Guys vs. dolls

Approaching food, men ask, "Where's the beef?'' while women graze in greener pastures

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By M.E. Malone
Globe Correspondent / March 25, 2009

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The hors d'oeuvres selections are nearly finalized, and the bride-to-be and her mother are cooing and conferring over the premier offerings: shrimp margaritas, potato boxes with white truffle ratatouille, smoked salmon roulades with wasabi aioli. The bridegroom, silent until now, decides to chime in. "Can we have meat on a stick?"

"That's pretty much how it goes," says Holly Safford, founder of The Catered Affair in Hingham, recounting a recent wedding planning session. "I've been doing this for 30 years."

Generalities about how men and women approach food choices abound. People say women insist on a cooked vegetable along with a salad on the nightly dinner table, while a few carrots or peas in a stew or pot pie count as a meal's worth of vegetables for men. At seafood restaurants, guys prefer heartier swordfish or shellfish. "I'm sorry but tilapia just isn't a fish," says one male diner. At cocktail parties, women pass up tempting hors d'oeuvres that can't be consumed in a single bite.

Researchers have tried to measure male-female preferences more precisely. A study of military personnel in the 1980s showed that women "more highly preferred" vegetables, salads, and fruits while men's favorites were "meat-containing" with grilled steak topping the list. A 2007 British study found the same tendencies in school children and a more recent study at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab in 2008 confirmed that when they head to the kitchen for something comforting, women select easily prepared snacks, such as cookies and chocolate, while men pick hot meals such as soup or pizza. (Ice cream is a universal favorite.)

A cocktail party might make a better lab for study. Taste is not the only factor when men and women select their favorite finger foods from silvery trays, say Safford and others. Take deviled eggs, for example. "I don't think I've ever seen a woman eat a deviled egg" at a social function, says Safford. "She might like them, but with all of the mayonnaise and everything it just feels too much like a whole meal. For a man, he might deny himself eggs every morning because he should watch his cholesterol. But at a party, he's not thinking about his statins," referring to cholesterol-lowering drugs.

And while men insist they are trying to pay more attention to healthy eating, too, they acknowledge that their approach is different from women's. "I don't think any man in the course of human history has ever said, 'I'm hungry. I think I'm going to slice up a cucumber and mix it up with a little yogurt,' " says Dean Johnson, cohost of WCAP's "Merrimack Valley Radio in the Afternoon." "There's definitely girl food and guy food. . . . Most guys I know don't like saying 'eggplant' - much less eating anything with eggplant in it." His nod to healthier eating: berries with his morning coffee.

Jay Murray, executive chef at Grill 23 & Bar, Boston's elegant bastion of beef, sees his share of men who prefer meat and women who prefer less hearty fare. A slow beef day? "When a group of nurses in town for a convention ate here," Murray answers. The restaurant's more "playful" entrees feature seafood and other specialties, but when it comes to men and meat the creativity is less, um, appreciated and the focus is on the quality of the cut. "I think men know what they want to order before they sit down," he says. Murray says he is seeing one nod to healthier eating: Asparagus has unseated mashed potatoes as the number one side dish.

Across town at Vee Vee in Jamaica Plain, where meat appears only as an occasional special, Kristen Valachovic counts on both men and women to move away from the traditional protein-starch-vegetable entree formula. "I don't think of it this way, but we've been told that our food is feminine," she says, adding "our chef is a man." Valachovic, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Dan, says there are men who patronize regularly, though she is occasionally concerned when a man enters the restaurant alone "that he might not find what he's looking for."

"I'd say our food catches people off guard," she says. The menu features butternut squash enchiladas, shrimp and scallop cakes, and penne with white beans and kale. "They don't expect to be as pleased as they are." Oh, and there's always the craft beer to keep the guys coming back.

When restaurateur Chris Douglass opened his newest place in Dorchester, Tavolo, last year - the emphasis is on pizza, pasta, and panini - he says, "We got a lot of push back from people who wanted to see protein dishes on the menu." Many of them, he notes, were women who "wanted the same flavor profile but without the heavy carbs."

Defying all stereotypes about gender-based food choices, Rip Esselstyn is taking a radical approach in separating men from their attachment to beefy foods. The Austin, Texas, firefighter and triathlete received national attention last year for his daring effort to rescue his brethren at Engine 2 from their own cholesterol intake by adopting an eating plan free of meat, chicken, fish, eggs, added oils, and dairy. Now on a tour to promote his new book, "The Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter's 28-Day Save-Your-Life Plan that Lowers Cholesterol and Burns Away the Pounds," Esselstyn says in a telephone interview that he has encountered a lot of skepticism, "but we're winning them over."

Like other weight-loss books, "The Engine 2 Diet" contains recipes for salads and soups, but other dishes have a masculine appeal: sloppy Joes, hamburger alternatives, fajitas, and sweet-potato fries. Esselstyn believes his regimen is attractive to both genders, but acknowledges its special appeal to men. "How do you get a Texas firefighter to give up cheeseburgers, french fries, and fajitas? You feed him oatmeal, black-bean burgers with lots of mustard, and avocados or fajitas made with portobello mushrooms and sweet-potato french fries," he says. That's all of the good and none of the bad.

As to whether it was difficult to wean Texas firefighters off beef, Esselstyn says, "When you come into the world, no one likes the taste of alcohol, cigarettes, or coffee." If Engine 2's firefighters are any indication, perhaps health concerns are trumping time-honored gender preferences.

"Boys eat meat," he says. "Real men eat plants."