Brow Beat

Lucky Peach’s Gender Issue Isn’t as Binary as It Looks

The most recent issue of quarterly cool-kid food magazine Lucky Peach, which hits newsstands this week, is called “The Gender Issue,” and boy did its art director have fun with the cover. Covers, actually. The issue is divided into two main sections that begin on opposite sides of the magazine. The cover “For Men!” features sausages, carrots, popsicles, baguettes, and a very long butternut squash—along with pairs of round edibles, like eggs and lychees—on a yellow background. The cover “For Women!” features halved papayas, melons, oranges, figs, and oysters, among other symmetrical foods. The images are obvious enough to make even Georgia O’Keefe cringe. The two sections meet in the middle of the magazine for a “Sex Section” comprising four features.

In other words, the magazine’s covers reduce men and women to their sex organs, and the magazine’s structure is dichotomous and heterosexist. My fear that the magazine would approach gender with little nuance only intensified when I started reading the women’s section, which begins with an introductory note in which managing editor Rachel Khong makes light of reader concerns about a byline gender gap. (Disclosure: I’ve emailed with Khong in order to arrange for a couple of past Lucky Peach articles to run in Slate; she seems like a lovely person.) And the first article in the women’s section, an interview with Alice Waters, contains some tired stereotypes that I worried would set the tone for the rest of the magazine. “I think that women, because they have children and are hardwired to be nurturing, think of food as sustenance,” Waters says. “And I think that the male point of view is in the more professional place of thinking of the job as being a creative endeavor.”

But the rest of the articles and stories in this month’s Lucky Peach are a pleasant, if baffling, surprise. They do, in fact, approach gender with great nuance. Standout articles include an interview with three elderly Korean women who make a living diving for shellfish, an essay by Mei Chin about the discomfort she felt hunting birds with a group of men in the jungle of Suriname, and a meditation by John Birdsall on the influence gay men have had on food culture. Each of these features explores gender dynamics—the messy interplay between ideas of masculinity and ideas of femininity—in some area of food culture, whether food production, cooking, or food media.

Unlike the women’s section, the men’s section quickly dispatches the idea of gender essentialism. The first story, a short piece of fiction by Anthony Bourdain, is about a food writer who resents his yearly assignment for a men’s magazine of finding the “Ten Manliest Meals in America.” The character wonders, while pondering the concept of “manly” meals,

What precisely was implied by this term? What the fuck were people talking about when they talked utter shit like that? That certain ingredients—in and of themselves—were intrinsically masculine or feminine? Is that what they were saying? Was that the Big Lie he was expected, once again, to go along with?

Which is what makes the issue a little baffling: Given their eagerness to challenge the gender binary, why did the editors decide to make separate sections for men and for women at all? The covers make obvious that the division is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but practically speaking, it functions as a stark divide. (You have to turn the magazine upside-down when you switch from the men’s section to the women’s section.) And yet editorially, it’s hard to say what the difference is among the three sections. There are articles by both men and women in both gendered sections; each section even has its own piece about eating male animals’ genitalia. (Stag penises in the women’s section, turtle scrotums in the sex section, and rooster testicles in the men’s section, for those keeping score at home.) An article about a strip club is in the women’s section; a trio of recipes about cooking with flowers is in the men’s section. (To be fair, two of the recipes are for male flowers, but the connection seems tenuous.) Some features don’t seem particularly gendered at all: a profile of a Pennsylvania horseradish maker in the men’s section, or a series of dairy recipes (developed by a male chef) in the women’s section. Sometimes it seems like the Lucky Peach honchos flipped a coin to figure out which section an article would go in.

It’s not that there’s no logic whatsoever to the division: There are profiles of female chefs in the women’s section and of male chefs in the men’s. The protagonist of the short story in the women’s section is a teenage girl; the protagonist of the short story in the men’s section is a man. Investigations into strictly gendered professions—the female divers in Korea, all-male Chinese food delivery guys in San Francisco—appear in the section you’d expect. Still, the placement of articles is haphazard enough to make the editor in me crave a clearer explanation of the distinction between the two sections. But the feminist in me likes the chaos of the gender issue. Perhaps it would have been even better to dispense with the divisions entirely and let the melons and butternut squash mingle on the same page.