A Recipe for Gender Neutral Attitudes in Millennial Male Cooks

BY ALEXANDRA KAYE

A tall, muscular, 24-year-old strolls through Whole Foods, dressed in his tennis sneakers and workout clothes. He takes his time to consider each item’s nutritional content and source. Meet Max Kaye—my older brother and a man of the 21st century. “There’s a brand of kale called Organic Girl, and they are clearly catering toward girls but it is the best brand of kale…and what guy would want to buy that?” Max exclaimed, giving an idea of how he thought industry plays a role in food choices. But that did not stop Max from tossing it in his cart.

Although almost one third of men are now the primary cooks in their families,[1] long-standing ideas about gender norms persist on conscious and unconscious levels. Millennials—generally speaking the ~80 million Americans born between 1978 and 2000[2]—include a new subset of millennial men who break from gender stereotypes while cooking at home. Yet, even the most avant garde of these mavericks acknowledge the existence of the gender norms, and understand that a segment of society accepts and lives by them.

During an interview with Max I learned that he counts himself among the mavericks in several ways that challenge traditional perceptions about how and why men cook. First, women are traditionally viewed as holding primary responsibility for providing regular meals at home,[3] but Max shares all cooking-related responsibilities equally with his live-in girlfriend. Second, Max believes that cooking is a learned process rather than an innate ability to know how to make food taste good, which is more in-line with stereotypically feminine methods of learning to cook through structured rules and recipes[4] as opposed to normative views about how cooking comes naturally to men, revealing their creativity and talent.[5] Third, Max’s main motivations for cooking include nourishing and pleasing others, in direct opposition to the notion that those are feminine motivations,[6] and in contrast with normative ideas about males cooking more purely for selfish pleasures or for applause.[7] Despite Max’s non-conformism, he admits to an understanding of gendered societal tenets concerning cooking and eating, such as those that assert women eat more healthily, eating meat is considered masculine, and men barbeque. While recognizing these biases, Max does not allow them to define him.

Max’s adoption of domestic cooking responsibilities did not stem from childhood exposure to men cooking at home, but rather from his passion for food and self-sufficient nature. Raised in a household where women were the primary cooks, Max learned from females. Our mother worked full-time until he was five years old, during which time a female caregiver cooked most family meals. After that, our mother cooked at home, and our father rarely prepared meals. When asked if he remembered our father ever cooking, Max paused and finally recalled that our father occasionally barbequed “a long time ago.” From a young age, with women as cooking role-models, Max prepared meals for himself and for the family at every opportunity. He enjoyed eating and cooking with an adventurous twist. Memorably, he once accepted his teacher’s challenge to eat a fish eye after bragging that he had eaten fish eyes at home. When his foodie lifestyle led to a weight struggle, Max’s cooking raison d’être shifted focus to more healthful habits because his athletic ambition required slimming down. After college graduation, he continued on this path while living alone and cooking all his own meals. Has his cooking changed over the years? “Definitely! Definitely!” he exclaims with hearty laughter.

Contrary to Max’s parental situation, which complied with gender binaries that women cook regular family meals but men cook as a hobby,[8] Max currently qualifies as one of the primary cooks for his household in a Washington D.C. apartment, along with his live-in girlfriend, Kristin. For the past year their equally held cooking responsibilities included weekly, ½ hour meetings to prepare grocery lists and plan meals, shopping together for food, cooking together, and doing an equal amount of cleaning in the kitchen.

Beyond taking responsibility at home, Max defies stereotypes about how men cook because he learns by watching others, and not through magical, innate talent that some cookbooks have attributed to men.[9] In fact, to Max the concept of natural cooking ability without learned knowledge is a youthful notion rather than a male quality: “As a kid it’s more magical. It’s like whoa this actually came out well!” So how did he acquire more advanced cooking abilities? By picking up tips while watching numerous cooking shows, by cooking with other people and watching what they do, and through online instruction and recipes.

In addition to falling outside gender norms in how he cooks, Max does not conform to gender norms with regard to why he cooks. His three main reasons for cooking are to nourish Kristin, his family, and himself, to feel the “internal satisfaction and pleasure” that cooking gives him, and to satisfy his joy of “bringing people together” for a good meal. His first reason, nourishing his family with food, has traditionally been considered a feminine, and not masculine duty, and has been viewed as a woman’s motivation for cooking.[10] However, Max falls outside of this gender norm. For him, nothing trumps the provisions of nourishment and health:

Cooking is the only way to be healthy…instead of going out to eat. You know what’s going in your body. I’m sure it is possible to get healthy meals from restaurants, but in America that’s pretty infrequent in my opinion. Usually I feel lethargic after I do eat out.

Emphasizing how he believes it is important to cook at home in order to maintain health, he added, “It’s pretty crazy to not know where that gas is coming from when you put it in your car…It’s important to know what you have in your own digestive system and lead a healthy life and not get sick.” This worldview reflects one reason for millennials’ obsession with food- in an age where they cannot control their jobs or understand the workings of technologies that surround them, controlling and understanding food provides great comfort.[11] Outside of avoiding restaurants, the provision of nutrition pervades all aspects of his cooking role, including planning and shopping. For instance, he complains that the Whole Foods in Washington D.C. is not as nutrition oriented as the ones he shops at in South Florida, and that in D.C. “the front of the store is wine, and chocolate, and a food bar…and even when you are downstairs there’s a whole row for chips.” He mentions that as a behavioral economist, he is keenly aware of how businesses market their food to consumers, but he considers it his duty to resist the marketing in order to nourish Kristin and himself.

As far as stereotypes about why men cook, some note that even when men are primary cooks, they require the added motivation of praise and applause.[12] Max did indicate that beyond his love of cooking and the purpose of nourishing, he cooks to impress Kristin or dinner guests. When his food is not delicious, he sighs:

It is a big disappointment, like losing a tennis match…when it tastes good it’s ten times better.”

Although this enjoyment of appreciation has been described as a male-motivated need for applause and to be the center of the show,[13] pleasing others (albeit men) has also been described as a female cooking trait,[14] and could be viewed as a natural desire of both men and women. However, it is interesting that Max uses athletic analogies in his discourse. Referring to men in traditionally masculine roles when describing them in domestic capacities is one way that society maintains gender binaries.[15] Still, Max does break down those binaries through plentiful descriptions of his role in more feminine terms.

Max’s deep interest in health and nourishment does not mean he favors health over taste, he finds a way to have his cake and eat it too! Cookbooks written for men sometimes portray masculine eating as unhealthy, by including devil-may-care recipes that are highly caloric and full of fat and grease.[16] On the opposite end of the spectrum, some reading materials for men that do focus on healthy eating turn cooking into a means of self-nourishment to the end of obtaining a strong, attractive body, with very little actual cooking involved.[17] For instance, men’s magazines often treat cooking as a sterile way to build body health in a quick, efficient, and flavorless fashion.[18]

Max’s concern with nourishment could not be further from both of these gendered stereotypes. Rather, he takes it as a given that his cooking can be simultaneously healthy and good-tasting, and although he is always conscious of nutrition and health when he cooks, his style of cooking is anything but instant and dull. In fact, one of Max’s favorite recipes is:

Tofu with green beans and onions and cauliflower in a stir fry, with sesame oil, Ponzi sauce, wine, and salt. That’s my favorite dish! . . . Oooohh, and smoothies! Kale, carrot, chia seeds, apple- that’s a really good one. You can even add ginger.

Rather than think of healthy cooking as gendered, Max views healthful cooking as personal growth: “When I was younger, I never focused on healthy, only on flavor and taste [because that is] what most kids care about [and when people] start thinking about utilizing ingredients and nutritional value and how each part will make you satisfied, that’s when you have matured in a cooking sense.” To Max, his identity is tied to food’s health and sensual value, not his manliness.

Unrestricted by traditional gender perceptions in his actions, Max still acknowledges their existence. While Max did not generally perceive provision of nutrition as gender-related, especially on a personal level, he did acknowledge that he thought that with regard to eating, “women probably eat healthier in general.” He was not sure why women might eat better, but mentioned possible contributing factors, such as that women “were taught better or…intrinsically know how to eat healthily,” and that there is more pressure on women “to feel slim.” He noted that societal presumptions and industry marketing could play a role in women’s healthier eating in restaurants and grocery stores. “Guys eat significantly more meat than girls in general.”

Despite perceptions about gender differences in eating and cooking, Max proudly declares, “well my diet is gender neutral.” Indeed, he was glad to discover how delicious Organic Girl products are, and he has eliminated all red meat from his cooking and diet. Furthermore, he shared:

I was under the impression that I had to eat meat and guys are brought up to be stronger in general and I never realized until recently when I cut out all red meat that I don’t need it to be healthy.

These views that men eat meat are commonly held in the U.S.[19] Once again, Max resists compliance by believing that cooking and eating well is an evolutionary process spurred by education and growth, and that acting outside of constructed food norms is part of that maturation. In some respects, his attitude raises the possibility that media and industry images and information do not reflect reality, or at least do not reflect a reality that should be perpetuated. In the past, media, literature, and marketing often depicted women as wanting to save time when cooking by using convenience foods, even though that was not necessarily what was really going on in their kitchens.[20] Similarly, the numerous meat-eating male oriented media projections do not represent Max’s vegetarian reality.

Max is an example of a modern male who is aware of gender binaries, but does not subscribe to them. While he cooks for the characteristically males goals of enjoyment and appreciation, he also cooks for stereotypically feminine purposes of nourishing and pleasing. In-line with female norms, he plans meals, follows recipes, and chooses a mainly vegetarian diet. He is aware that meat is viewed as masculine, and that other foods are marketed to women and perceived as feminine. Society still has constructed ideas about what it means to be a man or woman in the context of food, but Max might represent a new generation of males that do not allow those constructions to control them or capture the reality of how they live and cook.

Main Image: My brother, Max Kaye, making green smoothies. Photo Credit: Alexandra Kaye.

Notes

[1] Pilar Guzman, “Hey Man, What’s for Dinner?,” The New York Times, 28 August 2002.

[2] Tim Carman, “For Millennials, Food Isn’t Just Food. It’s Community.” The Washington Post. (Oct. 22, 2013).

[3] Jonathan Deutsch, “’Please Pass the Chicken Tits’: Rethinking Men and Cooking at an Urban Firehouse,” Food & Foodways, no. 13 (2005): 91.

[4] Jessamyn Neuhaus, “Ladylike Lunches and Manly Meals: The Gendering of Food and Home Cooking,” in Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America, (2003): 73-74, 81-86.

[5] Neuhaus, “Ladylike Lunches,” 74, 81-82, 84, 86.

[6] Fabio Parasecoli, “Feeding Hard Bodies: Food and Masculinities in Men’s Fitness Magazines,” Food and Foodways, no. 13 (2005): 29; Kathleen LeBesco, “There’s Always Room for Resistance: Jell-O, Gender, and Social Class,” in Sherrie Inness (ed.) Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 135, 144.

[7] Guzman, “Hey Man, What’s for Dinner?”

[8] Ibid., 73-74, 76-77, 81, 86, 90, 94, 97; Deutsch, “Please Pass the Chicken Tits,” 92.

[9] Ibid., 73-76, 82, 86.

[10] Jonathan Deutsch, “’Please Pass the Chicken Tits’: Rethinking Men and Cooking at an Urban Firehouse,” Food and Foodways, no. 13 (2005): 92; Parasecoli, “Feeding Hard Bodies, 29.

[11] Joe Pinsker, “Why Are Millennials So Obsessed With Food?,” The Atlantic, 2015.

[12] Guzman, “Hey Man, What’s for Dinner?”

[13] Ibid.

[14] LeBesco, “There’s Always Room for Resistance,” 135, 144.

[15] Rebecca Swenson, “Domestic Divo? Televised Treatments of Masculinity, Femininity and Food,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2009: 50.

[16] Ibid., 93; Neuhaus, “Ladylike Lunches,” 77.

[17] Parasecoli, “Feeding Hard Bodies,” 23-24.

[18] Ibid., 24-28.

[19] Deutsch, Please Pass the Chicken Tits,” 93; Neuhaus, “Ladylike Lunches,” 77.

[20] Laura Shapiro, “Something from the Oven,” Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950’s America, (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 46-51, 74.

Bibliography

Carman, Tim. “For Millennials, Food Isn’t Just Food. It’s Community.” The Washington Post. (Oct. 22, 2013).

Deutsch, Jonathan. “’Please Pass the Chicken Tits’: Rethinking Men and Cooking at an Urban Firehouse.” Food and Foodways. No. 13. 2005. 91-114.

Guzman, Pilar. “Hey Man, What’s for Dinner?” The New York Times. 28 August 2002.

LeBesco, Kathleen. “There’s Always Room for Resistance: Jell-O, Gender, and Social Class.” In Sherrie Inness (ed.) Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield. 2001. 129-149.

Neuhaus, Jessamyn. “Ladylike Lunches and Manly Meals: The Gendering of Food and Home Cooking.” In Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America. 2003. 73-97.

Parasecoli, Fabio. “Feeding Hard Bodies: Food and Masculinities in Men’s Fitness Magazines.” Food and Foodways. No. 13. 2005. 17-37.

Pinsker, Joe. “Why Are Millennials So Obsessed With Food?” The Atlantic. 2015.

Shapiro, Laura. “Something from the Oven.” Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950’s America. New York: Penguin Books. 2004. 41-84.

Swenson, Rebecca. “Domestic Divo? Televised Treatments of Masculinity, Femininity and Food.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. Vol. 26, No. 1. 2009. 36-53.