The Academic Who Studies the Clichéd Language of Cookbooks for Men

According to these recipes, you’re either about to get laid or be crowned Father of the Year

“The way I see it, a way to a man’s heart is through his zipper. The way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach.”

So begins Will Cook For Sex: A Guy’s Guide to Cooking, a 2010 cookbook marketed to men. Another, Eat What You Want and Die Like a Man: The World’s Unhealthiest Cookbook, claims its recipe for Champagne Chicken will “melt the elastic in women’s panties” and that preparing the right dish for women “may mean the difference between ‘some’ and ‘none.’”

What, though, of other men? The ones for whom cooking wasn’t just about getting laid. Dads, for example. How did cookbooks talk to them — when sustenance for their progeny, not sex, was their main goal?

Jason Nolen, a masculinities scholar and PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin, was curious where dude-oriented culinary archetypes intersect. So he studied two kinds of cookbooks: those targeting men generally (e.g., Eat Like a Man: The Only Cookbook a Man Will Ever Need) and those targeting dads specifically (e.g., Dad’s Own Cookbook).

I recently spoke with Nolen about why so many cookbooks aimed at men read like a pick-up artist’s manual; how some men flex their culinary pecs to demonstrate dominance over other men; and how making dinner is related to the growing trend of men starting to not just do household labor, but emotional labor as well.

How has men’s cooking traditionally been portrayed?
Throughout the 20th century, men’s non-professional cooking was portrayed as an exceptional or irregular activity (reserved for tailgates, birthday parties, poker nights, camping, family trips, etc.). In other words, when a man cooks, especially when he cooks for others, there must be some justification for it — like when his wife is out of town or because her cooking is so bad that he has no choice but to cook if he wants to eat good food. It’s also been portrayed as something men do in the pursuit of sex or romance.

Is it any different when the cookbooks are geared toward dads as opposed to single men?
The biggest difference is the high frequency of references to men cooking for their children in the “dads’ cookbooks” compared to the nearly complete absence of such references in the “men’s cookbooks.” Perhaps it’s unsurprising that there would be references to cooking for children in books targeted to dads, but there’s such a stark contrast between the two collections. There were only two or three references total to men cooking for children in the men’s cookbook.

There also was a big difference in the reasons given for why men were cooking. In the men’s cookbooks, they were typically seen as cooking in order to receive something in return (praise, recognition, sex, getting “out of the doghouse”). Whereas in the dads’ cookbooks, men were portrayed as cooking in order to provide for the needs of children — or at an even more basic level, because that’s simply what parents do for their children. In a sense, gender was often pushed to the background in the dads’ cookbooks, which is common in portrayals of men in many contexts (think doctor vs. “female doctor”), but not in traditionally feminized contexts like the home kitchen, where women are the unmarked gender and men’s presence is seen as exceptional.

You hinted at it earlier, but personally, I was struck by how much the cookbooks for men (not dads) are all about getting laid. It felt like I was reading a pickup artist bible from the 1990s.
It’s incredibly common in men’s cookbooks for men’s cooking to be portrayed as a strategy of sexual conquest. It’s interesting that this justification for men’s cooking not only makes it clear that men don’t do daily, care-work-oriented cooking, it also reinforces the heterosexuality of the male cook. Masculinity scholars have shown, across many different contexts, that heterosexuality is a fundamental prerequisite of conventional masculinity. Since cooking for others in a non-professional context is a feminizing activity (for both men and women), framing men’s home cooking as an instrument of heterosexual conquest pushes back against that feminization and reassures the reader that cooking isn’t necessarily a purely feminine activity.

And if it’s not about getting laid — or providing sustenance for children — it’s about putting together a big-time spread for the boys, right?
Yeah, it’s also often framed as being done in order to impress (usually male) friends. The idea that men’s cooking can result in a boost to their social status might seem contradictory, but it makes more sense once we take into account the tendency for women’s cooking to be so taken for granted that only its absence would be noticed, and men’s cooking being impressive in the “I can’t believe you made this!” sense. Women’s cooking (both that they cook and their cooking skill), on the other hand, is so expected that they can’t use it in the same way to impress others, and they especially can’t impress others simply by having taken the time to prepare a dish.

All of this relates back to what Arlie Hochschild refers to as the “economy of gratitude.” She says that men’s household and emotional labor is such a scarce resource that it’s treated as more valuable, and thus, more deserving of praise. That’s what allows men’s cooking to be used instrumentally to receive some form of benefit — sexual or otherwise. It’s also why people are more likely to be impressed when they see a man pushing a stroller than when they see a woman doing so. It’s difficult to imagine telling someone, “I saw a woman earlier today pushing a stroller in the park. What a great mom!” But I know I’m guilty of saying basically the exact same thing about a man.

And yet, the dads’ cookbooks seem to go to great lengths to establish the fact that cooking is a very routine thing for the fatherly male.
Absolutely. They do so in a few ways. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a lot of language that implies that men’s cooking isn’t just a one-off, but rather a routine activity. For instance, there are instructions about creating variety in school lunches, rather than packing the same lunch every day. Similarly, there are instructions for providing children with a balanced diet, which is obviously something that can’t be accomplished with one meal. There are also references to fitting cooking into a busy schedule, which means that men aren’t just cooking when they want to or when it’s fun and enjoyable.

Not to mention, cooking is framed as an element of a larger parenting project. Dads aren’t just cooking for their children; they’re cooking with their children in order to teach them how to cook. And cooking isn’t the only household task men are described as doing. They’re also cleaning, driving kids to after-school activities, helping them with homework and getting them ready for school in the morning.

To your point, Dad’s Awesome Grilling Book even draws an analogy between teaching a son to cook and teaching him to shave.
Again, this is an example of tying cooking to a larger parenting project that includes teaching skills and general socialization.

Does this start to shift the idea of who’s doing all of the emotional labor in heterosexual relationships?
It might. Normalizing men’s routine cooking, care work and emotional labor should be part of the solution to the problem of gender inequality and imbalances in the gender division of labor in particular. It’s not the only thing that would need to be done — structural changes to workplaces would need to be made, too, as well as changes at the level of public policy — but it’s almost certainly a necessary condition for achieving equality.

Normalizing men’s emotional labor can also create more equitable conditions beyond the home — like at work. In many ways that go unnoticed by a lot of men, women in the workplace and other public settings are often expected to do the bulk of emotional labor, even when they occupy the same or similar official roles in the group as other men. They’re usually also tacitly expected to do other types of labor that go beyond the official requirements of their job — e.g., scheduling events, remembering birthdays, ordering food and cleaning up after a lunch meeting.

My hope for the future is that we’ll see a pattern of representation where people of all genders are portrayed as providing care, both paid and unpaid. That would mean, at minimum, representations of unmarried men and men without children providing care for others, and representations that normalize emotionality and care work among young boys, too.