Is nothing sacred?!
This post at Jezebel excited my interest, because I had a pre-existing interest in the difference between what people eat with others around, and what they eat when they eat alone. So I listened to this short interview at NPR with Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin, the authors of What We Eat When We Eat Alone. I was looking forward to a few minutes of chuckling good times talking about people who just pour soy sauce on rice and eat that directly, some weirder sandwich attempts, or foods consumed straight out of a can.
But you cannot escape the cold hand of sexism, particularly of the WTF variety. And this short interview was no exception. Even in the world of people eating weird shit just because they’re alone, people have to insist that there’s dramatic gender differences that are almost certainly not there. The authors insist that men and women have drastically different habits when they eat alone, namely that women dice things delicately and men slam things into frying pans, making that food their bitch.
And I was like, really? Because where I come from, that sounds like you’re saying that women chop when they cook and men use frying pans. In my world, these are not only not mutually exclusive behaviors, but they tend to come together. In that you apply knives to food before and occasionally after you apply heat to food. I can’t really think of a better example of selection bias than seeing someone move food from fridge to cutting board to frying pan and thinking that there’s huge differences, because you noticed the part where the ladies slice and the part where the men cook. But I rest assure you, both genders apply knives to food and apply food to pans when cooking. Slamming and delicacy are subjective descriptors, obviously, and if you’re looking for ladies to do something delicately and men to do something aggressively, you’re going to see it, even if they behave exactly the same objectively.
They did not discuss whether or not women masticate while men chew, but I’m sure if we had more time, we’d hear about that.*
I can usually handle gratuitous sexism, because it’s absolutely everywhere. But this one took me by surprise, I think in part because being alone actually reduces the pressure to “perform” gender, and so actually you’ll see fewer gender differences. I expected comical stories particularly about how women, if there aren’t people to perform womanhood for, tend to act less than ladylike in private, farting openly and eating straight out of a can. God knows that when I lived by myself, one of my favorite things to do when I came home from work was open a can of diced tomatoes and eat that directly off saltines with some cream cheese, and call that dinner. Add a glass of wine and you have all four food groups, right? But what I didn’t account for in my assumptions was that the possibility that gender masks slip when we’re alone could provoke anxiety, particularly with anyone who is invested in believing that gender differences in subjective categories like delicacy and aggression are innate and not performative.
And I really think that’s what it was, because the interviewees talked about non-observed and non-measurable aspects like dicing and frying and the relative delicacy and aggression employed. It would be more substantive and likely that men and women have differently gendered food that they indulge on their own a lot more often—maybe men eat meat more than women when alone, or women are more likely to drink a glass of wine while men have a bottle of beer. Certain gender performances become so ingrained that we take them on as actual preferences, and the same thing with certain fears, and I have no doubt that many men would never just pour a glass of wine to drink even while eating a can of cold baked beans, because that behavior is coded as so very feminine in our culture that they fear it even if no one’s watching them.
I honestly suspect that the book isn’t irritating, to be completely fair. I just think the interview got all weird for that moment, and it was hard to really make sense of or recover from the statement that women delicately dice while men slam food around. I’m still interested in the book, because I suspect it has a lot of funny stuff that we didn’t get in the interview. Not about dreary and unlikely gender differences, but the opposite—stories about how quirky and individual people’s tastes are when they’re eating for one. That some people could live on raisin bran or PB&J sandwiches and others actually prepare little dishes for themselves may not say that much about gender but may say a lot about who we are as individuals.
*Cue wingnuts complaining that I don’t think men and women have any differences. Of course they do, and I have a cabinet full of tampons to attest to the fact that I “believe” in these differences. I just object to the silly idea that every single goddamn fucking thing we do is so different that we may as well not be considered the same species, much less be expected to get along or, gasp, be considered equals. We both chew and swallow our food. But I wouldn’t be shocked to hear someone investigating if men and women chew and swallow differently, explaining that god/evolution did this so that women could chew and swallow in a way more suitable to a demure life of home-based servitude.