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How a plea to add veggie burgers to In-N-Out’s menu morphed into a food gender war

Ideas Provocations

Male insecurity is an under-appreciated social pathology in America. It reveals itself in many areas of private and public life (did you see the debate Monday night?), but it’s particularly prevalent in discussions of food. It might be killing us. The men among us, anyway.

Years ago, a guy at a backyard barbecue informed me that “salad is for pussies.” He said this while glaring at me and caressing a snub-nosed .38. Really. It was I, you see, who had schlepped the salad from the kitchen out to the deck. When every other person at the barbecue, male and female, started munching the greens, I felt better, though the gun-stroker continued to give me the stink-eye, maybe because everybody had laughed at his declaration.

Food is visceral. That’s partly why this site exists. People care about it a lot, as they should, and so they often assign to it not only their “values” but, sometimes, their very identities. When the values are screwed up, or the identities are badly constructed, it often leads to trouble.

“Salad is for pussies.” He said this while glaring at me and caressing a snub-nosed .38.

Emily Byrd, communications manager for the Good Food Institute, recently launched a petition to get In-N-Out, the Irvine, CA-based fast-food chain that inspires cultish devotion throughout the West, to add a veggie burger to its menu. This was done mainly to get GFI some attention, as In-N-Out is notoriously hesitant to change its menu (as it has said in reaction to the petition).

Still, it was a polite, harmless request, and the petition had as of Tuesday night garnered nearly 37,000 signatures. The Los Angeles Times picked up the story, and then, perhaps predictably, came the hate messages from enraged men who don’t like nobody messin’ with their meat.

Here are a few examples GFI provided to The New Food Economy. Some were emails, some were Facebook posts that have since been deleted (“sics” throughout):

  • “Emily Byrd, go eat a dick sandwich! … I really hope you try to get a bunch of liberal candyasses to protest outside an In-N-Out. You will be laughed at and ran over if you block the driveway. GO CLIMB ANOTHER TREE, IDIOT!”
  • “Fanatics that need to be nursefed since they are all little delicate snowflakes hiding from one microagression to the next, seeking a gender free, multiculture diverse safespace to cuddle in….the worst part of the human race.”
  • After calling the GFI people “bleeding heart ass backward dummies” and swearing at them a few times, David Leslie, a marketing manager who lives in Long Beach, California, declared in an email to the group that Byrd and her coworkers were “soft vegan nerds.”

You begin to sense a pattern. “Candyasses.” “Nursefed.” “Delicate snowflakes,” “Gender-free.” “Soft.” Not sufficiently manly, these GFI people, several of whom are, like Byrd herself, women. Other messages were more focused on race (for some reason), with one correspondent, for example, making an anti-Semitic remark. Others decided GFI wasn’t adequately patriotic, what with its subversive wish that In-N-Out would sell veggie burgers. Some hinted at violence. But the lack of manliness betrayed by GFI’s request was a recurrent theme, as it so often is in these situations.

The comments aren’t just men telling you what they eat—they are telling you what you should eat too.

Leslie, who described his angry note as a bit of “trolling,” explained when pressed in an email interview what he meant by “soft vegan nerds”: “Soft,” he wrote, “is referring to the understanding that soy, as an endocrine-disrupting phytoestrogenic substance, causes men to curtail testosterone production in lieu of estrogen, which physiologically causes weight-gain, lack of muscle tone, and overall flabbiness, not too mention throwing your brain chemistry out of whack causing mental and emotional changes.”

Well. OK, then! (To be ridiculously fair, while there is little evidence that soy lowers testosterone levels in men, and even less that it throws people’s brain chemistry “out of whack,” there is some indication that the phytoestrogens contained in soy might mimic estrogen to some small, almost certainly harmless, degree. But to go from that to, basically, “soy will make you soft,” is, well, a quite a leap. It’s an even bigger leap to believe that’s what Leslie meant to convey when he hurled those words, though there was some similarly pseudoscientific verbiage tucked in among the insults.)

If stuff like this were limited to random internet crazies, that would be bad enough. But the idea is widespread that healthy diets are somehow less than manly, or are for “candyasses” and the “soft” and estrogen-addled.

These notions have also made it into the political realm and into the food business, where exploiting male insecurity is far from rare. That’s especially true among fast-food advertisers. Behold:

There might be a touch of irony there: making fun of commercials that appeal to viewers’ (read: young men’s) sense of manliness, within a commercial that does precisely the same thing. But irony or not, the message is clear: if you eat “steak, steak, steak, and more steak, with cheese,” you’re a real man.

The opposite is also true. Eating the wrong kinds of foods—particularly lighter, healthier fare—means you’re less than a real man. In 2006, Burger King introduced a TV spot for its Texas Double Whopper dubbed “Manthem, where our hero, a regular dude with an untucked shirt and a four-day stubble, sings “I Am Man.” He declares, to the tune of “I Am Woman,” that he is “way too hungry to settle for chick food” (he specifically cites quiche). He and some other newly liberated manly men throw an emasculating minivan off a bridge, and the announcer orders, “Eat like a man, man.”

There are plenty more where that came from. And all of this leaves out the ads aimed at the Knuckledragger-American Community that are just plain sexist, or lowbrow, like the pathetic (but effective!) spots Carl’s Jr. is known for.

Tristan Bridges, a sociology professor at Brockport University in Brockport, New York, traces the healthy-food-is-for-pansies phenomenon back to at least 1982 (though of course it predates that, in one form or another, by many decades), when the bestseller “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was published. After that “classic satirization of American masculinity” hit the bestseller lists, “fast-food restaurants became emboldened to challenge American men to forgo health concerns in their advertisements,” Bridges wrote in 2010.

What does Bridges make of all these men sending unhinged nastygrams to Byrd and GFI? He’s “really not all that shocked,” he says. But, “I do think it’s worth it to examine … how men’s strange preoccupation with meat consumption is linked to much more than eating habits. The comments aren’t just men telling you what they eat—they are telling you what you should eat too. And that is really interesting and belies some insecurity.”

It also belies a bit of rank hypocrisy. Many of the messages “telling you what you should eat” also contain complaints about “political correctness,” and accuse Byrd and GFI of, as one of them put it, “forcing” veggie burgers “down our throats.”

Of course, Byrd did no such thing. She merely requested that veggie burgers be added to In-N-Out’s menu. As she wrote in a piece reacting to this foolishness, “C’mon, no one is standing in the way of you and your double-double order. Why so many people would get so worked up over someone wanting to buy a different burger is beyond me. But then again I’m a narcissistic, candyass liberal and soft vegan nerd.”

Dan Mitchell

A journalist based in Oakland, Calif., Dan Mitchell has written for The New York Times, Fortune, Wired, Slate, the Chicago Tribune, Civil Eats, Modern Farmer, and many other publications. Follow him @thefoodeconomy