Dude Food has officially gotten out of control. We're all familiar with the genre, since you can't turn on the TV or look in a bookstore or at a newsstand without encountering it. Sometimes it seems like a called play, a power sweep of culinary he-men overwhelming the culture's defense. They're not gay! They don't mince vegetables! They're just regular guys like you and me!
But are they? Sometimes I wonder.
On the one hand, you have high-minded, even admirable expressions of gastronomic manlitude, like Esquire's Eat Like a Man blog or Tony Bourdain's already-classic books and TV series. At the other end of the scale, you find blogs like the aggressively vile Cook to Bang, a quasi-ironic collection of "recipes to get you laid," a book form of which hit stores just after Mother's Day. Cook to Bang is so over the top it features "Bust-a-Nut Squash Soup" and "Tap That Ass-paragus" that you would almost think its author, Spencer Walker, is trying to prove he's a heterosexual. But in between these Dude Food extremes, there are a bunch of media stars whose gender identity is always front and center. They range from the menschy (Man v. Food's Adam Richman) to the brash (TV's itinerant Rocco DiSpirito) to the king of the dorks (Good Eats' Alton Brown), but one thing's clear in every case: none of these guys could be mistaken for a half-a-mozzarella.
Which seems to be exactly the point. Looking back, it's not hard to understand why Dude Food has become so overwrought. In less enlightened times, men tended to associate cooking with women, with the ceremonial exception of outdoor grilling. Can you imagine Don Draper roasting a chicken? Of course not. As a result, early male food personalities were generally gay, from the effete Gourmet columnist Lucius Beebe to the earthy but flamboyant James Beard himself. For much longer than you might have expected, many of the top male food stars have been either openly gay, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Ted Allen, or, if straight, like The Galloping Gourmet's Graham Kerr, not really the kind of guy you could imagine sharing a Schlitz with. These types of male chefs were O.K., but more likely to be a friend of your wife's than your own buddy.
That meant these guys could never build a huge audience. And building a huge audience is the name of the game. In much the same way that Sun Records owner Sam Phillips longed for a white singer with a black sound, the food media spent decades trying to find a male star who would appeal as much to men as to women. And when they finally found their Elvis, he was more male than any network execs could have possibly imagined.
Make no mistake: Guy Fieri is the Dudai Lama. Nobody else comes close to manifesting effortless machismo the way he does on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives; no costume department could ever have come up with his look: spiky, bleached hair, bowling shirt and perpetual sunburn. Fieri's effusiveness, his trademark exclamations ("fierce," "kewl") he's the guy whose house you want to be at for the Super Bowl. He's the guy you want to organize your bachelor party. If he's into food and cooking, there can't be anything remotely metrosexual about it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Fieri is the antiTed Allen. Fieri is not hip, he doesn't have good taste, classy women wouldn't approve of him, and yet he swaggers happily on his charmed path, oblivious to all his shortcomings. He's just himself, totally and utterly inhabiting his dudeness, in a way that could never be faked. Guy Fieri just loves being Guy Fieri. Even his occasional self-mockery is a form of preening. What could be more manly than that?
The problem with Dude Food is that, other than Fieri and Bourdain, the rest of the Penis Posse is either trying too hard (think Andrew Zimmern eating bugs on Bizarre Foods) or is vaguely likable but innocuous, like Man v. Food's Richman or Sam "The Cooking Guy" Zien, a figure so bland, he seems to disintegrate as you look at him. While there are a few chefs who happen to combine major culinary ability with major cockiness (Bobby Flay, Scotty Conant, DiSpirito), they're always forced to play up the latter, risking a catastrophic spike in their douchebag quotients. It's almost enough to make you wish for those cheesy, faintly foppish TV chefs of yesteryear.
And yet, as a man, I don't want to roll back the bad old days. Despite too-loud protests that "all the best chefs in the world are men," it was generally taken for granted, even as recently as a few years ago, that serious food and American male identity didn't really go together. Men ate cold pizza, and Cheez Whiz, and their refrigerators contained only mayonnaise and beer. Which made being a man, in the conventional sense, something of a drag. Sadly, steakhouses across America still make a fortune off this grim conceit that what men really want from a restaurant is thick, burned steaks and pasty baked potatoes, and a chance to revel in their temporary liberation from the tyranny of women. So many recent innovations, from food blogs to DIY butchering to the gradual banishment of the word gourmet from the American vernacular, have made culinary life better for men, and not just because they want to get laid.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.