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diners, dudes, and diets

1 may 2022

To study "dude food," Emily J.H. Contois first has to define "the dude," which can seem superfluous to those of us who have lived through peak dude times. But dudehood is a complex of contradictory attitudes that deserves scholarly attention. Dudes are, on the one hand, slackers who cultivate insouciant idleness, who prize a lack of effort and application. But on the other hand, dudes are central to white hetero American identity and the power it reserves to itself. Dudes are assumed to exert power and privilege without working to attain it, without studying, without thinking things through. Their very ineptitude certifies their central, exalted status. In odd ways, the dude parallels the 19th-century vapid gentleman or the 18th-century booby squire.

Dudes exude masculinity without striving for it. They pride themselves on falling into paths of least resistance, among them their highly characteristic food habits. Contois works through semi-ironic dude cookbooks, and gazes into the oeuvre of Guy Fieri, as some cultural traces of the dude diet. Dude food is aggressively unhealthy, starkly carnivorous, while at the same time comforting, convenient, and (in the dude's mind, at least) heterosexually attractive: chicks may eat salads, dude theory posits, but they dig guys who can appreciate a big mess of ribs and fries.

I did not realize, till I read Diners, Dudes, and Diets, that Coke Zero, Diet Pepper 10, and various brands of yoghurt that come packaged in black tubs with powerful-looking emblems on them, were all designed for the dude demographic. I may not watch enough sports and other dudely entertainments on TV. In fact, I was not really aware that diet soda's default gender was feminine. Contois' project took shape over several years, as Donald Trump was making old-style Diet Coke the beverage of the alpha American male, so the valences of diet drinks may have changed in the meantime. But if it was once girly to drink sugar-free soda, it was deliberately guy-like to drink Coke Zero. Or so supposed somebody somewhere, mostly in advertising agencies.

Yoghurt, yes – like quiche years ago or kale more recently, yoghurt does seem to have had feminine associations. Even Contois is not sure how much success marketers had at reorienting thinking about yoghurt and getting guys to eat it. The emphasis was on protein and power; but yoghurt still tastes yoghurty. Maybe if there were a way to make yoghurt in flavors like mac-and-cheese or buffalo-wing, yoghurt would become a very dude thing.

Dieting too seemed largely for women, but in the 21st century, dude dieting got a boost from the reorientation of marketing for Weight Watchers and other programs, and the deployment of in-your-face faces of dieting like Charles Barkley. Though of course men losing weight had a larger and longer cultural presence even when the pressure was most on women to meet body ideals. Various athletic activities involve losing or "making" weight quite as much as beefing up. Dallas fitness guru Larry North was all about unsalted lean chicken breast for a while. The less-fortunate Jared Fogle, who exemplified the dude ethic's fecklessness if not its gusto, was Subway's dude dieter for many years, before his other proclivities sent him to prison. I guess neither bland chicken nor pusillanimous sandwiches are truly dude foods – so can one even be a dude while dropping a few? Contois notes that one development is the cultivation of the "dad bod," which allows the dude to avoid extreme body-issue images while staying on the slim side of ballooning. But as the cases of yoghurt and soda show, and as we learned decades ago from light beer, it is hard to thread the needle of tastes great and less filling.

Contois, Emily J.H. Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How gender and power collide in food media and culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. HF 6161 .F616C66