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Posts tagged ‘bodies’

Dude Food

A couple of weeks ago Tamar Adler, former chef and editor of Harper’s Magazine, wrote an article for the New Yorker in which she politely and neatly eviscerates Anthony Bourdain for leaving ‘a crude hickey’ on America’s ‘food culture’. Although he is probably now better known – at least in the US – for his food-and-travel television series, Bourdain rose to fame, or notoriety, for his memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000).

It is a deeply entertaining, amusing, and often instructive guide to the strange world of restaurants and professional cooking. It explores the ‘personal and institutional perversity that runs fast through the veins of restaurants’. Bourdain details the astonishingly crude language and behaviour of badly paid, sleep deprived chefs in the hot, tiny restaurant kitchens he worked in and, later, oversaw. But it is also an excellent introduction to the mechanics and the politics of how kitchens function.

Although Bourdain and his crew do some pretty repellent things, all this is balanced by the fact that, as Adler notes, Bourdain does ‘not prescribe that life, or condone it.’ Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to kitchens which don’t run the risk of collapsing into anarchy and violence if the chef for one moment ceases swearing at the staff. He admits:

It is no coincidence that all my kitchens over time come to resemble one another and are reminiscent of the kitchens I grew up in: noisy, debauched and overloaded with faux testosterone – an effective kitchen, but a family affair, and a dysfunctional one, at that. I coddle my hooligans when I’m not bullying them. I’m visibly charmed by their extra-curricular excesses and their anti-social tendencies. My love for chaos, conspiracy and the dark side of human nature colours the behaviour of my charges, most of whom are already living near the fringes of acceptable conduct.

He adds:

Not all kitchens are the press-gang-crewed pressure cookers I’m used to. There are islands of reason and calm, where the pace is steady, where quality always takes precedence over the demands of volume, and where it’s not always about dick dick dick.

And that is the issue with Bourdain’s description of the food world: it is overwhelmingly, completely male. The women chefs whom he respects are those who are ‘tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking’ – the ones who go out of their way to fit in to ‘the testosterone-heavy’ world of restaurant kitchens. But, at least in Kitchen Confidential, he acknowledges that there are kitchens where women aren’t expected to put up with being groped, or with their colleagues festooning their stations with pornography. Visiting Scott Bryan’s restaurant Veritas he notices

A tiny young woman working at a corner station, and I made the immediate Neanderthal assumption as I first took in the crew: ‘Extern, maybe from Peter Krump or French Culinary, having a learning experience dishing out veggies.’ I passed right over her as I swept my eyes down the line looking for the heavy hitters. In time I began, peripherally, to become aware of her movements. I looked again, closer this time, and saw that she was plating fish, cooking risotto, emulsifying sauces, taking on three, then four, then five orders at a time – all the whole never changing expression or showing any visible signs of frustration or exasperation (as I would have under similar circumstances).

She was, in other words, ‘generally holding down her end like an ass-kicking, name-taking mercenary of the old school, only cleaner and better.’ It turned out that she’d been trained by Alain Ducasse.

The problem is that Bourdain loses much of this self-reflection in his later books and series. As he became better known ‘he confused what he’d written about once with the world itself.’ Adler explains:

What Anthony Bourdain does is to bathe everything, even if it’s naturally quiet and normal, in brutishness. It is the difference between not pulling punches and indiscriminately punching. Bourdain now travels round the world, with a camera crew trailing, to eat food in other countries. On his stops at noodle shops, he turns his anxious libido on his bowl of food: ‘Take me to that place where everything is beautiful.’ ‘This is fucking driving me out of my mind. I’m fucking quivering with desire here.’ ‘I would jerk a rusty butter knife over my best friend’s throat just for this,’ he says to the camera while waiting for soup. ‘Come to papa,’ he wheedles.

His relationship with – and views on – food have become centred around his masculinity:

He has managed to insert, through performance of the great feat of eating Vietnamese or Tunisian or Parisian food, the neurotic notion that eating is best understood as a competition or conquest – man versus food. Why choose to merely ingest, he asks, when you can vanquish?

Although I agree with Adler’s point that it’s a pity that he feels the need to dress up his opinions on food in a kind of gung-ho machismo because much of what he says is worth listening to, it was time that someone called out Bourdain for his casual sexism. Bourdain seems to insist that good cooking can only be produced by kitchens overseen by obsessive, potentially murderous alpha males caught up in a kind of adolescent, On the Road-like existential struggle with the meaning of existence. Women – unless they behave like men – are to be viewed with suspicion, as is the food which he associates with them:

Few chefs can really and truly bake. Most chefs, like me, harbour deep suspicions of their precise, overly fussy, somehow feminine, presentation-obsessed counterparts in the pastry section. All that sweet, sticky, messy, goopy, delicate stuff. Pastry, where everything must be carefully measured in exact measurements – and made the same way every single time – is diametically opposed to what most chefs live and breathe, the freedom to improvise, to throw a little of this and a little of that any damn place they want.

It’s no coincidence that most pastry chefs are women. Bourdain implies that pastry, like women, is difficult, too sweet, boring, and unimaginative: real chefs are men – wild, creative genuises – who cook ‘Flintsone-sized lengths of veal shank,’ understand the value of bones, and who carry long, sharp knives.

For an industry with a reputation for not dealing adequately with charges of ingrained discrimination against women, Bourdain’s attitudes towards food and cooking certainly don’t help. But it’s worth noting that for all the excitement that surrounded the publication of Kitchen Confidential – when it was hailed as a fresh and unconventional take on America’s restaurant world, which it was, to some extent – Bourdain’s views on the relationship between masculinity and food are neither particularly new, nor limited to himself.

There has long been an association between meat-eating and manliness. Until the late eighteenth century, when eating in moderation and a slim physique were connected, increasingly, with the ideal Enlightenment male, a healthy appetite for wine and meat indicated strength and vitality. In England, a taste for roast beef was, as Roy Porter notes, linked to a patriotism which associated roast meat with English vigour and virility. Even a century later, Victorians argued that men’s strong, machine-like bodies needed meaty fuel in order to function efficiently.

Men, in other words, needed to eat ‘man food’ – spicy, strong-flavoured, and rich in protein. This was taken to a logical – or an illogical, depending on your point of view – extreme by the Italian Futurists and Mussolini-enthusiasts FT Marinetti and Luigi Colombo in their 1930 Manifesto of Futurist Cooking. Of course, the document is completely mad – like just about everything Marinetti did – but it’s a useful window on to the ways in which fascists of the 1930s understood gender. As the Italian state recast women as mothers – and only mothers – of the nation, so men were urged to become its warrior-protectors.

Marinetti and Colombo write:

We also feel that we must stop the Italian male from becoming a solid leaden block of blind and opaque density. … Let us make our Italian bodies agile, ready for the featherweight aluminium trains which will replace the present heavy ones of wood iron steel.

Italians should do this, they argue, by giving up pasta:

A highly intelligent Neapolitan Professor, Signorelli, writes: ‘In contrast to bread and rice, pasta is a food which is swallowed, not masticated. Such starchy food should mainly be digested in the mouth by the saliva but in this case the task of transformation is carried out by the pancreas and the liver. This leads to an interrupted equilibrium in these organs. From such disturbances derive lassitude, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism.’

They suggest that rice take the place of pasta. But this is only the first of several ideas for the remaking of food for a faster, more efficient future. Their most significant point was that science should ‘take on the task of providing the body with its necessary calories through equivalent nutrients provided free by the State, in powder or pills, albumoid compounds, synthetic fats and vitamins.’ Not only would this make Italians better-fuelled and more efficient workers, but it would reduce the amount of food they ate.

Those few meals which they would then eat would be, as they write, ‘perfect’. Given the role of Italian women in feeding their families, what Marinetti and Colombo advocate is a kind of man-made food: the dishes they describe for their ‘perfect meals’ – like the Woodcock Mount Rose with Venus sauce – are invented by chefs.

Although their remaining ideas are increasingly ludicrous – ‘The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and others they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination’ and ‘The creation of simultaneous and changing canapés which contain ten, twenty flavours to be tasted in a few seconds’ – their association of ‘perfect’ cooking with men, and homely, everyday cooking with women, was – and is – hardly unusual.

A great deal has been written about the irony that while most of the world’s ‘top chefs’ – whatever we may mean by that – are male, the overwhelming majority of people who cook to feed their families are female. I think that this distinction is something of an oversimplification: while it is certainly true that the most Michelin-starry chefs are still male, this is changing, albeit slowly. More importantly, the chefs and cooks who have had the greatest impact on the way we all cook in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have, arguably, been women: Constance Spry, Marguerite Patten, Delia Smith, and Madhur Jaffrey in Britain; Julia Child and Martha Stewart in the US; Nitza Villapol in Cuba; Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer in Australia; and Ina Paarman, Ina de Villiers, and Lynn Bedford Hall in South Africa.

Moreover, there has been a recent and relatively widespread decrease in tolerance for the antics of bullying, super-macho male chefs. Gordon Ramsay’s spectacular fall from grace – the collapse of his business empire, the decline in quality of his restaurants – is a particularly good example of this. Adler’s take-down of Bourdain is part of this trend – and it’s particularly telling that Bourdain devotes his highest praise to Ramsay (‘England’s greatest chef’) in A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (2001), excusing and celebrating Ramsay’s reputation as a bully on the grounds of gender:

He’s doing what everyone told him growing up that only women should do. … You better have balls the size of jack-fruits if you want to cook at a high level, where an acute sense for flavour and design, as much as brutality and vigilance, is a virtue. And be fully prepared to bulldoze any miserable cocksucker who gets in your way.

This kind of macho chest-beating now feels distinctly passe. The male celebrity chefs of the late 2000s and early 2010s are an altogther nicer, kinder group of chaps: from earth-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and home-cooking dad Jamie Oliver, to shambling Valentine Warner and lovely Nigel Slater. We have cerebral, thoughtful Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal.

I’m not absolutely sure what this shift in public taste suggests – and it’s certainly part of a wider, cultural change, which has seen Ryan Gosling and James Franco replace Sylvester Stallone and Steven Segal as male icons. It’s also occurred at the same time as the emergence of a food trend which can only really be described as ‘dude food’ – food made to appeal to men. Craft beer, the wild enthusiasm for bacon, even the recent rediscovery of the burger, are, I think, driven partly by a belief – held by magazine editors, television producers, and some food writers – that food needs to be made ‘manly’ to appeal to men. Tellingly, most of this is pretty meaty food.

What I find so interesting about dude food is that it’s directed at a generation of young men – my contemporaries and younger – for whom cooking is not necessarily seen as being, as Bourdain noted earlier, something that only women do. Unless I have the good fortune only to have dated, and to be friends with, peculiarly enlightened men, it seems to me that Generation Y men don’t seem to feel that cooking and baking undermine their masculinity. After all, not only were all three finalists on the last series of Great British Bake Off men, but two of them were fairly young. So is dude food a kind of ironic embrace of the manly, meaty food associated with being male since, at least, the seventeenth century – much in the same way that contemporary feminists have reclaimed baking and, crucially, the cupcake – or is it something else altogether? Either way, I can’t imagine that Marinetti would be all that pleased.

Sources

Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury 2000).

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Breast is Best?

On a cold morning in early December last year, I found myself sitting in the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution in London, looking at pages and pages of breasts.

Pausing occasionally to wonder at the collection of life choices which had led to this moment, I scanned these black and white photographs of lactating women from the 1920s and 1930s, attempting to understand the set of criteria according to which they were categorised into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ breasts.

The pictures were taken and kept by the Mothercraft Training Centre in London, and were intended for nurses and other healthcare practitioners working with mothers and young babies. Informed by the programme of scientific childrearing developed by the New Zealand doctor Truby King during the first decade of the twentieth century, the Centre’s staff promoted breastfeeding as the best way of providing babies with adequate nutrition.

In King’s view, breastfeeding needed to be approached scientifically. Mothers should not feed on demand but, rather, according to a strict schedule, depending on the age of the infant. This feeding by the clock was a technique aimed as much at mothers as it was at shaping obedient and self-reliant babies and young children.

Like other specialists in the relatively new field of paediatrics, King believed that mothers were irrational and emotional, and inclined to follow what he characterised as the unscientific and unsanitary advice provided by their female relatives. By breastfeeding in King’s ‘scientific’ manner, mothers could learn to be rational creatures.

In King’s view, not only were there right and wrong ways of breastfeeding, but also good and bad breasts. The photographs in the Mothercraft Training Centre’s collection were meant to help nurses identify the link between the shape of women’s breasts and the ways they would feed their babies.

I was reminded of these photographs this week by the most recent cover of Time magazine, which features 26 year-old Jamie Lynn Grumet breastfeeding her son. She is young, slim, and wears a skimpy top, and her child is a sturdy three year-old.

The debate which erupted around the cover focussed on the age of the boy: wasn’t it weird, asked some, for a mother to be feeding so old a child? The picture – deliberately, I think – provoked this controversy by upsetting contemporary notions of what nurturing motherhood should look like.

But what interested me is that Time chose this particular photograph for its cover. The edition’s focus is not, in fact, on breastfeeding. It’s about a popular childrearing guide The Baby Book (1992) written by William Sears, which advocates that mothers and babies remain as close together as possible for as long as possible. Kate Pickert explains:

While the concept sounds simple, the practicalities of attachment parenting ask a great deal of mothers. The three basic tenets are breast-feeding (sometimes into toddlerhood), co-sleeping (inviting babies into the parental bed or pulling a bassinet alongside it) and ‘baby wearing,’ in which infants are literally attached to their mothers via slings. Attachment-parenting dogma also says that every baby’s whimper is a plea for help and that no infant should ever be left to cry.

Hilariously lampooned by Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go, attachment parenting has been the subject of extensive and frequently ferocious debate. Breastfeeding, though, is only one feature of this particular mode of parenting. So why the cover on Time? It’s partly because photographs of breastfeeding women still – depressingly – provoke argument. As Jill Lepore writes, there’s a long history of banning magazines which print pictures of breastfeeding women:

Like its historical antecedents – a centrefold in a 1938 issue of Life called ‘The Birth of a Baby,’ and another, in 1965, called ‘The Drama of Life’ – it has gotten a great deal of attention. Sales have been brisk. Interest has been prurient. Outrage is all the rage.

Lifes ‘Birth of a Baby’ issue was banned all over the country (but not before selling seventeen million copies). Overnight, Gallup conducted a nationwide poll, asking: ‘In your opinion, do these pictures violate the law against publication of material which is obscene, filthy or indecent?’ (Twenty-four per cent of respondents said yes; seventy-six per cent no.) A generation later, the photographs on the 1965 cover, ‘The Drama of Life’ were shipped into outer space on board the Voyager (but not before selling eight million copies in four days). Each gave rise to criticism, some of it quite wonderful. The week after Life published ‘The Birth of a Baby,’ The New Yorker published a parody, called ‘The Birth of an Adult,’ written by EB White. ‘The Birth of an Adult is presented with no particular regard for good taste,’ White wrote. ‘The editors feel that adults are so rare, no question of taste is involved.’

‘Respectable’ news magazines often print photographs of women with semi-covered breasts. If these usually sexualised images of women are tolerated, why do pictures of breastfeeding women provoke such disgust? Given that the World Health Organisation and many governments advise mothers to breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months of life, it seems strange that breastfeeding women should be regarded as a kind of social embarrassment.

Indeed, Facebook’s decision to treat photographs of women breastfeeding as pornography, and women’s experiences of being forced out of public spaces when breastfeeding, seem to suggest that the issue is connected to how women’s bodies are understood socially.

Our bodies are socially and culturally constructed. As South Africa has seen over the past fortnight, the portrayal of the President’s penis in Brett Murray’s painting ‘The Spear’ has provoked outrage partly because it defies taboos around nudity in some South African communities and is seen as being part of a long history of white exploitation of black bodies.

Depictions of breastfeeding women are relatively common in art before the early twentieth century. These were meant to celebrate women as mothers – in a role which most believed celebrated women’s God-given and ‘natural’ role on earth. The photographs of lactating breasts in the Mothercraft Training Centre collection were intended for medical purposes – as were the pictures of breastfeeding mothers in mothercraft publications. I wonder if it’s possible to link the worldwide decline in breastfeeding during the 1940s and 1950s to the decreasing tolerance for the portrayal of breastfeeding women in popular publications? As breasts have become increasingly sexualised in advertising and the media, has this accompanied a discomfort with the idea that they can also be used to nourish and to nurture?

Although decades apart, there are similarities between the attitudes which informed mothercraft and those behind the Time cover: that women’s bodies are not their own to control. The Time cover suggests, firstly, that breastfeeding in public is not only worthy of comment, but also freakish – that it should be done within the secluded confines of the home. And, secondly, it implies that when women are in charge of raising their children, they behave irrationally: that they embrace ‘gurus’ and are ‘driven to extremes’. There is nothing on this cover to suggest that this mother chose – calmly and carefully – to feed and to care for her child in this way.

Further Reading

Marilyn Yalom, A History of the Breast (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997).

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.