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The politics of “dude food”

Food scholar Emily Contois’s new book explores the intersection of masculinity and marketing.

A large hamburger on a board beside a pile of fries and a glass of beer.
“The dude is privileged to be able to slack off, the dude is privileged to be able to say, nah, I don’t want to do that, and to be able to break the rules. Dude food embodies that ethos.”
Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the later aughts, as the economy crashed and the Great Recession took hold, a powerful new species of American male emerged: the dude.

Dudes, as a category, are easy to locate but hard to define. While they have existed in some form for at least the last century, the modern dude is ubiquitous and frustrating. He is the charming slacker, the underachiever, the sweet schlub who could try harder but doesn’t, Seth Rogen. He challenges conventional notions of masculinity while at the same time confirming them. It is because he is male, often white, buoyed by deep homosocial relationships but almost definitely straight, that the dude has the luxury of opting out. His is a more flexible version of American manhood, one that is markedly easier to achieve. The dude does not stoop to striving; instead, he eats chicken wings.

With her new book, Diners, Dudes, and Diets, food scholar Emily Contois is less interested in the particulars of dudeness than she is in what the dude means. If the dude is a cultural construct, then what does he say about the obsessions and anxieties of the culture that constructed him? What is the dude’s meaning, and what is his purpose? For answers, we need only look at how the dude eats.

For all his endearing shortcomings as an individual, the dude, as a trope, is socially useful. “Post-2000 America proved a tumultuous place for the ongoing negotiation of gender,” writes Contois, arguing that the dude offered a kind of solution. His was a more flexible interpretation of masculinity. For food marketers in particular, who had struggled to figure out how to sell products that had been coded “feminine” to men without threatening their masculinity, he was catnip.

“By and large, dude food’s flavors and ingredients align with conventional notions of masculine foods and food attributes, but with a dude twist,” writes Contois. “Dude food,” heavy on meat, spice, and grease, is not simply a cuisine, but a lifestyle. “Devoured within moments of leisure, relaxation, and informality, dude food transcends ingredients and flavors,” she explains, “as it indexes the dude’s anti-professionalism and slacker-friendly ease.” With the right attitude, any food can be dude food; dude food, like a dude, has room to move.

I talked to Contois about dudes: What do they eat? What does that say about us? How do dudes fit in with other subcategories of men who eat food? Do dudes intermittently fast? Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You argue that one of the places we can see shifting ideas of masculinity is in the conversations happening around eating. What makes food such a good lens?

I was interested in this fear of gender contamination, which is a marketing concept [essentially, consumer resistance to buying products aimed at another gender], and seeing how that played out culturally. And that’s so much more profound with food because we eat it. It comes into our bodies, and that intimacy is part of what ups the stakes and makes it this anxious terrain where we see these kinds of conversations happen.

At one point, when you’re defining “dude food,” you describe it as “comfort food, but with an edge of competitive destruction.” That felt really right to me — when I think about quintessential “dude food,” I think about enormous quantities of delicious things that will leave me feeling vaguely ill. What’s going on there?

Comfort foods — a cheeseburger or grilled cheese or nachos — are foods that some of us do eat. When we’ve had a bad day at work or things aren’t going our way, they’re foods we turn to. Dude food is just sort of turning the dial right up to 11.

I like to show this picture of a burger that’s explicitly called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This burger is coming for you. It’s so big, it’s so full of fried things, it’s so over the top. It’s a test to your manhood: Can you eat this, even if it’s really big or really spicy? But it doesn’t come without consequences, whether it’s having acid reflux afterward or a horrible stomach ache or whatever. I wrote about Hot Ones [a YouTube show where celebrities are interviewed while eating hot wings], and they’ll often say things like, “Oh, this is gonna hurt terribly coming out tomorrow!” They talk about this process of waste coming out of the body, which isn’t often discussed. But dude food pushes back.

Why is the dude so useful to advertisers — especially when they’re trying to get men to buy supposedly un-manly stuff? You talk about the dude selling Coke Zero. The dude selling yogurt.

The argument I’m making is that because the dude doesn’t care — because he’s ironic and winking and nonchalant and everything kind of at a distance — the dude can engage with food, he can engage with cooking, he can watch food TV, and it doesn’t impinge on his masculinity. The risk is lower because he’s not fully invested.

One thing that strikes me about “dude food” is that maybe it requires stamina, but it doesn’t require expertise. It’s not really about connoisseurship. The dude isn’t telling you about the particular Mosaic hops in his craft beer. The dude is different from the sous vide bro.

Yeah, there is an anti-intellectualism to the persona of the dude. That plays out in dude food being much more straightforward. That pushback against foodie culture is definitely something I saw, thinking about someone like Guy Fieri, who is this more populist figure in terms of the kind of food he promotes, the persona he puts out there. His fans appreciate that lack of what they perceive as elitism from other corners of food media.

And the dude — I think? — is also different than the CrossFit paleo intermittent fasting guy, though I feel like maybe there’s some overlap? Certainly in terms of protein.

Paleo isn’t dude culture. But I do see it as a response to that same context, that same confluence of big cultural changes happening. Between 2000 to 2009, we see these changes in gender norms — 20 percent of married women become the No. 1 earner in their families, you’ve got women’s educational attainment surpassing men’s. The 2000s is when we elect George W. Bush, the beer test president, who then conducts this cowboy diplomacy after 9/11. With the Homeland Security Act, we get this much more military masculinized idea about national security, about the protection of our borders, about how we view immigrants, about how we view people of color. So much is shifting, then the economic impact of the recession collides with all of that.

That becomes even more complicated with the election of Barack Obama, right? There was, at that moment, this hope for a post-racial future. The United States had elected a Black president, and everything was going to be better. And then it turned out to be quite the opposite. So those are all huge things that are happening, and one way to react to it was to resist and slack. But the other is to prepare the body for war, right? To make it even stronger.

In paleo, I actually see a really strong complement, historically, to that physical cultural movement of the late 19th century, early 20th century, which is also this big moment of gender crisis. You have industrialization, the rise of industrial capitalism, immigration, urbanization, changes in work and social living, all of that colliding, and it’s in that moment that bodybuilding rises. The physical culture movement was all about forcefully building up the white masculine body with big muscles and hard movement as a reaction to this fear of feminization from the culture itself.

Paleo reminds me of that: It’s pushing back against sedentary office jobs and an industrial food system, all the fear about wheat and monoculture crops — some of which is rightful to be quite concerned about. But the reaction is to build the body up in CrossFit workouts, to return to this nostalgic idea of how our caveman ancestors supposedly ate, is also an attempt to rediscover and redevelop this sense of strength and security and authority at a moment when it’s being contested. So it’s a similar reaction [to the dude], but in a different direction.

So much “dude food” is industrial, it’s super-processed, it’s nacho cheese sauce, and then you have these other guys who are like, aspiring to eat raw venison with their hands.

Yeah, exactly. But they’re both similarly invested in the status and authority of white masculinity. They’re both reacting to the same thing. They’re both interested in food and the body, but in different ways.

I want to talk about these various, often masculine-coded approaches to eating that frame themselves not as diets but as strategies for personal optimization. When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey talks about not eating for days at a time, he’s talking about it as a productivity hack. That’s the whole promise of something like Soylent — instead of troubling yourself with bodily concerns, drink this engineered nutritional liquid. In a way, it’s the opposite of dude food. It’s not about slacking; it’s about hyper-efficiency.

One of the things that I come back to is this idea of Cartesian dualism: There’s a bias toward the brilliant, elevated masculine mind, as opposed to the gross, connected-to-the-earth, feminine body. Our bodies hold us back because they’re hungry, they have to be fed, they have to be looked after. I think some men have [similar] ideas about sexual appetite as well — it’s this thing that has to be serviced.

If you want a body that’s just going to be able to code and code and code, you need food that doesn’t require any of that feminized labor, of recipes and cooking and cleaning up. So you see it coming out of that Silicon Valley tech bro kind of identity. Which is also where Soylent came from: “We’re going to opt out of food life and get our scientifically determined nutrients and then just work.”

There’s a really interesting tension in how masculine appetite has been conceived of. There’s more often this conventional understanding of masculine appetites as voracious. They deserve to be satisfied; they need big meat-and-potato meals. And so it’s super fascinating that a lot of these food patterns that we see coming out of Silicon Valley, they’re also coming from a particular kind of masculinity. I’m writing about the dude; others have written about this geek masculinity, and how it also is trying to prove itself in a patriarchal system, and gain status and authority. So again, we’re trying to figure out the relationship between who we are, and what and how we eat, and how we control our bodies.

How has the evolution of “dude food” changed American conceptions of “lady food,” or feminine-coded foods — whatever it is women are supposed to eat?

What I argue is that, by looking at the kinds of ingredients and the way it’s plated, you can define what “dude food” is. But the issue is how, in its ingredient and its attitude, it perpetuates a system that’s inherently inequitable. When we think about the reliance on protein and meat, in the context of climate change, and the kinds of changes we maybe should be making in our diets for a more sustainable future for all, “dude food” has that same privilege of the dude, right? The dude is privileged to be able to slack off, the dude is privileged to be able to say, nah, I don’t want to do that, and to be able to break the rules. Dude food embodies that ethos.

I think it’s maybe less in dude food itself than in the way marketers use the idea of the dude to combat gender contamination. You see how these brands are trying to construct ideas about masculinity, and that shows you so much about how they actually think about femininity and women. It’s that idea of “Diet Coke” versus “Coke Zero,” women’s weight loss and women’s consumption versus men’s. And it’s so binary and so hierarchical in a way that is bad for both men and women.

What I want to see is a world that’s more inclusive. Attaching the gender binary to food didn’t work for a lot of these brands. In some cases, it isn’t good business, and it’s always bad for culture and bad for people. We can’t keep having a food space that’s talking about “man food” and “lady drinks.” I want a world that extends that flexibility that the dude gets to everybody.

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