Cultural Masculinity through the lens of “Steak and Chips”

In this essay, Barthes writes that steak is “the heart of meat”; something that is “the very flesh of the French soldier”; something that the aforementioned soldier “feels nostalgia for” when he is abroad. In short, steak is the classic, “nostalgic and patriotic” meat which a man eats to feel at home, and, subliminally, to feel like a man. The imagery Barthes puts forth while writing about the “bull-like strength” of men who partake of steak is both visceral and raw. The repetition of the word “blood” and all the verbs immediately associated with it — bleeding, tearing, ripping, gouging, etc — provides a sort of raw, violent, masculine image of steak, one that makes a man feel at his manliest. The imagery hearkens back to a time when men ripped the flesh from conquered creatures for sustenance, letting the blood drip down his chest as his teeth gnash through muscle and sinew. The cultural message of steak is clear and unforgettable: this is the food of the man’s man. The Steak-Man, if you will. If you like to hunt, drink, fight, fuck, and live, then steak is your food.

This idea of masculinity is ubiquitous in American culture, and has leaked into literature, film, television, advertising and more. Let’s examine a couple of examples of how men are meant to act based on this idea of the Steak-Man.

First, we have television character and cultural icon Ronald Ulysses Swanson. Portrayed by Nick Offerman on Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson is the archetype of the Steak-Man. He hunts, he explores, he despises the federal government, he drinks Lagavulin whisky, he has a thick, glorious mustache and, of course, he eats steak. Lots and lots of steak.

The character is allowed to exist because of the widespread cultural fetishism surrounding steak. Steak is a sign of masculinity; of toughness of both body and mind. By making their macho, headstrong, whisky-drinking man’s man an avid lover of steak, the writers of this show confirm his personality to a viewer. Your average American sees a burly, mustachioed man eating a steak, and their mind goes exactly where yours just went: to the manly man. You think “this guy is a real tough mudda”. Steak speaks to that without saying a word. Steak is a ubiquitous symbol for the raw and masculine, and creators of television, literature and advertisement know that.

This rugged masculinity in our culture is not limited to steak, of course. Consider Hemingway’s Cap, that most absurd item from the J. Peterman Catalog, which paints a picture of a customer who can feel the same sense of danger and adventure Hemingway himself felt so many times during his life simply by buying this cap. The blurb mentions material which is “unaffected by repeated rain squalls” and a color that is the “same as scalding espresso”. These images suggest that the wearer might find himself in a situation where a rugged, durable cap is absolutely necessary to his adventuring. The man who might buy this cap is the man who fancies himself a real man’s man; the kind of guy who would knock somebody out at a bar for looking at him funny, then proceed to crush his beer and ravage his woman before riding his motorcycle into the sticky Moroccan night. The Steak-Man. While this sort of masculinity is toxic to say the least, it has appealed to many men throughout history, and, once again, those who create content like this know it.

As a little cap to this post, I wanted to share a clip of a fictionalized J. Peterman from Seinfeld, the writers of which recognized and poked fun at the almost comical masculinity characteristic of the Peterman catalog.

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