I’m going to describe an image to you, and I want you to think about where you’ve seen it in the last few years.
There’s a man — maybe wiry, maybe with a potbelly; either way, his forearms are sinewy and covered with tattoos. The sleeves of his flannel are rolled up. He stands at a reclaimed wood table, where he’s stuffing thyme in a fish, or lighting an orange peel on fire, or brining a brisket for homemade pastrami. You can almost smell the sandalwood oil emanating from his beard.
I’ll tell you where you’ve seen it in the last few years: fucking everywhere.
That’s because we’ve reached the time when companies have finally realized that male foodies are a thing. These are men who not only love elaborate and well-made food, but also cook it, and not just on a grill (George Foreman or otherwise).
If you’re rolling your eyes at this, two things: One, I know the word “foodie” is as annoying at this point as the word “hipster,” but you do know what I mean. And two, I know that there have been dude foodies for a long time — much, much longer than companies have used it as a marketing strategy. There’s probably a great argument to be made about how male foodies have existed since the beginning of males eating food, but for now we’ll focus on a time slightly after the dawn of humanity: the 1920s.
Pop culture researcher Sherrie A. Inness wrote about the rise of the male cook during the 20s in her book Gender and Cooking:
Cookbook publishers, magazine writers, food processing companies, grocery stories, and kitchen appliance manufacturers devoted most of their attention — and their recipes — to the married middle-class female consumer, presumably the person in charge of the family’s daily meals. But during the 1920s and 1930s, popular household magazines also regularly discussed and depicted male culinary adventures. A significant number of cookbooks authored by men appeared on the market in the 1920s and 1930s as well.
But because, as is still the case today, cooking was considered more of an optional skill for men, men usually didn’t cook because they had to. Instead, they cooked for fun. Inness demonstrated this with a comparison of men’s and women’s meatloaf recipes, noting that the recipes for women usually were about finding a cost-friendly way to feed the family, but:
Meatloaf recipes for “the man in the kitchen” certainly did not represent a simple, thrifty family dinner, or a tasty way to use up odds and ends. The meatloaf’s creative possibilities, as described by cookbooks for women, rarely exceeded a simple stuffing or layer of biscuit dough. But in cookery instruction for men, meatloaf usually called for somewhat exotic ingredients, fine grades of meat, and required far more work than meatloaves in cookery instruction for women.
This specific example, in fact, is at play in my favorite for-men cookbook from the time, 1922’s The Stag Cookbook. The book is a collection of recipes from famous men of the era, and mathematician and engineer Charles P. Steinmetz submitted his recipe for a meatloaf that included “Beef, veal, and pork (sirloin steak and chops).” To this, the intrepid chef added chopped bacon and then topped the whole shebang with a cup of cream.
There are other bits of “foodie” flair in The Stag Cookbook. In fact, in the book’s very first entry, author and politician Meredith Nicholson does the thing that is perhaps most essential to being a foodie in any era: pretentiously shitting on other people’s lazy choices. In this case, Nicholson craps all over the chafing dish:
I beg not to be confused with the type of bachelor club man who is a perfect wizard with the chafing dish. I have always viewed those birds with suspicion. Their tricks are few and easy of accomplishment — stunts with mushrooms, or chicken a la king done nonchalantly in a dinner coat. I sing my fiercest hymn of hate of those persons.
You can almost hear the echo of your one friend who gets angry when the bartender doesn’t slap the mint before putting it in his cocktail. To be fair, though, not all of the entries in The Stag Cookbook are so high-end. For example, Dr. Livingston Farrand’s description of his favorite food—sausage and griddle cakes—was so poor that the editor had to explain the entire recipe in an editorial note.
But whether the recipes are high-end or low-class, one thing that’s a delight about The Stag Cookbook is that it doesn’t feel the need to handhold scared men through the fear of losing all their testosterone if they start cooking. Perhaps this is because the book is from an era before women started moving into the workforce en masse, which required more men to step up to kitchen duty. But it’s a pitfall that many modern cookbooks for men fall into. The introduction to 2000’s The Real Man’s Cookbook, for example, reads like the author was afraid a bunch of neighborhood boys were going to come beat him up just for turning on the oven, with lines like, “Many men, in these trying times of feminism, are forced to fend for themselves,” and “Being the cook of the house, I also feel an urgent need to lay to rest notions of cooking as a pansy sport.”
Meanwhile, 2012’s Man Meets Stove repeatedly stresses that cooking is a good way to have sex with women, with lines like, “We can tell you how to make a girl gasp with ecstasy with nothing more than a spoon,” as if no man would be convinced that eating good food is reason enough alone to cook.
These examples demonstrate the most manly thing about The Stag Cookbook and 1920s male cooks in general: that the sign of a “real man” foodie is cooking without feeling like you have to justify it.
Meg Favreau is a Los Angeles–based writer of funny, sad, and strange things. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Table Matters, Someecards, a sketch comedy show for Vine stars and her website, megfavreau.com.