Man’s World

26 Jun 2009

Have you ever noticed how women never eat everything on their plate when they go to a restaurant? They always leave a little, irrespective of how hungry they are. But most men will eat everything up. And men are the ones who are given the bill and (almost) always stubbornly insist on standing it. If a couple or a table ask for the wine list, the waiter will usually bring it to the man and, turning to the woman, politely and somewhat vaguely ask if the lady would prefer a sweet or a dry wine. There’s also no need to ask who will actually taste the wine!

You could add countless other examples to a list of things typically belonging to the man’s domain. In general, at least in the last few years here in Europe, many things connected with good table manners and emancipation have changed for the better. I suspect that this is essentially due, as in other social contexts, to the increasing presence of courageous, motivated and able women who have gained prominence in areas traditionally dominated by men.

The image of award-winning chefs and wine gurus, which we have assimilated and which the media disseminate, is gradually incorporating highly successful women. One example is Jancis Robinson, the world-famous wine critic, who says that, “For many men, wine is a status symbol. A man defines himself by the car he drives and the wine he drinks. When men order a good bottle of wine in a restaurant, they basically want to show they are knowledgeable and can afford it”. And women? “We just choose the wine we like best […] Wine should be enjoyed. For me the best description of a wine can be summarized by ‘Mmmmhhh’.”(1) I like this attitude. And so do my wife and daughter.

Given all the differences of religion, culture and tradition in various countries, overlaid by social class and personal circumstances, it is difficult to give an account of good table manners without running into contradictions. The rules of how to behave at table which we learned during infancy and childhood, whether at home or when eating out, have changed or are gradually amended as we reach adulthood. For some time now women have been able to order for themselves in restaurants. They can also try the wine after giving it an authoritative swirl in the glass, and maybe even stand the man’s bill. Either of them can make a ‘toast’ with mineral water if they feel like it. It’s not only the kids who are allowed an occasional elbow on the table.

One of the last male bastions would seem to be the figure of the gentleman, portrayed as the desirable model in countless books and publications. Always polite, discrete, dignified, reserved and well-dressed, never vulgar, educated and charming, reasonable, sympathetic, moderate (obviously in a political sense as well) and finally—and why not?—as serene as the Slow Food snail. A slow man.

As Martin Scherer writes in his highly perceptive essay, ‘The gentleman, a plea for good living’, ‘The gentleman is a person who has time, doesn’t brush people off because a meeting calls; celebrates his likings and pleasures instead of assuaging them too rapidly. And above all, he can wait: he doesn’t lose patience when standing in line—or when he wants to win over a woman. If this may seem anachronistic at a time when we are obsessed with ever increasing speed, well, long live anachronism!’ Maybe we could add: long live slowman!

In any case, here are some reference data(2) and intriguing facts to avoid straying too far from the point of such a complex matter. I do not expect that data from other industrialized countries will be significantly different, though it would be interesting to make a comparison. Some general indicators: Germans spend 15.4 percent of their income on food and non-essential goods. Forty years ago this percentage was twice as high. In 2001 expenditure on eating out and drinking was € 900 per person, subdivided as follows: 21 percent was spent in foreign restaurants (half of them Italian!), 17 percent in restaurants serving German cuisine, 14 percent in bakeries, butchers or supermarkets, 13 percent in bars and cafés, 10 percent in canteens and 4 percent in fast food outlets.

60 percent of babies in Germany are exclusively breastfed for their first two weeks. For the first four weeks the percentage is 33.3. In children aged from eight to twelve years old, 52.7 percent state that their parents think it is very important for them not to make inappropriate noise, 9.7 percent that they should not leave anything on their plates and 7.4 that they shouldn’t eat too much.

In response to the question of whether a healthy diet is too expensive for many people, the weekly Zeit quotes the social historian Paul Nolte: “This is a myth. Any meal containing potatoes and vegetables, wholemeal bread and cheese is cheaper than constantly eating in snack bars and fast food restaurants […] For a long time the culture and lifestyle of lower socio-economic groups in many areas has been well above a state of economic hardship or material need”.

In response to the question: “What’s your favorite treat?”, the majority of women (51.7 percent) replied “chocolate”, while most men (46.3 percent) replied “beer”. Other research studies have highlighted that women are more willing to adopt a vegetarian diet, while men do not want to abandon their beloved steaks. This was clearly evident during the years of the ‘mad cow’ crisis. Observations made at vegetarian snack bars and sausage stands show that two thirds of the customers buying sausages were men, with the figures being reversed for customers at vegetarian snack bars. Men are fast food eaters in both senses of the expression. Only they can manage to gobble 800 calories in less than ten minutes.

Many authors stress that preferences and habits are sex-specific and they diverge more for eating and drinking than in any other area of everyday life. There are many possible explanations for this, but they always end up by referring to the predatory behavior and hunting instinct present in men. We all assume that the skirt chasing and macho behavior typical of males in general are generated by a male drive which men cannot, or will not, relinquish.

Even though the differences in dietary behavior are mainly caused by social factors, some of them are influenced by biology. Why, for example, are diets less widespread among men (who usually play sport and go jogging) than women? After going on a diet, why do men, apart from being slimmer, feel drained and listless? Why does the level of testosterone fall while dieting? And this will also have an effect on the libido…

Women often say this and men think about it even more often. Sex? No, something else. Listen to Sally Cline, a researcher in women’s studies: “Why do men always more or less want the same thing, basically what their mothers used put on their plates when they were kids”.(3) This is the reason why men tend to be conservative in their culinary preferences at home, while women are more receptive to new foods. It is only at a restaurant or a bar that men feel free to experiment—and not only in culinary matters. At home they expect a sort of maternal protection—what they have experienced in the past or wished for. In future, however, as is already happening, increasing numbers of mothers will see themselves only as mothers but will equally identify with their occupations and role in society.

What is considered typical male behavior is inculcated at a very early age. “Indians do not even know what pain is,” male children would be told. And now that they are adult, they will swallow a whole hot pepper without batting an eyelid.

This connection between ‘the hunting instinct’ and the mother are both components of a contradictory male nostalgia: “Shouldn’t I be able to feel it inside myself? Gauguin’s famous painting Woman with Mango has fascinated me for a long time. The wonderful, imposing figure of the woman, clearly about to become a mother, with a mango held in her right hand, glows in the calmness of her delicate physical presence. As a symbol of fertility, the mango needs no interpretation. In a totally natural way, it integrates and dissolves into the magnificent chromatic composition. When I see this painting, which evokes memories of my mother her fondness for mangos, I feel myself returning to my African childhood.(4)

So a liking for fresh mangos has been part of my identity since early childhood. The same is true for a plate of spaghetti. But I wouldn’t eat either of them at a restaurant. I particularly like to eat them alone, without witnesses (I am referring to adults only) or with my daughter (especially when she was small). Why? Because of the completely ‘natural’, let’s call it savage and primitive, way that I like to wolf them down. It’s much more than pure greed, and I have to admit that it is neither polite behavior nor good table manners.

All children like to let rip, especially when they eat. Throwing yourself at your food as though it were prey, wolfing down spaghetti, slurping and crunching your teeth while the sauce flies in all directions, onto your chin, cheeks, nose and table, heightens pleasure to the utmost, especially if the food has been prepared to a high standard. When the mango arrives for pudding, you start all over again. The knife serves simply to peel it. Then you have to firmly grip the whole fleshy, juicy fruit in two hands. This is usually hard to do and the mango will slither away from the plate like a live fish, unless you sink your nails into it. Then you suck and bite the succulent flesh until you reach the hairy stone.

The hunting instinct and mother—there’s still a bit of both within!

Notes
1. See www.g26.ch/texte_weinpaepstin.html and www.jancisrobinson.com.
2. Data and quotations from Die Zeit, no. 4, January 15 2004.
3. In Tabula no. 4, October 2003.
4. Slow 29, ‘Childhood Memories’.

Luigi Wanner is a Berlin-based Swiss journalist, writer and editor.

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