Right now, three different male Facebook friends of mine are showing off their recent culinary achievements. Ron embarked on a two-day chicken project involving a "refrigerator bath" and a "hot sauna." My high school buddy Brian "brined a whole chicken for eight hours in Sam Adams cranberry lambic, brown sugar, and spices, then roasted [it] crispy golden brown." And Garin, an acquaintance in Los Angeles, updated his " 'Cook This' nights archive" album, which shows carefully plated and garnished meals or neat piles of ingredients positioned alongside his prized, expensive Japanese knives.
The scale, the endurance, the adjectives! The specialized ingredients and gear! Now that men are starting to take over the kitchen, cooking has become a kind of extreme sport, involving wild game and feats of endurance. And like every other specialized hobby, "manly cooking" now has its own magazine. Last fall, as the recession decimated the New York publishing world and American cooks of varying commitment levels mourned the loss of Gourmet, the German publisher Grüner + Jahr dished up a new magazine, called BEEF!, with a tag line that translates: "for men with taste."
The first issue serves as a manifesto for a men's cooking movement—in which fish are grilled with their heads on, espresso is brewed at exactly the right temperature, animals are self-butchered, and women have no place in the kitchen. The magazine provides thorough bylaws for starting your own men's cooking club that include the line, "If a woman is invited to a meeting of a men's cooking club, either a couple of guys chipped in to get another member a stripper for his birthday, or the evening's shot ..." The tone is something like Cooks Illustrated meets Thrillist, and the attitude is just short of sexist. Not only are the women not allowed in the kitchen but their presence is an affront as much as if they'd walked into the post-game locker room.
The cover displays a juicy cut of expensive-looking steak. The first article, "Off With the Hide," is accompanied by a full-page shot of a rabbit hanging from its hind legs and step-by-step photo-illustrated instructions on how to skin, butcher, and prepare the furry critter. There's a feature called "Knives To Die For" that plants knives priced up into four figures in noirish art-directed crime scenes, a bloody look at the global fish market, and a science-heavy handbook to wine.
The only place women have in the magazine are in the meditation "Can You Cook a Woman Into Bed?" which features sexy pictures of a naked woman adorned with the Latin names of ingredients. A "He Cooks, She Cooks" column imagines how a man and a woman would prepare something differently—in this issue, espresso. (She absentmindedly fixes an instant, caffeine-free coffee while gabbing on her cell phone. He performs a ritual: hand-selecting perfect coffee beans out of a specially prepared blend, manually [ha, ha: man-ually] grinding them, laying out his cup and saucer just so, and so on.)
The idea of the men's cooking club started 12 years ago, when some buddies were sitting around in a living room, lamenting the lack on any good sports on TV. They were listening to the women in the kitchen, when one of the men suggested they could cook sometime. The others looked at him in disbelief, as if he'd suggested they all start to wax the hair off their arms or some such "ominous lady stuff," writer Jen Clasen recalls. The guys eventually made their way into the kitchen, where they took up some aprons and knives and found themselves discussing whether you use parsley leaves or the more rugged stems. They "had a blast," Clasen recalls, and their cooking club was born.
BEEF! is careful to differentiate men's cooking from what their wives and girlfriends do. Jan Spielhagen writes in his editor's letter that the magazine "goes into detail and offers more than 'easy pasta recipes your kids will love.' Because we don't want it to be easy; we want it to be hard. Because pasta is boring, unless you're making it yourself. Because children have nothing to do with men's cooking. We want to know more about the pressure in the espresso machine, how bisons are fed, the sharpness of Japanese knives, the global fish market … the new Porsche-design kitchen and and and."
In, BEEF! cooking has nothing to do with domesticity. Instead it's an activity that men should do among men, like game hunting or tackle football, and that women should stay the hell away from. This repositioning recalls the rebranding, in recent years, of traditionally "female" products, usually with lots of muscular graphics and words like "sport" or "extreme" or "performance" or "ultimate," so that they appeal to a male audience. Think Pepsi Max and Coca-Cola Zero, with their black-and-silver labels and eschewing of the word "diet." It's still Diet Coke, more or less. But extreme! Tough! Based in science!
In her 1983 book The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, Barbara Ehrenreich writes about Playboy's debut issue in 1953, in which Hugh Hefner "announced his intention to reclaim the indoors for men." She quotes his first editorial, in which he writes, "Most of today's 'magazines for men' spend all their time out-of-doors—thrashing through thorny thickets or splashing about in fast flowing streams. … But we don't mind telling you in advance—we plan spending most of our time inside. WE like our apartment. … We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex."
Ehrenreich posits Playboy as a weapon in men's "losing battle against 'female domination,' " which had driven men out of the house entirely, leaving their "gold-digging," stay-at-home wives to seize the man's paycheck and control the home to boot. Playboy suggested men resist conformity and matrimonial indebtedness, and rise above the battle, by creating a new kind of indoors that was better and more fun than what women had invented—with men at their rightful place at the head of it.
The Playboy competitor True tried to fight the same battle from within the confines of marriage, with the editor saying at the time that his magazine "stimulates the masculine ego at a time when man wants to fight back against women's efforts to usurp his traditional role as head of the family."
One could argue that man's role as head of the family has never been more endangered than it is today. Where in the Playboy era men had been forced out of the home, now they've been forced back in, thanks in no small part to the "mancession" that's left them disproportionately out of work, with women poised to outnumber them in the workforce.
By masculinizing cooking, those men who make a hobby of it are not diminished by having to do it. It gives them an arena to practice it with other men. And maybe it gives them a way to beat women at their own game.