about gender and food on their website.
Perhaps my point would be better made with images, too. Disclaimer: I’m going to stick to big websites and not individual bloggers (you can google “guy food” for that), because have you ever tried politely pointing out someone’s sexism on a food blog? I don’t even mean the ones that are oozing with meaty, meaty testosterone where one would expect to find The Patriarchy. Nope, you go on a women-run blog and try to suggest that the concept of “guy-friendly foods” and “veggies for boys!” are centered around a ludicrous stereotype perpetuated by the mainstream media; you try to actually challenge the stereotype that all men (who aren’t professional chefs) are all lazy, dirty, and horrible cooks, unless it is bacon and whiskey, because men love them some bacon and whiskey; god help you if you try to feed him a meatless chili, or, goddess forbid, vegan food, because meat and potatoes forever, amirite? Now, count to ten and cue a host of angry fans (not necessarily the author) commenting, “BUT THIS IS A RECIPE WEBSITE WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BRING UP GENDER?!?!?” Hey, you started it with your “teehee, straight boys don’t like veggies and tofu” schtick. Perpetuating the patriarchal stereotypes about men hurts you, too. Go to the library, get some Faludi and Beauvoir and Butler, and remind yourselves that these three things are true: gender is not binary, we are all human, and we all need to eat.
Some of the most egregious examples of “guy food” for Father’s Day come up on websites about healthy foods, like Cooking Light and Eating Well, both of which I generally like. I’m not surprised at all to see healthier remakes of recipes like hamburgers and fries, since they are a staple of the American omnivore diet, whether that’s a McDonald’s supplier or a grain-fed free-range happy cow that provided the meat, and these are websites that specialize in helping cooks make good choices in the kitchen regardless of their dietary lifestyle. However, around Father’s Day, the sites feature articles such as this:
The text at top reads, “We’ve lightened favorite ‘guy foods’ most commonly found on a bar menu (or on your coffee table during halftime). By making just a few small tweaks, you (and your man) can savor every bite to the fullest.” Let’s look at the language: these recipes are not healthier “pub foods” or healthier “tailgate party/BBQ” foods, but “guy foods.” Ironically, Cooking Light author Holley Grainger tries to address the fact that “men’s ‘diets'” are a stereotype, but her criticism falls flat as the article continues to reinforce the idea that 1. the reader is a female 2. in a relationship with a man, and not just any man, but a man who 3. eats meat and 4. likes watching sports in the company of other meat-eating men; and that 5. the woman primarily cooks for the man. This is Implied Heteronormativity 101.
So what’s “man food”/”guy food” to Cooking Light?
Man Foods: beer, burgers, pizza, nachos, fried chicken, wings, onion rings, meat and potatoes (sigh), and cheese sticks. But it’s okay, ladies, you can eat these with your man, too!
The comment section: if a female reader politely writes that she doesn’t like gender stereotyping (highlighted), we must shame her for being “sensitive”!
Note the use of “lighten up,” pointed sarcasm, “stop bringing gender into a recipe blog,” and wanting to ignore the issue (“stop arguing”), a perfect bingo tossed lightly with heterosexist dressing.
“We’ve loaded this meaty pie with a whole pound of turkey sausage and given it a fabulous, flaky phyllo crust. Real men do eat quiche!” proclaims the flavor text. Again, manly men love meat, so here’s a girly light quiche masculinized with a whole pound of meat! The comments here are just reviews of the recipe, though one reviewer ate this on Mother’s Day!
One other key point with masculinizing food is the idea that men have a large appetite. Lisa Wade covers this in her article “Race, Class, and Gender in TV Dinners“ on Sociological Images, but here’s the trope on Eating Well: Jessie Price’s “4 healthy steak recipes to please your manly appetite.”
While the article is actually about Price’s love of steak, she equates her food behavior with performing masculinity:
After college I moved to San Francisco where my Texas-born, steak-loving friend Amy introduced me to the city’s manly steakhouses. We may not have looked like we fit in—two young, single, wine-sipping women perched in the high-backed leather booths, surrounded by dark wood, ornate carpets and groups of men slugging back straight Scotch. But when the bone-in rib-eyes arrived, we could hold our own. I blush to think of the huge slabs of red meat I put away at each sitting.
Drinking wine is feminine and does not break gender boundaries, but chowing done on a huge steak is manly–and good. The article is about ways meat-lovers can enjoy flavorful meat in healthier ways (leaner cuts, cooking styles), but her article most definitely adheres to the valuation of masculine behaviors over feminine. I suppose the inverse would be “Lads, let me show you how to make healthier choux à la crème for your womanly appetites!” If that makes you laugh because it sounds ridiculous, it’s because our society holds that a big appetite and meat are masculine, so the inverse must be feminine since gender must be binary. I know metabolism is somewhat affected by hormones, but this article plays into the problem of idolizing women who “do it like a man”–here, those can eat a lot (and still be a culturally appropriate weight)–and shaming men who want to lose weight, have slow metabolism, or eat small or meatless meals for being “girly.” Like Grainger, Price misses an opportunity to call out ridiculous food-related stereotypes. Sadly, there are no comments.
For more Father’s-Day-specific food gendering, let’s take a look at Food Network‘s website.
What is up with this quiche thing?! Were quiches really that big of a deal in the ’80s, or do all the staff writers remember and assume the audience remembers Real Men? The actual link just goes to Food Network Magazine‘s instructions for a basic quiche. Most of the categories are fairly innocuous, except for “Meaty Mains,” but the edible gift section illustrates the masculine food issue. Jerky is just meat, so no problem, but girly cookies need to be baconized, and beer-orange caramel sauce will make your sundae “manly.”
Finally, A Taste of Home even has its very own “Guy Food” section:
Listed as a subset of Father’s Day Recipes is “Guy Foods”: “We feature recipes for food that men love to eat including hearty appetizer and side dish recipes, burger recipes, rib recipes and steak recipes.” Read: “Men and their big manly appetites love meaty hearty meats!” At least the flavor text didn’t feature “cooking for your man” in it. Wait, no, I spoke too soon: “The fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Isn’t the way to anyone’s heart through her or his stomach?
“Guy Foods” are foods related to grilling, hunting, fishing, camping, tailgating, beer, Father’s Day, and more grilling. Scroll down more and you have “hearty” appetizers and “hearty” side dishes. So, here we have masculinized-activity-related foods instead of just masculinized foods. Men like sports, the outdoors, and catching their own food, and therefore need beer and meat as fuel for these activities.
Let’s compare this to A Taste of Home’s Mother’s Day recipes:
Mother’s Day categories include “Mother’s Day Breakfast Recipes,” “Kids Breakfast Recipes,” “Mother’s Day Brunch Recipes,” “Crepes,” “Mother’s Day Pastry Recipes,” and “Mother’s Day Dessert Recipes.” Notice the emphasis on sweets and the complete lack of meat in the category headers. (Some of the recipes, like the crab QUICHE, include meat). Father’s Day recipes include “Father’s Day Appetizers,” “Father’s Day Salad Recipes,” “Father’s Day Side Dishes,” “Burger Recipes,” “Grilling Recipes,” “Guy Food,” “Father’s Day Dinners” (all of which are meat), and “Father’s Day Desserts.” Also, note that there are not “Girl/Gal/Lady Foods,” as cooking and food are feminine; “guy foods” must be qualified as such to masculinize them. Mother’s Day recipe collections include “Top 10 Quiche Recipes” (again with the quiche!!) and “Homemade Spa Recipes.”
Speaking of sweets, I’ve focused on English-language, American-oriented sites in this article; for the record, Japan has its own gendered food issues, but I really feel like they deserve their own post. Thoughts?
As for myself, my home kitchen registers a 0 on the gender-bullshit detector. My husband and I both like fancy tea and craft beer (the darkest you’ve got); he would eat curried cauliflower everyday if he could, and I would fill the kitchen with a big pile of avocados and cilantro if I could. We may not always agree on what is most delicious, but at the end of the day, we are free to be who we are without participating in culinary gender roles.
Must be all that crustless quiche we make.
*I spent a lot of time as a child and teen hanging out with HGTV, ESPN, and TLC on in the background because my dad enjoys shows about fishing, home improvement, and cars, and the commercials were largely targeted at his demographic – middle-class suburban straight male homeowners ages 30-50 with cars. As a result, I can give very detailed descriptions of oil commercials (“Dueling Banjos,” am I right?) and lawncare commercials circa 1996.
**”Now that you are married, you may find you are cooking a lot more,” comments The Betty Crocker Cookbook (Bridal Edition) (xii). Betty Crocker also informs me that my fruit anniversary is approaching.