A couple of years ago, my husband and I went to a Polish restaurant in our area. We were there at my friend Al’s recommendation. Al is a restaurant critic and, indeed, his review was proudly framed on the foyer wall.
We were seated and given menus, and I perused mine, noting the usual Eastern European fare. There were borscht and pierogi, various goulashes. Then I found what I wanted — beef Stroganoff, a hearty stew with onions, mushrooms, beef, and sour cream. My husband was in the mood for something less meaty, and decided on the stewed mushrooms with spaetzle.
The waitress came by. Well, actually, she was one of the owners — this was a family-owned joint.
I put in my order. She raised an eyebrow at me.
“That is a man’s dish.”
That was news to me. I don’t often make Stroganoff at home (and when I do, I blaspheme and add a can of chopped tomatoes), but I never saw it as any more male or female than, say, ordinary stew. But the proprietress clearly had her ideas. I feared for a moment that she would not let me have the Stroganoff, being that I don’t have a penis, but she was obviously done with that one comment. When the food came, I ate every bite, and while no one thankfully checked afterward, I was still female through and through.
I have never since been told something I ordered in a restaurant was a man’s dish, but I have become more aware of the fact that my taste in food apparently veers toward the “male.” And, apparently, my husband’s tastes are “female.” I’ve lost count of the number of times the busboy has handed my platter of short ribs to my husband while giving me the grilled salmon. Or given him my ravioli bolognese while handing me the grilled veggies. (Yep, when I go to restaurants, I go for the gusto. I eat healthy the rest of the time.)
This plays out in our home kitchen as well. While we eat most of our meals together, all the yogurt in the fridge is his. I’ve never cared for yogurt, and no campaigns by Yoplait or Jamie Lee Curtis are going to change my mind. Besides, the yogurt my husband eats is low-cal, flavored with aspartame. I can’t eat aspartame. It gives me headaches. This, of course, means I can’t drink most diet soda or chew most sugarless gum … gosh, by looking at my food choices, you wouldn’t think I was female at all!
I realize it is not news that our society is incredibly gendered, and that it begins from birth, when baby is brought home in a pink or blue outfit. But the fact that we are encouraged or discouraged to eat certain foods based on our gender is more subtle.
Here is a quiz for you:
When you think of the following food or drink, do you think man or woman?
1) Porterhouse steak
4) Rice cakes
Society, in my experience, would say 1) man, 2) woman, 3) man, 4) woman, 5) woman. For the record, my husband has been known to eat rice cakes. Several of my female friends love whisky. I find appletinis sickly sweet and can put away a Porterhouse with no problem. And seriously, most men I know love sorbet.
So what is this nonsense all about?
One problem is that food often gets gendered as female or male for the stupidest reasons. I remember back in the ’80s when “real men don’t eat quiche” was a big slogan. Quiche, is seemed, was too dainty for big, brawny American dudes. Oh, the irony! Classic quiche Lorraine is actually pretty darn hearty, with bacon, eggs, and lots of heavy cream. Serve it up as bacon, eggs and biscuits, and most of these same guys would see that as “man food.”
Another foreign food that started gaining popularity during that time was sushi, with men looking suspiciously at the delicate morsels of raw fish and seaweed and rice. “We call that bait!” I recall one former football player saying indignantly in a long-forgotten commercial.
Never mind that in Japan and here, most sushi chefs are male. Preparing sushi requires working with big sharp knives, and involves killing critters on the spot. (I still recall—with horror—sitting at a sushi counter watching as one chef chopped a live, spiny lobster in half. The head, which was now on a plate, had long antennae. These antennae were still moving five minutes later.)
But the alarming part of all this is we all seem to accept that foods should be gendered. And the category where we seem most willing to accept this is in alcoholic drinks. Beer, whisky, brandy, gin, and vodka are universally male drinks. Women are allowed to drink these, of course, but the beer should be light (in calories and color), while the rest should be masked in fruity, sickly sweet cocktails or spritzers. When it comes to wine, red is for men, white and rosé for women. Wine coolers, of course, are for females.
In fact, beverages in general are problematic. Sodas are gendered, with the diet variety invariably targeted to women and the sugary stuff for men. Coca-Cola has marketed Diet Coke exclusively to women for years (anyone remember the commercial with the sweaty construction worker?), but appears to have realized that maneuver has backfired. Men are trying to watch their waistlines, too, but would rather not be caught dead drinking a girlie drink (unless they are sweaty construction workers, of course), so Coke has saved them by coming up with Coke Zero. The can is black, guys, and race car drivers drink it! No estrogen fears here!
Some foods are able to straddle the gender line better. While it is a truth universally acknowledged that all women love chocolate and turn into psycho hose beasts when they are not given chocolate during their “special time,” men are allowed to like chocolate too. It just must be “manly” chocolate. Apparently, Snickers and Twix are manly. Just look at their bro-tastic ads. Three Musketeers, however, has become the girlie chocolate of choice, and green M&Ms are for chicks, while the other colors are for dudes.
Then, there is the abomination known as the Fling bar. The feminist blogosphere had a field day when Nestlé premiered Fling, with its pink wrapper and uber-girlieness. Honestly, my biggest beef with Fling is the fact that there is glitter in it. The glitter may be edible, but I’m not going anywhere near it.
Looking over all these gendered foods (except, of course, for items like quiche), it is hard to miss that “male” foods tend to be hearty and caloric, whereas “female” foods are dainty and light. This leads me to what is going to be my next FemiNoshing installment, why appetite is a feminist issue. Please stay tuned, and in the meantime, if you ever stop by Warszawa in Santa Monica, feel free to order the beef Stroganoff. It is truly excellent—for both genders.
– A.K. Whitney