Saturday, September 05, 2015

manly meat-eating

Eating meat, some have noted, is a way of asserting masculinity. After all, some men may not cook at all, but they certainly won't hesitate to fire up a grill and burn some burgers into little hockey pucks or dry out some chicken (what L refers to as crimes against meat). In his book Cooked, Michael Pollan pointed out the male-dominated nature of meat-cookery, demonstrated most fully by barbecue competitions and the enthusiasm by which most men exhibit at the chance to eat, say, a steak. There's probably a reason some men I've encountered are horrified by the thought of being a vegetarian, and why more women then men are willing to adopt that lifestyle.

Of course, there are exceptions, but in a culture that values cisgendered expressions of identity, meat-eating becomes a way for (some) men to perform masculinity or assert their manliness through their food choices.

Image result for year of the cowI set up this background to talk a bit more about the latest cooking memoir book I've sped through: Jared Stone's Year of the Cow. Here is a book that meets the requirements to belong to the genre I've been examining, yet he's the first male writer to be added to that list.

Of course, however, his foray into an overwhelmingly woman-dominated literary genre is by buying a whole cow and writing about how he cooked it and the impacts it had on his family.

I mean, just look at how the reviews discuss his book:
A high-octane, thinking-man’s account of one guy’s quest to find meaning in life by cooking a grass-fed steer. The food descriptions and recipes could tempt even a vegan to order steak. You’ll never look at feedlot meat the same way.”— Steven Raichlen, author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and host of PBS’s Primal Grill.
I mean, "high-octane" and "thinking-man's"  and all that celebrating of meat. It fairly screams masculinity at the top of its lungs. And of course, Stone is a writer interested in domesticity--he talks about the delicious food he cooks, he shares his family life with his readers as he and his wife strive to raise their growing family in a high-pressure, busy, hectic world, and he gives recipes to celebrate the extraordinary cow he has purchased.

But some of the similarities with these the types of memoirs written by women fall away under closer examination. Stone focuses a lot of the book to talking about his health and to physical achievements like running barefoot and climbing a mountain. He talks about his career and other pursuits. He cooks a whole cow, for god's sake. While the memoirs written by women also frequently employ a gimicky catch in a bid to grab readers' attentions (and it works well enough, even for me), the focus on meat is one that marks this book as particularly and distinctly masculine.

Which isn't to say that women can't write books about meat--after all, Julie Powell wrote Cleaving about learning butchery. But there it's a foray into a unusual place for women, and she connects her exploration of this world of meat with the challenges to her marriage. (Excuse me while I go download this book to read--the critics eviscerate it in their reviews. I wonder why?)

Stone doesn't ever dig as deeply into these personal relationships. There's not a lot about his past--a theme that features prominently in the memoirs I've been reading--he doesn't talk much about how he fell in love with his wife (another common theme in other cooking memoirs), and there's not really much of a quest for home. He could have talked about the impact of his cooking a lot on his marriage, the ways that the cow alters his relationship and domestic responsibilities, any of these things...yet, a lot of the book is dedicated to his pursuit of better health.

Ultimately, Stone writes an engaging book that reminds readers that our food choices matter. And I think it is an interesting enough book to include in my research as I examine the gendered nature of these kinds of books and what they say about gender roles in cooking, in domesticity, and in the consumers of these texts.

Friday, September 04, 2015

why the strange font choice?

If there's one thing I can't seem to get past, it's the fact that this book I just finished is making strange use of italics. Here, let me show you a picture:

Image result for life from scratch

What on earth is going on here? Why does each section and each chapter title have one letter italicized? Why would someone do that to me? Don't they realize I'm teaching a document design course, and even if I weren't, I'd still find it alarming?

Here's the deal: given my puzzling over the damn font, I focus on that in my discussion rather than telling you about this vaguely interesting book I just finished. I say vaguely interesting because it's enjoyable, but much like the wine I'm currently enjoying, it doesn't stand out in my mind like the magnificent Poor Man's Feast. Daaaaaaamn was that book was good.

I digress.

Sasha Martin sets out to tell the motivations behind her blog, Global Table Adventure, and ends up telling us the story of her rough and fractured childhood. When her mother is compelled to give them up to be raised by friends who seemingly have a more stable home, it sets off a series of tragedies, not to mention the fear and uncertainly young Sasha experiences. She begins to find her way through cooking and eating, rooting her to the happier moments of her poverty-stricken childhood, where pouring cranberry juice on cereal became a treat, not a moment of desperate necessity.

These stories are compelling, and she weaves the recipes and food memories of her young life and her growing up, marriage, and the birth of her daughter. In her later discovery of a measure of happiness and successful relationships, she begins cooking the world, an act that brings her back to the past, joyful and painful memories alike.

Overall, Martin's book has memorable moments and interesting stories, and it ends full of optimism and joy, not to mention some tantalizing recipes, like Cambodian Grilled Eggs that L and I are fascinated by. But it's the strange font that I can't get out of my head. Perhaps I shall inquire of the publisher or the author why they chose to format the titles like that...