Has TV Made Cooking Macho?

This morning GMP contributor Ron Cowie emailed me the NYT review of Man with a Pan. I have to admit that I had spent the whole morning gobbling up the entire lengthy story, also in the Times, full of smut about celebrity bad boy chef Todd English called "Chef in Motion." Shows what kind of good man I really am (sorry dear reader, I am a poor sap like the rest of the world just looking for a little cheap thrill from the morning paper).

Anyhow, Dwight Garner's review of the New Yorker Editor John Donohue's collection of essay by guys from Stephen King to "Mohammed Naseehu Ali, a writer from Ghana, describes how his father, a Muslim man with three wives, learned to cook after suspecting one of those wives was poisoning his food" is a fascinating look at how cooking has become, suddenly, manly.

"The guy downtown who makes pickles and collects artisanal tattoos on his forearms probably went to Brown and has a failed novella on his laptop. We need a new term for these humans. Bleu collar?" Garner asks. "When I was in college we called this kind of apron-wearing dude (he made tofu scramble) a SNAG: a sensitive New Age guy." But he concludes now, "There's new glory to be had in putting masterly meals on the family table. And where there's new glory to be seized, men -- like pirates eyeballing an oil tanker off the Somali coast -- want in on it."

This got me thinking. About cooking and manhood. I grew up in a feminist household where we as teenage boys were expected to cook dinner for the family once a week. You don't cook you don't eat. Simple as that. Then in my 30s I was a single dad with two little kids for six years. I had to cook for them (and chase them around the living room to make sure they actually ate something).

But what it really made me think about was how the culture of cooking and gender has changed in the last 15 years. In 1993, when I was about 12 and the CFO of The Providence Journal Company, our head of television was a bald headed sweet-heart of a man named Jack Clifford. The first time I met him he hugged me. When he wanted you to do a deal he hugged you extra long.

Jack loved chili. He entered many chili cooking contests. Sometimes he would test out his newest recipe on the executive team at the Journal just for fun. One day he was serving up a new batch of chili in our board room while we talked about some transaction completely unrelated to food. Steve, one of the junior finance guys on the team, ate some of Jack's chili and fell over like he had been hit by a sniper's bullet. He was having trouble breathing.  We called 911 who thankfully arrived in time. Steve had no idea but he was deathly allergic to cumin. From then on Jack called it his "Killer Chili" recipe.

Beyond making chili Jack had this idea for a Food Network. He convinced enough of us to launch it on Thanksgiving Day, 1993, with a bunch of relatively unheard of chefs including a guy from New Orleans name Emeril Lagasse, who quickly developed a following for saying "BAM!" whenever he got really excited, which was pretty much every other minute.

The rest is cooking, and cultural, history. The Food Network now has 90 million subscribers, has become the ESPN of cooking networks, and spawned any number of outrageous reality cooking shows. One of the things that Jack had in mind, though, was that he felt Julia Childs appealed mainly to women but cooking really was just as much a male as female endeavor. "We all love to eat," he used to tell me.

And so it is, perhaps helped with the demographic and cultural shifts that have accompanied the move from men as breadwinner to stay-at-home dads. I also think its interesting to note the way male chefs have become celebrity icons not only as bad boys but in fact cooks who do good. I am thinking specifically of Jamie Oliver who employes ex-cons in his restaurants and has done network television shows in which he goes into the most obese parts of America to try to teach kids to save their lives by eating better.

If men like Jamie Oliver are in some way descendants of Jack Clifford's chili contests, I am proud to have been hanging around when it all got started. And just for the record my buddy Ron, if you sent that article over because you have a sneaking suspicion that I am a SNAG... guilty as charged my brother. Guilty as charged.

Originally published The Good Men Project