For Father’s Day, a look at the masculinization of meat, grilling

It’s hard to think of any one dish that’s more heavily gendered than the choice-cut steak.

For years, making a steak was the only American form of cooking associated with manliness. The grill was the only place a man could acceptably don an apron, the steakhouse was for business meetings and the menu for Father’s Day was always a peppery slab of beef and a heaping side of carbs.

Unsurprisingly, the targeted marketing of certain foods to certain sexes can be traced back to Sigmund Freud. In the 1950s, psychologist Ernest Dichter, one of Freud’s former underlings, developed a theory around the idea that if Americans could be convinced that a particular food had a particular sex or gender identity, then advertisers could sell more product by tapping into consumers’ need to fulfill gender roles.

By the time Father’s Day became a national holiday in 1972, the masculinization of certain foods by the marketing industry was already working like a charm.

The most notable example was and still is meat. One of the focal points of Dichter’s work is the association of meaty with macho. In his publishings as a motivational researcher in the 1970s, he consistently cited steak as the most clearly identifiable masculine food. He even suggested that the meat industry refer to heartier cuts of fish as “steaks” in order to better market them to men.

A quick search for studies on meat and gender roles yields work by sociologist and human ecology professor Jeffrey Sobal in which he argues that one of the ways men and women, particularly husbands and wives, perform gender is by eating certain foods. Sobal refers to meat, and red meat in particular, as “an archetypical masculine food.” He also suggests that the social dominance of men dovetails nicely with the Western idea of a “proper meal,” which almost always centers around meat.

So, what does this mean about the act of grilling up a thick, juicy porterhouse for your pops this weekend? At the most basic level, it reminds us that food choices aren’t neutral. Like all elements of social life, they’re embedded with ideas and histories that influence how we think about what it means to be a man and (literally) feed us cues about gender roles and social equality.

The centrality of meat in the American diet, the way we feminize meat-free lifestyles and exclude female home cooks and chefs from meat-related spaces, such as butchers and steakhouses, all have real implications on the way we interact with food, the people who make it and the people with whom we eat it. The way food advertising links red meat and high-calorie foods with manliness and virility has even had a real, measurable impact on the health of American men.

But the emotional connection is also important. The sizzle, the smell, the glimmer in your dad’s eye when he describes the last great steak he had. Those are real and worth valuing, too.

Seared Beef Rib-Eye

A steak is so widely appealing, for Father’s Day and beyond and for men and women, because it provides a meal with the richness of a holiday dinner but without nearly as much work. Of course, some people like to debate which steps, precautions, tips and tricks make for the perfect steak, but this eternal, often contentious conversation is, honestly, a little exhausting. It’s also dominated by male voices.

So, in honor of all the fathers trying, learning and even failing at how to be better dads, better cooks and more critical thinkers about their place in the world as men, here is my favorite rib-eye recipe and the only steak road map you’ll ever need. It’s from one of the true American steak masters, Patricia Wells, the Midwestern-born writer who has won four James Beard Awards and has lived and worked in France since 1980.

Note Wells’ technique: She uses a nicely trimmed, simply seasoned steak that demonstrates the correlation between minimalism and flavor. The more you strip away, the better it tastes.

1 bone-in beef rib-eye steak, about 2 pounds and 1 1/2 inches thick

Fine sea salt

Coarse, freshly ground black pepper

For serving:

Lemon wedges

Mint chimichurri and/or compound butter

Remove the meat from the refrigerator at least 4 hours before cooking. This will help prevent the meat from steaming as it sears and help it cook more evenly.

When you are ready to cook the beef, dry the meat well to maximize the browning effect. Heat the skillet over high heat for 2 minutes. Season the meat well on both sides with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium, then add the meat and sear for at least 8 minutes. (Resist the temptation to turn the meat too early since the meat will stick until the Maillard reaction kicks in, caramelizing the sugars and proteins on the surface of the meat, resulting in more intense flavors and an attractive crust.)

Turn the meat and cook for 8 minutes more for rare meat, or cook to the desired doneness. Use an instant-read thermometer to test for temperatures ranging from 125 degrees for rare to 155 degrees for well-done.

Remove the steak from the pan and season both sides once again with salt and pepper. To keep the meat from sitting in any juices that are released as it rests, arrange the meat against and inverted shallow bowl on a cutting board and tent very loosely with foil to prevent the surface from cooling off too quickly.

As the muscle fibers relax, they reabsorb the juices expelled during the cooking process, resulting in a much juicier and more flavorful steak. The angle of the steak helps to retain the juices while protecting the seared crust from becoming soggy. Let the meat rest for 10 minutes.

To serve, carefully cut away the bone. Carve the steak into thick slices. Pour any reserved juices over the meat. Serve with lemon wedges, chimichurri and/or compound butter. Serves 2 to 4.

– From “My Master Recipes: 165 Recipes to Inspire Confidence in the Kitchen” by Patricia Wells (HarperCollins, $25)

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