For These Vegans, Masculinity Means Protecting The Planet
Real men eat meat. They kill it and then they grill it.
That's the stereotype, or cliche, that's about as old as time.
At a recent barbecue in Brooklyn, N.Y., a half-dozen guys who resist that particular cultural stereotype gathered together. Many of them are muscled semi-professional athletes, including triathlete Dominic Thompson, competitive bodybuilder Giacomo Marchese and mixed martial arts fighter Cornell Ward.
They're also all vegans and eschew all animal products. Because these guys are so seriously, well, built, they say some people find it hard to believe they never eat meat, fish, dairy or eggs.
"Everyone always thinks vegans are weak, skinny, frail, pale," Thompson says. "I get people that think, 'You're like Gwyneth Paltrow.' "
Unlike Paltrow (who is no longer vegan), Thompson grew up in a rough Chicago housing project. He was the kind of kid who would rush in to save stray cats or dogs if he saw people picking on them.
"[There's] nothing more cowardly to me than taking advantage of something that's defenseless," he says.
Today, Thompson is the kind of adult who checks clothing labels to make sure he never buys leather, wool or products tested on animals. "To me, compassion is the new cool," he says.
The host of this all-male vegan barbecue is Joshua Katcher, who founded the men's lifestyle website The Discerning Brute. He also designs high-end vegan menswear that has caught the attention of such men's magazines as GQ and Esquire.
In an era of climate change and environmental destruction, Katcher thinks masculinity should be reframed as protecting the planet, not dominating it.
"Mainstream masculinity is a roadblock to sustainability," he says, adding that since he stopped eating or using products that hurt animals, he's occasionally been made to feel unmanly. "It's considered a sign of weakness to other men — like you've left the club."
Leaving the club is actually nothing new. Pomona College professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who studies gender, food and culture, says American men have done it for more than 100 years, stretching back to the 1800s.
"One particular group of radical food thinkers advocated a kind of manliness based on vegetarianism," she says.
Those men included Sylvester Graham, a vegetarian after whom the graham cracker was named, and Bronson Alcott, a vegan and father of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women. Alcott saw his veganism as a continuation of his advocacy against slavery and for women's rights. According to his daughter, though, Alcott never did any cooking.
Tompkins is a meat eater (as is this reporter), but she finds something very masculine about following a vegan diet. It's "total control ... of the body," she says.
Something hard core about veganism does seem to appeal to some men. In fact, according to a Harris Poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, more women are vegetarian than men, but slightly more men are vegan.
John Joseph of the punk band the Cro-Mags and author of a pro-vegan manifesto has rejected animal products for more than 30 years. "I come from jails and gyms where guys were eating Alpo burgers," he says. "The dudes were like, 'If it's good enough for my pit bull, it's gonna give me more strength and energy!' "
Obviously, Alpo burgers are off the menu at the vegan barbecue in Brooklyn. "These are our beet burgers," says grillmeister Dan Strong. He's a professional vegan chef who trained in New York's finest kitchens.
"I was mostly a butcher," he admits.
But then Strong met a beautiful vegan at the restaurant where he worked and converted to impress her. Now the two run a popular vegan food stand called Chickpea and Olive. Being vegan has made Strong think a lot about how American men are not encouraged to show feelings. He does that now, he says, every time he sits down to a meal.
"There's an illusion that manhood is this confidence that is exuded at all time," Strong said. "Veganism is that kind of confidence. It really is. It's a choice that we make that guides us on our lives. I can't think of anything more manly than that."
As the barbecue winds down, the guys decide that they're going to pursue the most masculine of pastimes together. That is, going hunting for wild mushrooms.
Recipe: Chickpea And Olive's Zucchini Polenta Burgers
Makes 8 to 10 burgers
2 summer squash
1 cans cannelloni beans
60 grams polenta cooked in 240 milliliters of water
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1 head of roast garlic
3 square feet of cheesecloth
4 scallions, sliced
Shred the zucchini and squash on a box grater or in your food processor with the shredder attachment. Remove to a strainer and salt liberally. This will cause the squash to release its moisture. You can then squeeze the water out with your hands or wring the squash out in a dishtowel or cheesecloth.
Slice scallions and add to squash.
Next, take 1/2 can of beans and drain them before adding them to your food processor, along half of roasted garlic. Puree until they make a smooth paste.
Mix remaining beans directly to the shredded squash, along with the bean puree and the nutritional yeast, and season the mixture with salt and pepper along with remaining cloves of roast garlic, whole.
Next, cover with the polenta and mix to combine. You can put the bowl in the refrigerator directly or transfer to a cookie tray and refrigerate for at least 1 hour to cool and allow the polenta to set. Next you can either form burgers with your hands or cut with a cookie cutter or ring mold. Fry in a cast iron pan for 3 to 4 minutes on each side.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: The world is run by the man.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 2: Who?
SPEAKER 1: The man. Oh, you don't know the man? Oh, well, he's everywhere.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 3: A lot of women get turned on by a masculine, earthy quality.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 4: Whatever you do, don't tell her you don't drink. She'll think you're a Boy Scout.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 5: What kind of man are you? What kind of man are you?
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: That's just one of the questions we've asked this summer while exploring the definition of masculinity. Today, the subject is food, and the notion that real men eat meat. According to advertisers, they crave steak and burgers. Here's a Burger King commercial from just a few years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF BURGER KING COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 6: I am man, hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore. And I'm way too hungry to settle for chick food.
ULABY: Chick food meaning foods that are marketed almost exclusively to women - salad, yogurt, cupcakes. Well, it's not just Madison Avenue. NPR's Neda Ulaby has a look at how men are stereotyped by what they like to eat.
ULABY: The guests at this barbeque in Brooklyn are a bunch of really manly guys - semi-professional athletes, mostly, and seriously built.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 7: Do any of you guys have like competitions or races or anything coming up - or fights?
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 8: I do.
ULABY: These guys all share something else in common besides feats of strength.
GIACOMO MARCHESE: My name's Giacomo Marchese. My path to veganism was actually based on performance. I am a bodybuilder.
DOMINIC THOMPSON: I'm Dominic - Dominic Thompson. I am a triathlete, and I'm a vegan and proud of it.
ULABY: These manly, muscly men do not consume any animal products - no meat, fish, dairy, eggs - ever. And for that, they get teased, even sometimes mocked.
THOMPSON: You have the vegan women in the community that don't have the same pushback.
ULABY: Thompson says veganism tends to get associated with wimpy female stereotypes.
THOMPSON: Everyone always thinks vegans are weak, skinny, frail, pale. I get people that think you're like Gwyneth Paltrow.
ULABY: Who, by the way, is no longer vegan. Also unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, Thompson grew up in a rough Chicago housing project - the kind of kid who, when he saw people picking on stray dogs or cats, would rush in to save them.
THOMPSON: There's nothing more cowardly to me taking advantage of something that's defenseless.
ULABY: Today he's the guy who checks labels to avoid leather, wool, and products tested on animals.
THOMPSON: To me, compassion is the new cool.
ULABY: Let's meet the host of this all-male vegan barbecue. Tall, elegant Joshua Katcher runs a website called The Discerning Brute. It's a lifestyle guide for vegan men. Katcher also designs very expensive vegan menswear. It's caught the attention of men's magazines like GQ and Esquire. But Katcher challenges society's prevailing notions of manhood.
JOSHUA KATCHER: Mainstream masculinity is a roadblock to sustainability.
ULABY: Katcher thinks in an era of climate change and environmental destruction, masculinity should be reframed as protecting the planet, not dominating it. Since he stopped eating or using products that hurt animals, he says he's been made to feel unmanly.
KATCHER: Absolutely. It's considered just a sign of weakness to other men - like oh, you've left the club.
ULABY: There's actually been a tradition of leaving the club that dates back in this country for more than a hundred years, says Pomona College professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins.
KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: One particular group of radical food thinkers advocated a kind of manliness based on vegetarianism
ULABY: Including Sylvester Graham, after whom the graham cracker's named, and Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote "Little Women." He was vegan, and for him, that was part of his advocacy against slavery and for women's rights. Although according to his daughter, Alcott never bothered to do any cooking.
Professor Tompkins is like me, a meat eater, but she finds something very masculine about following a vegan diet.
TOMPKINS: It's total control - right - of the body.
ULABY: There's something hard-core about veganism that appeals to a certain type of guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ULABY: According to a recent Harris Poll, more women are vegetarian than men, but more men are vegan. John Joseph of the punk band the Cro-Mags has been vegan for more than 30 years.
(SOUNDBTIE OF SONG)
ULABY: Joseph's also written a book called "Meat Is For..." well, we have to say wussies. The real title's too hard-core for public radio.
JOHN JOSEPH: You know, I come from jails and gyms, where, you know, guys were eating Alpo burgers 'cause the dudes would like, if it's good enough for my pit bull, it's going to give me more strength and energy.
ULABY: Back and Brooklyn, the grillmeister is not flipping Alpo burgers.
DAN STRONG: So these are our beet burgers.
ULABY: That's right, beets, for their pleasingly pinkish color, says Dan Strong. He's a professional vegan chef who trained in some fancy New York kitchens.
STRONG: I was mostly a butcher.
ULABY: But Strong met a beautiful vegan at the restaurant where he worked and converted to impress her. Because he went hard-core vegan without a mushy transitional vegetarian phase, where he still got to eat eggs and dairy, Strong gained grudging respect, he says, from the other meat cutters and macho chefs.
STRONG: I actually got made fun of more about the fact that I didn't have tattoos.
ULABY: Being vegan has made Strong think a lot about how American men are not encouraged to show feelings. Caring passionately and openly about animals and the planet is for him, a powerful expression of manhood.
STRONG: I mean, there is an illusion that manhood is like this confidence that is exuded all times. Veganism is that kind of confidence, it really is. It's a choice that we make consciously that we live actively that guides us in our lives. I can't think of anything really more manly than that.
ULABY: As the barbecue winds down, the men have decided to pursue may be the ultimate in masculinity - hunting.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 9: I don't know if you guys are in to wild foraged mushrooms, but I'm all about going out there to pick them.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 10: They don't stand a chance.
ULABY: From the new frontier of food and masculinity, this is Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.