Fry the bacon, slay the competition

Do male gastro-sexuals have a macho take on the kitchen?

Published April 28, 2009 4:56PM (EDT)

Most of the men I know -- at least the ones in my mid-30s, Brooklyn-dwelling world -- like to cook. Last Friday during five o' clock drinks in the local bar two guys and I spent the better part of an hour talking about where to buy a whole, locally grown pig, how to prepare collard greens, and the difficulty of meal planning in general and, by the end, we made a deal to make once-a-week trips together to pick up veggies and meats and artisanal bread. But according to a piece by Tim Lewis in this week's Guardian, though many more young-ish men are comfortable in the kitchen, today's gastro-sexual -- c'mon, you really didn't think they could resist invoking a cutesy nickname, did you? -- mixes a little macho bravado into his crème brûlée (which, by the way, will totally take down your tarte Tatin). This seems as good a time as any to point out that, in his day job, Lewis is a sports editor, which may a) suggest that if this guy is cooking, pretty much anyone can, or b) help to explain his alpha-male-centric view of the kitchen.

The "men cook like competitors" thesis smacks of gender essentialism to me. But when you think of the role models most guys today had, you've got to admit they've come a long way, baby. The double-career couple may have been in full swing by the '80s, but while plenty of us now in our 20s and 30s grew up watching both parents cook, plenty others didn't. (My mother discovered the natural foods movement as a teenager in the early '60s, but to this day, she's still convinced my dad can't pick the right head of lettuce without explicit instruction.) Lewis writes that his first two vaguely food-related tomes were "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche" by Bruce Feirstein (which dares to ask: "Could John Wayne ever have taken Normandy, Iwo Jima, Korea, the Gulf of Tonkin and the entire Wild West on a diet of quiche and salad?") and PJ O'Rourke's "The Bachelor Home Companion" (whose culinary advice includes the suggestion that one warm canned food on a car engine).  Lewis certainly recognizes that both are "mildly sexist" -- but let's not forget that those two writers have nothing on the '50s-style masculinity, when, say, the mere vision of his dad in a frilly apron is enough to provoke Jim Stark's final meltdown in "Rebel Without a Cause."

Lewis recalls that quiche is something a real man once wouldn't eat, much less make, while he is trawling the aisles for ingredients for a suspiciously similar red onion tart with anchovies. He writes: "Suddenly, I realized the aisles were swamped with people like me: male, check, mid-30s, check; limited edition sneakers ... hessian shopping bags, check, check. We filled up on happy potatoes, seasonal vegetables and holier-than-thou meat ... I was a stereotype."

A stereotype of what? Maybe of a guy who likes to cook almost as much as he and those around him like to point out how odd it is that he does -- the "gastro-sexual," as he calls himself. But whatever nickname one chooses, it applies almost exclusively to the home cook, not the men who have dominated the profession known as chef for generations, nor those men -- Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Anthony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver, Emeril, ad nauseam -- who write or talk about or otherwise make food for a living.

There is still a whiff of gender exceptionalism to the man who cooks for himself or his family and friends, according to Lewis. While men now create about a fifth of the evening meals, that means about 80 percent of the cooking is still done by women (he doesn't break his stats down by country or age or profession, so those of us who feel that they don't ring true for, say, "men under 40" or "two-income working families" or whatever, may be right).

But his real point is that men, however often they cook, actually cook differently than women. Some men tend to specialize in "show" cooking -- "elaborate, ambitious, multi-stage feasts that typically arrive several hours later than advertised." Men tend to compete with each other, he writes, and describes an all-male dinner party throw-down between an organic rabbit stew, a sponge, and a Bavarian apple strudel. Finally, he drags in the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, autism expert and father of Sasha, to argue that male cooks, allegedly, "specialize in systems and try to bring order into all situations" whereas women "are empathetic and work out things intuitively."

I won't argue with the (female) chef who laughingly points out that "molecular gastronomy" -- the test tube style of cooking with liquid nitrogen and the like pioneered by el Bulli chef Ferran Adria (incidentally widely considered the greatest chef in the world) -- seems like a stereotypically masculine way of cooking (if one is the kind to think that little boys are the most natural audience for chemistry sets). And I'm pretty sure that Alton Brown's fondness for bringing power tools into the kitchen and invoking food science explains a lot of his appeal to my boyfriend, but then again, I've rarely seen him (the boyfriend, that is) consult a recipe when making family dishes -- like baked ziti, chicken cacciatore, marinara. Then again, he learned those recipes from his mother, an old-school Italian cook of the intuitive variety. It seems to me that the allegedly "male" cooking style sounds like the kind of cuisine that comes from thinking of food as a pleasure, a hobby or a performance, rather than an obligation, a job or a chore. And it doesn't take a whole lot of analysis to see why those different perspectives might fall along disproportionately gendered lines. Still, as long as I have that ride from the boys at the bar to hunt down smoked almonds and French breakfast radishes -- and a live-in partner who can make an awesome pizza crust while I pontificate on gender -- I'm not complaining about much.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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