Tuesday, 11 December 2012

How to Cook Like a Man: Masculinity, Beyond the Grill

Much has been made of the supposed modern “crisis of masculinity.” This runs the gamut from relatively mundane anxieties over using moisturizer to full-fledged angst over the “end of men.” Men, so we are told, are floundering adrift in the new age of the feminized public sphere, uncertain of themselves and their masculine identity. While I don’t believe this is true, and indeed the “end of men” is greatly exaggerated, nevertheless this low-level anxiety has diffused into various cultural niches. Given the current fixation on hundred-mile diets, foodie-ism (at least one example of foodie-debunking here), celebrity chefs, and all things gastronomic, it is little wonder that the question of how to cook/eat “like a man” has gained traction.

The tension between food gathering/preparation and eating has always been a balance between “masculine” and “feminine” influences. Hunter-gathering societies, we are given to understand, operated on the basis of men hunting, women cooking said game, with the men completing the bargain by promising to guard the valuable food from other males who may have been less proficient stalkers. But cooking in some contexts, such as in the aristocratic houses of medieval and Tudor/early-modern England, had been undertaken by men – who far outnumbered women as household servants. By the eighteenth and certainly nineteenth centuries the trend was reversed, with women being predominant in service and being responsible for the extremely low-status drudgery of the kitchen. In more ordinary homes, women of course have undertaken the majority of food preparation, while at the same time it is male chefs who have usually staffed the great restaurants and hotels and who (with some exceptions) drove the culinary trends of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This blog takes as its inspiration the grand culinary excesses of the Edwardian Era, which was “masculine” in many aspects – from the habits of Edward VII himself to the fantastic portions of game and meat that were a crucial aspect of Edwardian cooking. The most famous chef of the day (and perhaps the first real celebrity chef), Auguste Escoffier, introduced fabulous French dishes and flourishes to the English palate. But many of his dishes and similar styles that had been popular since the Victorian era were (perhaps to our eyes) elaborate, fussy, and even “feminine.” These included grand moulded jellies, small details such as flowers, décor, or garnish which were time-consuming and thus partially designed in order to display the wealth of those doing the entertaining. It is also important to note that only a small fraction of the population ate in this over-the-top Edwardian way, so there is really no means of assessing how people regarded the masculinity (or not) of their food. Nor do I see the middle part of the twentieth century as addressing the gendered aspect of food in any substantial way. Trends of that era were primarily centred on: health, exotic and ethnic cuisine, French and Italian manias, convenience, wild presentation (the 70s), and “authenticity” (Alice Waters/ Chez Panisse local ingredients, and the like). It is only more recently that the whole conundrum of “manly cuisine” has become a substantial concern.

To wit, I recently picked up two books with similar titles and themes:

Duane’s book is a heartfelt tale of one (yuppie, progressive, well-educated, San Francisco-dwelling) man’s discovery of cooking alongside marriage and the birth of his two daughters. Having grown up with stereotypical “regular food” parents who considered ordering a starter in a restaurant and eating for decadent pleasure as a sin, he seeks to reencounter cuisine in an almost primeval manner. He obtains food for his family like his hunter-gather ancestors – diving for abalone, butchering his own meat, and learning the manly pace and patience of salmon fishing. His experiences with other culinary-obsessed men are also fascinating, their conversations serving as a new form of male bonding as they navigate the terrain of what it means to cook as a man. As the dust jacket summarizes: “…in the end, Duane learns not just how to cook like a man, but how to truly be one.” It is cooking as both a spiritual and a masculine journey.

Interestingly, Duane’s book is entitled How to *Cook* Like a Man, while the Esquire editors have chosen *Eat* Like a Man as the title of their actual cookbook, possibly with the theory in mind that while not all men relish the idea of cooking, they all enjoy eating. Perhaps the promise of one will help de-mystify the particulars of the other. In structure, look, and feel the cookbook is a mixture of old-Dad-Mad-Men nostalgia, hipster sensibility, gastropub-style new classics, and simple diner Americana. 

[How men choose to view their culinary endeavours]

The foreword by Tom Colicchio sets out immediately to debunk the “hoary cliché” that male cooking abilities are necessarily restricted to “manning the backyard grill.” Of course grilling and the art of the bbq is the ne plus ultra of manly food, involving as it does gas, flame, and the omnipresent element of danger. [See photo above] Such elements remove it from the tame, domesticated environment of the indoor kitchen. Colicchio applies a few “truisms about men” to summarize the manly approach to cooking:

  1. "Men don’t stop to ask for directions"
    Hence, the cookbook is seen as a “guiding tool,” a starting-point rather than an insistence on measuring out each exact teaspoon of spice: “A recipe can be incredibly useful as a training tool… but I only started really having fun in the kitchen when I threw out the rule book and started riffing on my own.” Cooking is a virtuoso performance. (Duane explicitly counters this approach in his book, seeing nothing unmanly about following each Alice Waters recipe to the letter. Chapter three: “recipes are for idiots like me” – his manly cook is a self-deprecating one, not a know-it-all.)
  1. "Men like to know how stuff works"
    In short, the same “curiosity” that men bring to tinkering with their cars will help them to understand the chemistry of cooking, such as how a steak sears best.
  1. "Men don’t always think with their heads"
    “We all know that men can be easily led away from the path of reason given the proper motivation, and in the kitchen this can be a good thing… To this day, my most exhilarating cooking comes when I stop thinking too hard, and just cook from the gut.”

Never mind that there might well be a slight contradiction between the second and third points, manly cooking is – in this presentation – akin to being a Jedi Knight. The Force is with him.

Much of this is, in the end, entertaining mumbo-jumbo, but nevertheless an insightful look into gender relations in our conflicted age of multiple and uncertain identities. We can only hope that the end result will be far less concern over whether women want to butcher pigs (Exhibit A: A Girl and Her Pig by April Bloomfield) or men wish to decorate cupcakes. There is, however, one aspect that seems too delicate for all these performative analyses and cooking manuals to even touch on. And that is the fact that cooking and eating, being the most fundamental way in which societies address the distribution of resources, will always be bound up with status, money, and control. Cooking in a manly way is not just an aesthetic act, it is yet another transition in the long negotiation of who brings home the bacon and who puts it on the grill. 

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils  

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