The average American eats 195 pounds of meat a year. That’s a lot of muscle, and it’s laden with meaning—in terms of human evolution, social habits and modern marketing. Men, on average, consume more meat than women. Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and the man responsible for the best-selling phrase “omnivore’s dilemma,” recently published a study establishing a metaphoric link between masculinity and meat.
He and his colleagues tested subjects on a variety of word-association and other tasks and placed different foods along a spectrum of male-linked to female-linked. On the male end of the spectrum were raw beef, steak, hamburger, veal, rabbit, broiled chicken, eggs (hard-boiled followed by scrambled). Milk, fish, sushi, chocolate, chicken salad and peaches were more toward the feminine side. This division loosely lines up with articles in 23 foreign languages using gendered nouns—as in le boeuf (male) or la salade (female)—but curiously phallic-shaped meats like sausages and frankfurters appeared no more linguistically “masculine” than did, say, ground beef or steak.
The study reports some counterintuitive findings. For example, cooking and food processing tend to be associated with femaleness, except when it comes to medium-rare or well-done steaks, which outrank raw beef or blood in terms of manliness. And if you thought placenta and eggs fell under the feminine category, you’d probably be the exception (although, admittedly, the study did not consider the male approximation, such as testicles or milt). Even more perplexing, the undergraduate men surveyed listed orange juice right up there with medium-rare steak and hamburger.
Really, though, what do these food metaphors have to with anything? Well, according to the Rozin and his co-authors, “If marketers or health advocates want to counteract such powerful associations, they need to address the metaphors that shape consumer attitudes.” This lends a certain credence to the practice of slapping artificial grill marks on a sausage-shaped soy patty, an otherwise potentially emasculating cut of protein—and it offers a compelling a lesson for those attempting to make fake or in-vitro “meats” here to stay. Make them manly, boys.
Photo: “Chorizo (Basque Sausage) and Fried Eggs” by Carl Fleishlauer/Library of Congress