What is it about food and men?

Sunday 30/10/2016

When asked why she decided to focus on men and food in her book Nurturing Masculinities: Men, Food, and Family in Contemporary Egypt, Nefissa Naguib explained that in her research she found that women were always linked to food and men were always in the back­ground.

Nurturing Masculinities examines why Egyptian men feel it is their duty to feed their families, the emotional attach­ment to food while sharing it with your loved ones and the memories it can evoke.

“When Armenians migrated to Egypt, food is one of the last things they left behind, besides their language,” Naguib, an Egyptian, said, stressing the importance of food as a cultural link.

Although Naguib uses exam­ples of Egyptian men, the issues she raises are universal and it made me think about how food is linked to cultural identity.

When migrants in Italy complained that the food they were offered was monotonous and indigestible, Italians shouted back, “Force them to eat pork!” as a means of punishment. The former United Nations head of the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan replied: “It’s inhumane to be forced to eat the same stuff all the time.” The war of words continues.

Falling under the categories of “Arab”, “Muslim” and “British”, I often wonder which category fits me most. I do not speak Arabic at home; my parents switched from watching Egyptian to American films; we live in a predominantly English area in London. One part of being Arab, however, has remained in our house: our food.

When my brother introduced my parents to the soft drink Mountain Dew, my father tasted it and his eyes lit up. He told my mother to try it and tell him what it reminds her of. She instantly said “Sinalco”, a popular soft drink sold in Iraq, and a funny story of them drinking it back home was shared with my brother and me.

There is something about sense of taste that stays sacred to immigrants. Most change their dress style to Western clothing and, through generations, homeland language is lost but it seems to be the opposite when it comes to world cuisine.

Last year, the BBC introduced a programme called Eating Together, celebrating how immigration made British food great. More immigrants are using their cooking skills to feed Westerners, sparking interest in learning more about the culture that brought the food they have come to enjoy.

However, there is a down side to immigrants eating their adopted country’s cuisine. Science Daily reported on a study that showed that migrants who eat their old cuisines often pay more to dine because they sometimes move to places where their familiar foods are more expensive.

Is it still a man’s duty to feed his family? It appears to be embedded in a man’s psyche. If we look at tribal times, it was the man who scouted for food, to look ahead, to plan, to prepare and to strat­egise. Men tend to be physically stronger than women, therefore more equipped to protect the family.

Despite the rise of working women, the Daily Mail reported a few years ago most women instinctively want a man who will provide for them. However, figures released by the Office of National Statistics revealed husbands who provide are decreasing.

Therefore, a man’s instinct to provide seems to have come from a biological need rather than a cultural one, further emphasising these issues are universal, not only Arab related.

Nurturing Masculinities: Men, Food, and Family in Contempo­rary Egypt by Nefissa Naguib, University of Texas Press, 152 pages.