by Ben Maher
People love bacon. Flip on a TV and you’ll see ads for the Baconator, Baconalia, and Burger King’s bacon sundae. Read a food blog and you’ll find recipes for bacon cupcakes, bacon-wrapped shrimp, even bacon-wrapped bacon. Fried pork belly has found its way into nearly every meal, and America can’t get enough of it. But despite the widespread appeal of pork, bacon mania is directed entirely at men.
Devoid of any inherent gendered qualities, bacon might seem like an odd standard bearer for American manhood. It’s a dead pig, processed and packaged and panfried beyond recognition; whether your breakfast began as Babe or Babette is anyone’s guess. But judging by the TV spots, this bacon trend caters to a world inhabited solely by guys and Golden Retrievers. In LA, the food truck Bacon MANia plies “unabashedly American unapologetic man-food,” a description that sounds more Soylent Green than Oscar Meyer. Jack in the Box took the fried pork fetish to new levels in its 2012 Super Bowl commercial “Marry the Bacon,” casting bacon strips as man’s ideal life partner. The connection between meat and masculinity isn’t just some marketing campaign conjured up by an ad agency. A University of Chicago study found strong links between cooked meats and maleness, consistent across languages and cultures. So how did bacon become the culinary equivalent of Tom Selleck’s upper lip?
Bacon’s association with traditional conceptions of manliness predates the modern English language, with centuries-old roots in socio-economic factors. Our habit of eating meat every day is a relatively new pattern. For millennia, people subsided on a diet of complex carbohydrate staples – wheat, maize, rice – that they produced themselves. Meat was a rare and costly treat, fit for kings. The same was true of other luxury goods like sugar and spice, but an odd rural custom gave bacon a unique patriarchal symbolism. In the 13th century in the English village of Little Dunmow, a flitch of bacon was promised to any man who could swear after a year of marriage that he had never argued with his wife. (No one thought to consult the woman.) A man who could bring home the bacon enjoyed both absolute control of his household and a nice slab of meat as well.
Thanks to the happy couples of Little Dunmow, pork became shorthand for patriarchal order and wifely submission. Look at Chaucer’s description of literature’s first liberated woman, the Wife of Bath, in 1336: “The bacon was not brought them home, I trow… Yet in bacon I never had delight.” To the medieval mind, her indecency was an offense to both the social order and bacon.
This didn’t matter much to consumption habits; meat was beyond the means of most peasants, man or woman. That changed with the Industrial Revolution. Families gave up their farms and labored in newfangled factories, altering their relationship with food. Wage laborers no longer produced their own food but bought it from stores, a system not that different from our own supermarkets. What little meat could be afforded was reserved for the man of the house, leaving few sources of protein for his wife and children. When contemporaries wrote of the “weaker sex”, they weren’t half-wrong; female frailty just had more to do with chronic malnutrition thanks to the inequitable distribution of nutrients rather than any inherent physical inferiority. To this day, meat has kept its male association with the breadwinner and king of the castle even as those very same gender roles are shifting.
So your breakfast bacon comes with a side of seven centuries of male dominance and stultifying gender roles. And it’s delicious, don’t get me wrong. It tastes great, and there’s a certain primal pleasure in wiping the grease drippings from my beard. But I don’t eat it every day; it’s not great for my cholesterol levels, you see, and I don’t need to gorge on pig fat to feel like a man, or more specifically to satisfy some medieval notion of masculinity.
That’s the real issue with bacon mania. These Baconator ads aren’t plugging a product, they’re reinforcing antiquated gender stereotypes and convincing men to binge on bacon till their arteries give out, lest their red-blooded manhood come into question. When heart disease kills one in four American men and livestock production contributes 18% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions, a meatier diet might not be the best idea for anyone. And when a German steakhouse runs a prize-winning campaign calling tofu “gay meat”, there’s a real problem with the way we think about food. Breakfast tastes better without the stereotypes.