By: Alon Coret
I usually spend holiday dinners with my girlfriend and her family. And of course on such occasions it is important to create good impressions, as well as partake in the specially prepared meal. From my experience, however, this often involves the consumption of meat.
The awkward thing is, I am vegetarian.
Wait. Pause. Why did I think of this as an “awkward” situation? I mean yeah, sure, I may be that slightly annoying guest who does not partake in the central component of the meal. But at the same time, Sarah (my girlfriend) and I have been dating for three years, and her family is not the type to take offence to such trivialities. There must be something else at play, and it took me a while to understand what exactly it is.
After pondering the issue some more, I realized that refusing meat is not about dinner table etiquette so much as it is about gender roles – at least, from my perspective. I have often been told that I “eat like a girl.” Sadly, my liking of quinoa, soy milk, and multigrain cereal is not helping my case. On date nights with Sarah, waiters often confuse our meals: “no, no, no. The steak is for her; I ordered the butternut squash quiche.” Moreover, Sarah’s father formerly served in the Canadian army, towers a good two or three inches above me (and I am already 6’2”), and can probably knock me out with one small punch. He also loves football; I can’t even name two players. Therefore, my choice of dinnertime veggies is the cherry on top of a deficient-in-masculine-gender-stereotypes-yet-needs-to-impress-girlfriend’s-father cake.
So here comes yet another question: why is it that food is gendered in this way? What makes steak and beer “male” foods, and what exactly is “feminine” about fruity drinks and chocolate cravings? And why is it that women outnumber men in meat-free diets – 2:1 among vegetarians and 4:1 among vegans?
A quick Google search came up with an answer I expected: it’s all about evolution. Men, who were traditionally hunters, have grown to see meat as a valued prize. Women, on the other hand, were more involved in gathering roles (e.g. grains, fruits), and thus prefer sweet tastes to bitter ones (strawberry daiquiri, anyone?). Another explanation has to do with protein intake requirements, which are somewhat higher in men than women (and meat is an obvious protein source).
These conjectures left me frustrated. They evoked biological reductionism, and reinforced the notion that we are living 21st-century lives in the bodies of hunter-gatherers. And, of course, they gave backing to the gender stereotypes associated with food – men prize meat, women like sweets. So, then, what does a vegetarian man say to himself? “Yeah, evolution dictates that I should consume meat…but evolution is SO passé. I am, like, post-evolution.” No. And how does a woman who likes traditionally male foods and beverages (e.g. steak, beer) affirm her femininity when our food culture encourages her to eat a zero-percent fat probiotic yogurt?
These are some good questions to which I currently lack answers. But I think that being conscious of the sociocultural context of our foods can help us make choices that step beyond the constraints of evolution and gender. So, whether you choose Turkey or Vurkey, I would like to wish you a wonderful holiday season.
Photo Credit: Levon Biss