I was watching The Newlywed Game. So sue me for bad taste. But to be honest, I wasn't really paying attention until the bonus round, when after four questions that centered on sexual innuendo, host Bob Eubanks asked the wives: "Of the three traffic-light colors of bell peppers, which one does your husband prefer the most?"
Not only was the query about food, with nothing sexual about it, it was intriguing. Good one, I thought. But then the husbands returned and Eubanks read the question again, with a slight difference: "Of the three traffic-light colors of bell peppers -- red, yellow, or green -- which one do you prefer the most?"
The assumption, naturally, was that while the women would automatically know the colors of bell peppers, the men wouldn't and needed to be told. The women's responses were even more telling. Three out of four guessed their husbands would reply green, because, I suspect, these women were unsure whether their mates knew peppers came in other colors. Astonishingly enough, at least to their wives, these same three hubbies responded that yellow was their favorite type of bell pepper. (For the record the fourth couple didn't match answers either, but since they were in the lead, they won a second honeymoon in Jamaica.)
What this scenario illustrated to me was not that (1) I should stop taking my lunch break at 1:00, or (2) I really need to get myself a hobby, but rather that no matter how enlightened a society we become, we still hold certain perceptions about gender and food. Women are more likely to know about fruits and vegetables. Men thrive on meat and potatoes. Frozen drinks with umbrellas and maraschino cherries are femme. Beer is for boys. Finally, lest we forget, real men don't eat quiche.
I can hear my Lorraine-loving male friends laughing from here, but that wouldn't seem to bother the producers of a new microbrewed beer bottled under the label Fly by Night. They're using that old saw as a marketing tool: "Real men don't eat quiche, and they fly by night." The Texarkana Gazette recently ran a story called "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche ... They Eat Jerky." And in the Augusta Chronicle, columnist Karin Calloway came up with "A Quiche for Real Men." How? By adding ground beef, of course.
Our perceptions about what constitutes female and male dining preferences extends far beyond the quiche question. Even those who don't believe there are things such as "chick food" or "guy food" managed to come up with an example or two after a few seconds of thought. For instance Jonathan Segal, a local lawyer who dines frequently and well, initially scoffed at the idea that women and men favor certain foods based on their gender. "I don't think of food in a male-female way," he says. "I would try most things." Except for pâté, he amends. "I guess I do think pâté is more feminine, perhaps because most women I know seem to enjoy it. Personally I think liver is disgusting."
Arthur Forgette, general manager of the Smith & Wollensky steak house in Miami Beach, dismisses the supposed femininity of food items such as foie gras. "I'll eat pâté, tartare, anything," he says. But when it comes to drinks, the frilly ones are out. "I'm basically a beer-and-wine kind of guy."
Still Forgette has noticed that perceptions -- and misconceptions -- are slowly changing. "While our menu is somewhat more skewed toward the male, traditionally speaking we've noticed that the ladies order the same steaks, the same large cuts, that the guys do. And the guys have no problem ordering seared tuna." And while he admits the restaurant clientele currently is two-thirds male, he claims Smith & Wollensky, firmly in its third year of business, is seeing more female customers, especially corporate types. (Perhaps the way to break the glass ceiling is not to pound on it with a high heel but to smash it with a steak knife.)
Indeed the all-American guy knows where his beef is and eats it often. "I have trouble with my male patients who eat this way," claims Hilit Mechaber, M.D., an internist with the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial system. "Men are much more resistant to changing their diets -- giving up red meat for fish -- than women. Of course it's a gross generalization, but women willingly eat nonmeat alternatives, read labels, and buy low-fat foods. If they're not vegetarians to begin with, many men won't even consider tofu and vegan-type foods. Then there's the real chauvinist, who tells me: 'I just eat whatever my wife cooks for me.'"
Things are different in Europe, notes psychotherapist Lisa Segal (no relation to Jonathan Segal). Abroad, men are more acclimated to gourmet cuisine. "They order duck, which American men generally don't do. It's environmental and cultural," Segal emphasizes. "[American men] do have the capability to be passionate about food, but they simply don't have the exposure." Thus Eubanks has to explain the colors of bell peppers to our menfolk.
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But it's not only men who hold certain perceptions dear. A new millennium feminist Website called The Third WWWave (www.io.com/~wwwave) has put out a call for "real men [who] love exotic food and aren't afraid to try new dishes." The problem with this statement is that it assumes real men won't experiment with new foodstuffs, which often is (as with every stereotype) a fallacy. Segal herself notices that while she enjoys spending time with "men who order anything with lots of different flavors," she can't help but see them "as kind of feminine." Indeed, she says frankly: "I'm impressed how many men like sushi."
Then, of course, there are the psycho-social reasons underlying our food behavior. Women might seem to prefer fruits and vegetables because we hold ourselves to a cultural weight ideal, and these foods have been said to help us keep thin. Men, on the other hand, "are more inclined to eat crap," jokes Jonathan Segal. "We'll eat anything." (Except liver, it appears.) In addition in some cultures, men dine first, taking the choicest food items for themselves, while women are left with the dregs; men get the meat and women the veggies and grains.
My personal theory is Jungian in origin. I believe we do adhere to cultural, societal, and environmental influences when it comes to making our food choices, and that these decisions appear to be a result of gender. But I also can't shake the feeling that males and females have collective-unconscious memories dating back to when we were divided into hunters and gatherers. The hunters -- men -- naturally ate what they killed, while women sampled what they gathered. Protein was important for stamina, which the hunters required, so they in turn ate more of the kill. Women, on the other hand, needed to catalogue every twig, leaf, and root out there to divine the poisonous from the nonpoisonous. So by nature they became more experimental. These days we re-enact our roles in restaurants. Men will take the steak. Women will choose the halibut with wheatberry pilaf and pea shoots sautéed with roasted garlic, thank you very much.
Or not. I'm lucky enough to live in a sector of society where there's no such thing as girlie drinks and chick food, where the men not only eat quiche but make it from scratch. I've begun to notice, however, that only my colleagues and dining companions seem to feel so free. The other night, while reviewing a restaurant in Palm Beach County, I watched the waiter's eyebrows rise when my three male guests ordered fish and chicken dishes, and I requested the sixteen-ounce pork chop. I could tell he was thinking something along the lines of: "Yikes, this girl is a real pig." I can only hope that one day he finds himself on The Newlywed Game and loses that trip to Jamaica on the strength of a question about bell peppers.