By Nick Scott
Most men will tell you - meat is good for you.
The late American TV personality Tom Snyder once quipped, “If we’re not supposed to eat animals, how come they’re made out of meat?” He was playing dumb for comic effect, but this perverse defence of carnivorism actually sums up m gender’s attitude to the issue of meat versus vegetarianism pretty neatly.
The studies, stats and surveys vary slightly, but women in the developed world are roughly twice as likely as men to be vegetarians. Not eating meat, for most red-blooded men, is simply not on. We adore the taste, the smell, the aesthetics, even the vocabulary that comes with preparing, cooking and devouring animals (“tender”, “rare”, “cure”, “marinate”, “baste”, “deglaze”). We avoid kitchens, but will hurdle the salad buffet to get to an outdoor grill that needs “manning” before some other bloke does. To us, “vegie-burger” is an oxymoron, “tofu” is Mandarin for “insubstantial” and Quorn is certainly no meat “substitute” – just an imitation as pale and inferior as any man who eats it.
That’s right, some of us actually consider meat-dodgers to be lesser men. A bloke ordering the cauliflower masala while dining with his mates in a Tandoori restaurant will be devoured quicker than a pack of Tim Tams at a post-break-up pyjama party. Bizarrely, hardened meat-heads will even question said mate’s sexuality – he might as well have started filing his nails and asked the waiter for curtain advice. Even those of us who don’t resort to spurious sexuality stereotyping still put male vegos in one of two camps: one being that small minority of our brethren who, in slavish pursuit of a six-pack, snort crushed almonds off their own abs through rolled up lettuce leaves for breakfast; the other being those anaemic trustafarians with glockenspiel chests who “man” the vegan stalls at festivals, hawking water crackers with green paste.
As with most of the quirks and foibles of the male species, there’s no single explanation for men’s ongoing love affair with meat. “From a psychological perspective, it’s very much a nature/nurture scenario,” says psychologist Michael Burge. “Being hunters and warriors, fighting competitors and predators – it’s all in our genes, and has been reinforced culturally over thousands of years. These days, we are more likely to hunt little white golf balls than animals, but we can’t eat golf balls to maintain protein, so the inherent link between meat and machismo remains.” Burge also stresses the role the media plays: “Men who are not confident in their masculinity tend to overstate male stereotypes,” he says. “Companies advertising, say, meat pies target these men – hence ex-footballers promoting the products in tough tones.” Ouch!
Basic dietary requirement is also a factor, though. Men require more protein than women – 56g a day, in fact, compared to 46g. “But,” a vegetarian might point out, “people in the industrialised world generally eat far more protein than we can ever use.” Yes, that’s true, but the biological imperative was etched indelibly onto the male psyche long before Colonel Sanders came along. A fleshless dish just doesn’t feel adequate.
Men and women’s chowing habits reflect our ancient roles as hunter and gatherer. That’s why we guffaw at women in the office who spend lunch breaks picking at morsels of asparagus-infused couscous, and berate you for being “fussy” about food. “Men often still identify themselves with the physical labour of former times, but even those with sedentary jobs often describe salads and juices as ‘unfulfilling’ at best and as ‘chook food’, at worst,” food psychologist Denise Greenaway points out. “Women on the other hand seem to thrive on live, fresh, colourful food.”
Our caveman approach to eating often reaches a pinnacle late at night, after some amber refreshment, when the sight of a revolving spit of reconstituted, several-times-reheated infant sheep’s flesh has us salivating. And we’re not even ashamed of this. It’s well-documented that women are more health-conscious than men, and the fact that we smoke more, drink more and avoid going to the doctor is surely related to the fact that, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center in the US, 47 per cent of men eat in a fast food restaurant at least once a week (compared to 35 per cent of women).
Similarly, men have less empathy than women, and are less likely to connect Daisy grazing on the pasture with her taking 300 volts in the back of the neck, or pay moral heed to the oft-vaunted stat that it takes up to seven kilograms of grain to produce just half a kilo of meat. So what impact does all this have on relationships? One former colleague had such a beef (pun intended) with a new bloke refusing to succumb to her vegetarian ways that she dumped him. Another couple I’m good friends with, though – she a principled vego, he a man who wouldn’t last a day in a Buddhist monastery without gnawing off his own arm – see their clashing beliefs about meat as no obstacle to matrimonial harmony. She avoids the kitchen while he’s babysitting his slow-roasting pork shoulder or lovingly crafting Italian meatballs. He’s agreed to buy sustainable meat where he can and bypass veal, foie gras or anything raised in a barbaric way. He respects her viewpoint and only occasionally tries to tempt her with bacon. Mmm bacon. Even typing this word has got me salivating...Nick Scott is a Taipei-dwelling writer who learnt the Mandarin for “pork knuckle” before the word “hello”.