When Priyanka Chopra appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last year (one in a long series of much-touted, oft-taken-apart TV appearances in the West), she made quite a splash. (No, not as she dunked her head in water, bobbing for apples; that was a different food-related contest; the same Jimmy). Anyhoo, she beat Jimmy straight in a contest that involved stuffing herself with about a dozen messy chicken wings, and woohoo-ed her way to glory –while an audience, both TV and off it, sat up in collective admiration.
I remember entertaining a stray thought at the time: what if, instead of Priyanka Chopra, the star in question had been a Salman Khan (insert: randomness of choice with no equivocation except for gender)? What if it had been a Salman, a man of much brawn and Sultan-esque fame, gobbling down chicken wings on a TV show? We’d have laughed, sure; cheered him on as one does any old lover of chicken wings – but would it have been as exoticised as PeeCee’s great food stint?
Somewhere Between Cheese and Strawberry...
The thought didn’t recur till a conversation with a girlfriend a few weeks ago. Her new relationship wasn’t all she’d hoped it would be, she confided. When she was prodded, she spoke of how she wasn’t entirely herself with him; “it’s mostly when I eat; I feel like I eat like a songbird – as though he’d judge me if I ordered the largest portions”. Another friend at one time had said she refused to eat cheese in front of her boyfriend – because she said it would make her look “too gluttonous”. And let’s face it, women – hand to heart: how many of you great, voracious eaters haven’t taken it as the highest compliment when a male friend you knew said they were impressed at how you ate – “not like other girls at all!”
It’s not their fault, you know, for saying what they think will please you; nor yours either, for deigning to be pleased and reaching complacently for that fourth helping. Men and women are largely brought up to believe in a rather gendered kind of eating. Sometimes the idea is drilled into one by familial conditioning: “a growing boy must eat,” a grandmother in many a regional TV serial (that my mother watches) will still croak – intermingling confusedly in my head with the far more progressive “I’m a Complan Girl/Boy” ditty that was programmed into my head in my youth.
At large numbers of family gatherings and social groups, men are just expected to eat more, because, they’re well, men. My one shining moment at the annual Durga Pujo luncheons held in the large South Calcutta home my mother was born into came circa 2010, when I collectively polished off more food than three older male cousins. I was talked about for three whole Pujos after, no kidding.
It isn’t as if gendered eating weren’t disproportionately skewed towards men too. When buying birthday cake for my best male friend in college, I had wanted to know what flavour he’d like his face to be smashed in. “Strawberry” elicited the most clandestine of guffaws, the most unabashed round of titters in the group, as the friend looked around defiantly. Not a lot of men liked strawberry, he was told in a hasty attempt at reconciliation, as the rest of the non-judgemental friends trooped out to buy the controversial cake.
And there’s the other gendered conundrum. For years, we’ve been told, women must sit in giant sofas in striped pyjamas eating the weight of the house in Baskin Robbins tubs – while men must drown equally effectual sorrows in dark bottles of beer. We’ve been told that Manhattans are to women what whiskey sours are to men (heck, Sex and the City propitiated that one for almost six entire seasons.) That frosted cupcakes can only be eaten in dainty nibbles by red-painted mouths, while large chunks of tandoori chicken can only be torn at in caveman-esque growls – and then chomped and spat out.
You could chalk it down to some archaic hangover from the hunter-gatherer era – or you could blame the telly and the pop culture. Either way, it’s rather unfortunate that my two best friends must bite their fingernails over eating strawberry cake and too much cheese, not necessarily in that order.