Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Voracious hunger is a sign of manliness"

Footnoote to two preceding posts, off a snippet from one of the links.

That line, "voracious hunger is a sign of manliness:" Whopper commercials and certain sportsy or fratly subcultures aside, you may not have seen that as being particularly true these days, even though its converse clearly still is. Ever since at least the 80's and the spawn of yuppie culture there's been an uneasy coexistence between the ol' "real men EAT, make strong like OX" and at least a nod or so to the idea of being relatively "healthy," "cut," drinking protein shakes and running on treadmills and shit. There are obviously other factors at work here, class not least of them. Masculinity is still as associated with power as it ever was, but the sleeker and faster advanced technocracy gets, the more likely you are to see power reflected by efficient eating habits and fat-free bodies: the straightforward opulence of a Diamond Jim Brady becomes replaced by the more ascetic ostentation of personal trainers and individually tailored "special" diets, the better to achieve that lean, mean, hard look.

If you -really- want to see hilariously over the top odes to the Manly Appetite, though...well, let's take a trip in the wayback machine, shall we?

I'm reading this anthology called Endless Feasts, a collection of essays from the soon-to-be-defunct magazine Gourmet. (One thing I may or may not have talked about here is: I read food porn. A lot of food porn. While I'm eating, specifically. I have my little habits, which...some other post).

Anyway, in this compilation, there are several essays by one Robert P. Coffin, each more exuberantly masculine than the last. The first two have to do with huntin' and fishin' with one's brothers in the wild, having dispensed with such "suave and civilized meats" as sweetbreads on toast: ripping apart hunks of lobster with one's bare hands, scarfing down deer limbs washed down with whiskey from the bottle, that sort of thing. Very proto-Iron John, very...woodsy.

The third piece, "Down East Breakfast"-- I'll just give you a taste, okay.

The Maine morning meal is like a tune on the bagpipes which calls the stouthearted Scot to war. It is something that must strengthen him deep to his marrow, and only the masculine and downright victuals will do. The ordinary American breakfast, with its precooked and predigested cereals, its hummingbird nectar of citrus, butterflies of bacon, and anemias of eggs, is as much out of place in Maine as...a French breakfast of a dry roll and chocolat chaud... It would be an insult to his oily manhood. Fat is the foe of weather, and fat is the making of Maine's first meal...

...The Maine breakfast is a hefty meal for hefty he-men.

...It begins with a seething and bubbling of pork fat in the skillet or spider. Fat salt pork in chunks, not lean and feminine bacon rashers, is its base.

...The Down East flapjack is the outdoors, masculine, New World crepe Suzette. It is about as much like its relative in Paris, in London, or in our own Sunny South, as an All-American tackle is like a boy in pants six inches long playing with a ten-cent-store football.

...In any case, there must be the cheese. And when I say cheese, I don't mean something that starts out as a mollycoddle of a food for babies, like milk. I mean...calf's head cheese or pig's head cheese. I mean meat...This is strenuous and fine eating, and it makes a "stick-by-the-ribs-Billy" dish that dish that will take a man straight through three cords of beechwood...without a rest and with a song in the heart.

...Naturally--and this breakfast is all nature and good-natured eating--there is a liquid constantly drunk to float all these ships of heavy meats and fish and wheat or buckwheat on. It is tea...It is as black as your hat. It is about as near to the tea drunk as tea parties by women and womanish men as the male in three-cornered pants is to the adult one in overalls that can stand by themselves...

...Some of the older men a bit past their full bloom, or some younger ones not yet come to theirs and having peach fuzz instead of whiskers on their cheeks, dilute this tea with sugar or milk. But the middle and powerful males take its tannin into themselves neat. It galvanizes their "innerds," they say, against the damp and cold...[A] wise saying is that tea is tea only when it puts whiskers on the bottom of the soles of your feet. Maine men's feet have hair on their bottoms so they can cling to their dories and rolling logs...

...The Down East breakfast is the strong meal of strong men.

At the conclusion of a meal like this--or more accurately, writing up the vicarious experience of it, as the actual Maine he-men are already lumbering off to put in a hard day's work stacking cords in the bitter cold-- presumably one lights up not an effeminate cigarette but a foot-long, thick, masculine cigar with a fine strong honest smell. None of your Cuban imports either, but a plain straightforward -American- cigar, completely free of foreign impurities and effete insinuating subtext.

The gentleman, perhaps, protests too much. But what exactly is it that he's protesting?

At first glance it's not a "protest" at all; it's a celebration of, well, bigness. Male bigness, but also American bigness. Clearly the particular cultural myth the author is appealing to goes back a long way, at least as far as, say, Paul Bunyan, Giant in a Great Land,. This piece was written shortly after WWII, when America was on top of the world, and Gourmet, along with the idea that fancy eating is a legitimate American pasttime, was in its early years.

And yet one could argue that there's a hint of...anxiety, here. The author, remember, is writing for Gourmet readers, which from the onset was decidedly on the upscale, not-very-likely-to-be-doing-much-cordwood-chopping side. "The Magazine of Good Living." The Song Of Masculinity is all entangled with class: it's basically romanticization of Hard Work And Simple Living, Like Our Pioneer Forefathers (and Their Helpmeets) Practiced. And which, one gathers from the Huck-Finn like paens to escaping the study and running wild in the woods with his pals, doesn't much resemble the life of the author or his audience; otherwise, it probably wouldn't seem that romantic.

This is all decades before the "wealth gap" widened dramatically. Second Wave feminism's still in its nascency, but Rosie the Riveter now has to be considered as competition for the men returning from the war. We're still a long way from the analysis of, say, Stiffed, or Stuffed and Starved; ironically, the era Coffin is writing from is one that's now viewed nostalgically itself. Traditional Families, Hard Work In The Heartland, Father Knows Best. As the ulcerated CEO's on their treadmills can attest, perhaps, even the simple joys of gorging oneself aren't that simple anymore.

Whatever the men are hungry for-along with the rest of us- it's probably not going be satisfied with a big breakfast, if indeed it ever was.