Gender Food Fight

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Applying former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cultural calculus to America’s post-revolutionary food scene, I qualify as a gastronomic “girly man.” That would be a wussy femme boy who confuses cooking with shopping, and preaches, or at least tolerates, the left coast’s mantra of local, fresh, seasonal, sustainable ingredients. However you characterize my culinary/gender orientation, it’s surely true that I shop, cook and eat at the feminized ingredient-driven western edge of America’s gastronomical map.

But neither American coast holds a monopoly on foodie foolishness. Check out the super-masculine, technique-driven eastern edge of the map where the “manly men” live, like New York chefs David Chang of Momofuku, Wylie Dufresne of wd-50, and Anthony Bourdain. Just read through their three-way nose-to-tail bull session — “Mediocrity: A Conversation” — in the pages of Chang’s new ultra-hip, McSweeneys-produced quarterly food journal, Lucky Peach. You’ll get a good taste of modernist male gastronomy in word and image, if not deed.

I’m using the word gastronomy here (“the art and science of good eating”) as contextualized by food and women’s studies scholar Alice McLean. McLean, a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Davis, taught at Sweet Briar College in Virginia until recently moving back to the Bay Area. In her just-published book, “Aesthetic Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Womens Food Writing,” she writes:

“Since its invention in 1801 [by French poet Joseph Berchoux], the word gastronomy has been tightly linked to masculinity — a well-educated, cosmopolitan, witty, and articulate masculinity to be precise.”

That would certainly describe Lucky Peach’s three gastroteers, though in the case of their “Mediocrity” article, I would add to McLean’s list of flattering adjectives the word silly.

Fed up with mediocrity

Using sports metaphors, references to “going soft,” and enough potty-mouthed F-bombs to earn Gordon Ramsays seal of approval, Chang’s gang is up to here with culinary mediocrity — like those dread Kraft’s Parmesan cheese shakers (Chang) and New York’s overabundance of playing-it-safe Italian restaurants (Dufresne). Bourdain, shockingly un-boorish when he confesses to actually liking New York’s Italian eateries (“Sometimes I don’t want to think when I go out to dinner!”), nevertheless can’t resist dropping an anti-mediocrity A-bomb of his own. That’s “A” for “Alice,” as in Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, the media’s poster girl for California cuisine divinity and a favorite punch puppet for New York’s predictable critique of California’s “simple food” aesthetic.

Here’s Chef Dufresne’s case in chief:

We’re talking about cooking. We are cooks. We should have a responsibility to cook. The fact that we’re talking about the ingredients rather than what people are doing with the ingredients is a mistake. Do something to it. That’s showing that you have a skill.

Well, we have heard all this before. But just as Chang, Dufresne and Bourdain can argue, with merit, that great ingredients are, by definition, assumed in great cooking, California’s A-word polemicists could, and should, present a strong rebuttal: that great cooking is likewise assumed in its ingredio-centric, low-tech “home cooking.” Simple is, after all, not so simple.

The pinnacle of good taste

With professional mediation for our feuding culinary coasts unlikely, and hoping to better understand, at least, the gender divide behind our tedious national food fights, I approached McLean for her scholarly take on the battle of the gastronomic sexes. Having built her new book on a solid base of earlier scholarship, McLean updates the gender analysis of gastronomy and takes it in new directions. She reveals how pioneering 20th-century women writers like M.F.K. Fisher, Alice B. Toklas and Elizabeth David were able to penetrate male-dominated gastronomical discourse and challenge age-old stereotypes about men and women in the kitchen.

“Cookery,” McLean responded via email, “has long been rigidly gendered, with women in charge of home cooking and focused on creating a sense of community and cohesion….” McLean’s email continued:

Men, on the other hand, have long commandeered public cookery and, by extension, codified the techniques at work in professional kitchens. Male chefs also work competitively to be the dominant figure in their field. Modernist high-tech (aka molecular) cuisine exemplifies the masculine reach toward prestigious, elite cuisine that can only be prepared (and, for that matter, eaten) at considerable expense. It strives to define and materialize the pinnacle of “good taste.”

Good taste is good. Manly good taste is, evidently, better. And what could be more gastronomically masculine than Lucky Peach’s cover image, a close-up photo of a guy’s hairy forearms and big meaty hands holding a huge dead chicken by its feet over a stock pot. Not exactly McLean’s “pinnacle of good taste,” but definitely manly.

Peaches and cream

After digesting Lucky Peach, I once again appealed to McLean, this time for her reactions to the new journal and its self-described “rant” on culinary mediocrity. And this time I invited her to my house for a traditional British cream tea, a girly man entertainment style if ever there was one. McLean confirmed over the phone that she had purchased Lucky Peach and would be delighted to come talk about it.

Over cups of Peet’s Lion Mountain Keemun tea and slices of rich lemon shortbread from Berkeley’s La Farine bakery, the food and women’s studies scholar and I discoursed. And when I asked McLean how she would characterize the gastronomic sensibility of Chang/McSweeney’s collaboration, she answered with a subtle blend of scholarly restraint and sly dig: “If I had the time, I’d love to gather a critical set of responses to the publication. I’d call my own contribution ‘Bruised Peaches.’ ”

“Perfect,” I chuckled, “and my contribution to the collection could be an inverted spin on the Chang, Dufresne and Bourdain piece: ‘Conversation: A Mediocrity.’ ” McLean chuckled and asked me to pass the cream.


Zester Daily contributor L. John Harris is a food writer, filmmaker, artist and the former owner of Aris Books, publishers of cookbooks in Berkeley, Calif. Harris’ most recent book is “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” a collection of his food cartoons and texts about America’s culinary revolution. (www.foodoodles.com)

Image: Chef’s gender select headwear. Credit: L. John Harris

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