Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Plant Restaurant, Asheville, NC and the Masculine Politics of Meat

So let's just put our hands together and give a big round of applause for Plant for placing in the following categories in the Mountain Xpress's Best of 2012 edition:

1st place: Best New Restaurant

2nd place: Best service; options for special diets (gluten free, lactose free, etc.), Top Chef: Jason Sellers

3rd place: Favorite Restaurant; Best vegetarian 

In a town that boasts 358 restaurants on Trip Advisor (of which Plant is, ahem, numero uno), them's not shabby stats for a place that hadn't even been open a year when voting started.  

Jason Sellers

Here's what the Xpress had to say about he Plant: 

"The crowd at Plant is difficult to describe. On a given day, you might see a group of college students, a table of ladies who lunch or even Congressman Dennis Kucinich and family. As Xpress readers know, the clientele varies because Plant offers something for everyone, even though they serve only vegan foods. Chef Jason Sellers plays up the plant-based components of traditional flavor combinations to create dishes that are at once familiar and exciting. Plant doesn’t overwhelm diners with the merits of a vegan diet; the restaurant simply serves great food from its chic open kitchen."

With Moby, who ate there twice in one day while he was here for Moogfest

With Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, who came to visit us

I've been writing for the past two weeks or so a chapter that I've titled "Men, Meat, and Hegan Identity: Veganism and the Discourse of Masculinity."  It's all about the way that masculine identity, at least in the United States, is a very fragile construct, dependent in no small part on men's consumption of meat, particularly red meat, and about the social penalties enacted against men who choose not to do this most manly of things.  

The first part of Carol J. Adams’s foundational The Sexual Politics of Meat is titled “The Patriarchal Texts of Meat,” and focuses on the various historical narratives that shape our belief that meat is the substrate of male strength and power.  She carefully deconstructs a vast array of texts that includes fairy tales, unwritten food taboos, and cookbooks, as well as historical narratives of colonial domination that champion white superiority in order to expose as fictitious the notions that meat is male food and that men need meat in order to obtain and maintain patriarchal power.  She notes early in the section that despite the fact that people with power have always eaten meat, the narratives that support that reality work to undermine and disempower various other groups.  She notes that “dietary habits proclaim class distinctions, but they proclaim patriarchal distinctions as well,” equating second-class foods – vegetables, grains, fruits – with women.  Therefore, “the sexism in meat eating recapitulates the class distinction with an added twist: a mythology permeates all classes that meat is a masculine food and meat eating is a male activity” (26). 

In addition to looking at the ways that meat is constructed as essentially male, Adams also examines how the mythology that codes meat in this way is also both an “index of racism” (29) and a mechanism that enables and justifies the colonization and subjugation of non-Western cultures by the West.  She cites nineteenth-century medical doctor James Beard’s assertion in support of a meat-based diet to enable intellectual and physical progress among the English: “the rice-eating Hindoo and Chinese and the potato-eating Irish peasant are kept in subjection by the well-fed English,” who constitute a “nation of beef-eaters” (qtd. in Adams 31).  Since its publication in 1991, Adams’s work has remained the standard bearer in the increasingly relevant fields of ecocritism and animal studies, even as subsequent scholars have built upon her premise.

Despite the fact that, by and large, men have been able to “enjoy eating as a value free behavior” (Buerkle 253), an increasing scholarly and scientific focus on the gendered nature of diet combined with women’s increased access to traditional male spheres of influence situates men’s dietary choices – like women’s – as political.  In “Meat, Morals, and Masculinity,” Ruby and Heine characterize male meat eating as “archetypal” (448), and they examine the paradoxical nature of meat, noting that “meat, long considered both nutritionally dense . . . and high in pathogen risk, is . . . the most cherished and most often tabooed category of food . . . and it is strongly linked with cultural conceptions of masculinity and power” (447).   The belief in meat – particularly red meat – as essential to both manhood and power is so deeply entrenched and codified, particularly in the United States, that the proven health risks associated with its consumption have done little to deter its mythological power. 

Richard Rogers, whose study “Beasts, Burgers, and Hummers: Meat and the Crisis of Masculinity in Contemporary Television Advertisements” situates nature as the absent referent in several pro-beef television commercials (in that these commercials constitute a backlash both against feminism and environmentalism), attributes the power of the mythology of meat to the pervasive discourse that surrounds its contemporary articulation: “from literature to everyday speech, from art to advertisements, the articulation of hegemonic masculinity with the consumption of meat is pervasive” (281).  To undermine or challenge such a culturally pervasive archetype is an attempt to open a space in which to discuss alternative masculinities – Rogers, for example, examines the category of “metrosexuality” – but it is also, given the “precarious state” of masculinity, “easily lost and requiring constant validation” (Ruby and Heine 450), to invite resistance and to engender a profound backlash.

Despite the fact that a large body of work about men, meat, and gender exists, according to Jemál Nath, “the experience of vegetarian men who reject the social and cultural norm of eating animals is harder to discern” (261) and that for men, “choosing to eat a plant-based diet is . . . transgressing dominant cultural and gastronomic norms of Western society and all of the meat-eating values invested in those norms” (263).  In the U.S. and Britain, where research has shown a strong perceptional link between the consumption of muscle meat (like steak) and masculinity,[i] and men to choose not to eat red meat are viewed as weak. 

Into this discourse about meat and masculinity that consistently asserts that while vegetarians are viewed more virtuous than their omnivorous counterparts, they are also perceived as less masculine,[ii] men who choose to be vegan face immense social pressure either to acquiesce and eat meat or experience ridicule, judgment, and ostracism from their fellow men.  While Nath discovered that some non-meat eating men find it empowering to subvert the dominant dietary norm (274) – and one could argue, after all, that to be male and refuse to eat meat is one of the bravest things a man can do, given the societal pressure to do otherwise – the pressure to render veganism as appropriately masculine has generated a counter-discourse of “heganism,” or male veganism.  

And there’s a lot more to this discussion, but for now, here’s Jason again:

With a scythe.  And apologies for the objectification.

Like I said, at least from where I'm sitting, being male and refusing to eat meat: pretty studly.

[i] See Rozin et al. for more information about this study.

[ii] See Ruby and Heine, p. 448.

Works Cited
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.  New York: Continuum, 1990.  Print.

Buerkle, C. Wesley. “Metrosexuality Can Stuff It: Beef Consumption as Hetero-Masculine Fortification.” Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World. Eds. Psyche Williams Forson and Carole Counihan. Routledge, 2011. 251-64.  Print.

Nath, Jemál.  “Gendered Fare: A Qualitative Investigation of Alternative Food and Masculinities.”  Journal of Sociology 47.3 (2010): 261-278.  Print.

Rogers, Richard A.  “Beasts, Burgers, and Hummers: Meat and the Crisis of Masculinity in Contemporary Television Advertisements.”  Environmental Communication 2.3 (2008): 281-301.  Print.

Rozin, Paul et al.  “Is Meat Male? “A Quantitative Multimethod Framework to Establish Metaphoric Relationships.” Journal of Consumer Research 39.3 (2012).  Web.  8 October 2012.

Ruby, Matthew B., and Steven J. Heine.  “Meat, Morals, and Masculinity.”  Appetite 56.2 (2011): 447-450.  Print.


  1. Odd coincidence: I was just reading tonight some ponderings in a sociology textbook on "the gender of Valentine's Day." (This bit of news is about 10 years old, so pardon me if I'm behind the times.) Apparently some folks out there on talk radio and the Internet are proposing an alternative to Valentine's Day, hoping to establish March 14 as...

    wait for it...

    Steak and a Blowjob Day.

    Yes, a holiday for That Which Is Most Sacred to Real Men, apparently. Simultaneously curious and grossed out, I did a quick internet search. First hit: a Creative Loafing article that packs in detailed fellatio tips with a recipe for a marinade and chimichurri, along with a big photo of an obscenely thick raw ribeye. No penis pictures, just dead cow.

    (For the curious: the book is _Questioning Gender_ by Robyn Ryle.)

    Update: evidently one can show one's enthusiasm for March 14 by wearing a t-shirt that says "I (heart) BJ" with a heart fashioned from raw meat. Yes, yes, I get it, like everyone else, I've always heard about the love affair between men and meat (RED meat, as you point out, Laura). I just never knew anyone had taken it to the degree of a mock-holiday celebrating carnivore-normativity. And blowjobs.

  2. Wow... Thanks, I think, for sharing that with me. I'm going to go find the book, because I think that this information needs to be included in the larger study that I'm doing. And ick, ick, ick.

  3. Relevant in the areas of "things men should consume" is, of course, the NYT article you posted earlier today on facebook about the tumult at Amherst and (gag!) the t-shirt of a woman being roasted like a pig on a spit. It made me think of this post.