You Are What You Eat

By Joel Stein

<p>Is Joel Stein a wuss for preferring Sicilian primitivo over frat punch? Yes—but he says he’s a better man for it.</p> <br><p></p>

There was no way I was going to mess with that prissy, leather-bound wine list. I was having dinner with a guy I’ve known since high school—and I went to high school in New Jersey. But since we weren’t eating hot wings and our waitress wasn’t wearing polyester shorts, I figured instead of getting beer I’d just tell our server to bring us a bottle of something cheap and interesting, as long as it wasn’t New World. My friend looked at me and said, “Don’t ever fucking say that again.” Say what? “New World. Or I’ll punch you. In your old testicles.”

This was just a few months after I was invited to a friend’s house for pizza and poker and brought a bottle of simple Sicilian primitivo. I was mocked so hard for bringing wine instead of beer that I wound up drinking most of it myself, then having a tall glass of rye to prove something that only a guy drunk on primitivo would understand. As far as I know, they stopped having poker games after that. At least I didn’t hear about them anymore.

None of this is my fault. I live in a time when people are invited to Top Chef viewing parties, meet girls at farmers markets and go on dates to cooking classes. A time when I can’t go to a restaurant without seeing at least one dude carefully arranging his appetizer so he can shoot it for his food blog. When I know the names of 15 current world leaders, six artists, four poets, two philosophers and more than 100 chefs. When men make time to eat long meals while in Las Vegas.

I know that this is not the way a man should act. I know that the only time I should think of eating as entertainment is when the word contest is involved. That I should not be able to identify field greens unless I made it to Eagle Scout. I know these are descriptors that should not be important to me: “organic,” “local,” “artisanal,” “grass-fed,” “heirloom.” I know these are descriptors that should be: “fried,” “smoked,” “bacon-y,” “cool ranch” and “ass-in-the-tub hot.”

And yet I keep choosing food over life. I go out to long dinners, which means I never have time for a movie after. I cook elaborate meals for friends and then sit around talking about the elaborate meal I cooked. Those really expensive, supposedly romantic prix-fixe meals I’ve been to? It turns out nothing makes a woman want to have sex less than 16 courses and 3,500 calories. My odds were 20 times better with dorm food and frat punch.

But I’m not the only man who has given up so much for bottarga. Baseball games—where for generations men got peanuts, hot dogs, beer and, if they were feeling culinarily adventurous, Cracker Jacks—are now mini-Vegases with food courts where chefs’ names are more prominent than middle relievers’. When I went to AT&T Park last season to see the world champion Giants play, I didn’t want to eat a fresh Dungeness crab sandwich served on warm slices of garlic-butter-brushed sourdough, but it was right there. So was the organic strawberry shortcake. And if I had found the California wine cart before the Gordon Biersch beer stand, I might have been an even worse role model for my friend’s 11-year-old son.

But it is too late to go back. In the globalized information age, a man who eats just meat and potatoes is no longer rugged but fearful. A man now has to have a bit of Anthony Bourdain and a dash of Andrew Zimmern, daring to eat fermented shark, fertilized duck egg or salted tuna sperm. A man has to take the bull by the balls, fry them, dip them in cocktail sauce and pretend to like them. Eating disgusting food is yet one more area where we cannot afford to keep getting beaten by the Chinese.

Women are impressed with guys’ knowledge of northern versus southern Thai cuisine, as long as we don’t talk too much about history. Our worldliness, even though it’s restricted to restaurant meals, makes us look sophisticated and daring, which makes us more likely to get away with doing weird sex stuff with them. It’s the same logic that led us to name all the good sex acts with French words. If I’m willing to eat salted tuna sperm, she should be willing to try going down on her friend in front of me. If I eat only hot dogs, well, you can see how her argument might go. Men who don’t know about food will be viewed as not being sensual enough. As they say, jerky eaters are often jerky doers.

It helps to be able to cook too. I spent a 24-hour shift in a firehouse once, and I couldn’t believe how seriously those guys took food. Men were valorized for their chimichangas nearly as much as for saving lives. And flouting every stereotype of masculinity ever promulgated, they ate dessert. Chocolate dessert.

So I’m going to keep bringing my rustic, Old World wines to card games. I’m dropping truffle salt on my popcorn at the next Super Bowl party. I’ll put Gruyère, onion confit and bacon jam on my burger. And far more manly, when I see you I’ll bore you with every tiny detail I’ve researched about each of those dishes.


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