Meat for men and little lunches for the ladies

There’s a fun and fascinating piece from PBS News Hour about food and how it became gendered: steaks for the boys and salads for the girls. Although it’s specifically about American culture, that culture has long been exported globally; the trends there were trends here too.

For most of history, men and women ate the same things. In the 1800s:

Even though “women’s restaurants” – spaces set apart for ladies to dine unaccompanied by men – were commonplace, they nonetheless served the same dishes as the men’s dining room: offal, calf’s heads, turtles and roast meat.

The changes started in the late nineteenth century with the rise of restaurants specifically marketed towards women, places they could have lunch without hearing a bunch of pissed workmen yelling over everyone. Those menus put more effort into their desserts than their mains, and the mains were what we’d consider light meals today.

The change was served with large side of sexism. In the early 20th century:

Self-appointed men’s advocates complained that women were inordinately fond of the very types of decorative foods being marketed to them. In 1934, for example, a male writer named Leone B. Moates wrote an article in House and Garden scolding wives for serving their husbands “a bit of fluff like marshmallow-date whip.”

Save these “dainties” for ladies’ lunches, he implored, and serve your husbands the hearty food they crave: goulash, chili or corned beef hash with poached eggs.

…The 20th century saw a proliferation of cookbooks telling women to give up their favorite foods and instead focus on pleasing their boyfriends or husbands. The central thread running through these titles was that if women failed to satisfy their husbands’ appetites, their men would stray.

One of the saddest details in the piece isn’t the blatant sexism. It’s how this nonsense gets internalised. The writer, Paul Freedman, describes how some young women would adopt a “steak strategy”: ordering steak on a first date not to reject gender stereotypes but to reinforce them. They ordered steak to demonstrate to the man that “should a relationship flower, their girlfriends won’t start lecturing them about what they should eat.”

It sounds like something from 1907, but no. It was happening in New York in 2007.