In 1982, an American humorist and screenwriter called Bruce Feirstein published Real Men Don't Eat Quiche: A Guidebook to All That Is Truly Masculine. It was a runaway bestseller, staying in the New York Times bestseller list for 55 weeks, but it wasn't, strictly speaking, about food. It was a post-feminist satire on the newly meek male who, rather than getting his wife to knock up a bacon-and-egg pie, bakes one himself and calls it a quiche, thus displaying his sensitive New Man credentials. Feirstein produced an opportunistic sequel, Real Men Don't Cook Quiche, which offered recipes with which the traditional, hairy-armpitted American male could re-establish his mastery.
Thirty years later, the idea of Real Man – and Real Woman – cooking seems to be back in circulation. Idiotic though it may seem, there's a new tendency, here and in the US, to emphasise male versus female cooking. Look at Esquire magazine's cookbook Eat like a Man: The Only Cookbook a Man Will Ever Need. The cover shows a vast T-bone steak, charred as though by a flame-thrower, lying on a dinner plate unadorned by vegetables or peppercorn sauce. An introduction, by David Granger, the editor-in-chief of Esquire, promises, with a certain condescension: "These are meals and dishes that are well within the bounds of a) what men want to eat, and b) what the moderately ambitious male cook is capable of producing in a reasonable amount of time." With cooing reassurance he adds: "No special equipment is called for, any technical expertise required will be simply explained and there'll be no straining of anything through muslin." (So that's the male cook's biggest fear...) The main dishes are a predictable succession of seared and roasted viands: steak, meat loaf, pork rib, chicken "with red-hot rapini". The two fish dishes on offer – "bourbon and brown-sugar salmon" and "tandoori-spiced red snapper" – probably sound more butch than they taste on the palate.
Health-conscious chaps can also celebrate the arrival of the first "lads' granola" cereal bar. Sold in Tesco stores, the Fuel bar occupies the same shelf as those umpteen other off-putting rectangles of oats and dried fruit that nobody of sound mind would ever want to eat for breakfast, but this one's "aimed predominantly at active, healthy males – or men who are aspiring to be". Each bar contains oats, guarana ("David Beckham drinks guarana," men are assured) and pumpkin seeds ("contains zinc, which is vital for healthy sex organs") and will help you to live your dream of going on the next run of The Apprentice.
It was in the same spirit that Cadbury launched a new, babes-only chocolate bar a year ago – Dairy Milk Bliss, "targeted at female consumers". Yes, it was chocolate with some filling inside it, just like every chocolate comestible dreamt up in the past 150 years, only this one has "rounder corners" than standard Dairy Milk bars, and a vanilla mousse centre rather than your bog-standard caramel. The nuances of gender appeal are subtle indeed.
To see the modern lunatic fringe of girly exclusivity, check out a company called Ella Valentine, which encourages women to "tap into your inner English Rose" by purchasing its Ella Valentine free-range eggs. That's right – a branded range of eggs. How its eggs differ from any other hen-originated, shell-encased ova remains unclear, but they're big ("and as every girl knows, size is important") and will apparently "make your cakes fluffy and your desserts delicious" – and NB, girls, "they come in pretty pink cartons that are hard to resist".
For a more sophisticated approach, check out the "female-friendly steakhouse" that's currently being developed, with great success, by the STK chain. Part of the $100m One Group, STK joints have opened in LA, Las Vegas, Atlanta and New York, selling the idea that expensive, char-broiled steaks served in posh surroundings (see Wolfgang Puck's lucrative empire) can be suitable for the little lady out on the town with her gal-pals.
The STK website carries pictures of a foxy vamp carrying a meat hook of raw steak like a bad-taste handbag, spearing a sirloin with her sharp Manolo Blahnik heel and clamping a cube of rare ribeye between her pearly fangs and carmined lips. Although the flagship Manhattan eatery is located in the run-down-turned-hip Meatpacking District, the shout-line is "not your daddy's steakhouse". In an ingenious piece of niche marketing, STK offers ladylike 6oz "skirt steak" and "filet medallion" as well as standard-size sirloin and, for the Desperate Dans in town, a monster "cowboy rib steak" of 34oz. "The chain claims to be "breaking down the barriers of a normal steakhouse by losing the overly masculine vibe that has long been the trademark of its genre... STK introduces the Steakhouse to a young sexy market".
I can't say I've noticed many barriers erected against women carnivores at, say, Sophie's Steakhouse or the Gaucho chain (though it's true that Gaucho establishments at lunchtime are a virtual fog of testosterone). But then most ladies of my acquaintance seldom flinch from eating game casserole, pasta bolognese, whiffy cheeses or any other foods supposedly the exclusive province of male diners; nor do most men I know turn their noses up at Caesar salad, seared scallops, beef carpaccio or elderflower sorbet – supposedly the ladies' favourites – if anyone were to offer them.
Sure, there are differences between what men and women order in a restaurant, especially when on a date, but that's different – that's about worrying what you'll look like in the act of shoving food in your gob. In my experience, women rarely order soup, spaghetti or noodle dishes – but that's more to do with their fastidiousness about spillage and slurpage than about their liking for such dishes. Generally speaking, we all have the same taste buds, we all experience the same tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami) and like, or have trained ourselves to like, the same flavour combinations. Men and women are equally capable of appreciating strong, earthy, gutsy flavours and textures as they are of enjoying light, delicate, subtle dishes.
What has changed in the past 15 years isn't how we taste food but the people who cook it. Cooking, the traditional realm of the housewife and below-stairs female chef, has become a playground of alpha males. Even baking has changed. Once a male preserve (along with the butcher and the candlestick-maker), it turned into something your auntie did to delight her teatime guests; now it's grown testicles again with the arrival of The Fabulous Baker Brothers, Henry and Tom Herbert, on Channel 4, allegedly out "to prove that baking's not just for girls".
Like hairdressers, modern British restaurants are, broadly speaking, unisex. Go to the fifth floor at Harvey Nichols, where everything is hushed and bland and discreetly inoffensive, and you may be given smoked salmon with fennel and apple crème fraîche instead of lemon wedges and capers, and the lamb rump will be served in five pink roundels of meat that resemble ruby earrings from Pippa Small rather than actual lumps of blackened sheep's bottom – but the quality of the salmon and the lamb will survive the preparation, even if one is precious and the other earthy. Similarly, there's no woman I know who'd turn up her nose at the bacaro-style food in Polpo or Mishkins or Dabbous because it's insufficiently exquisite or ladylike.
Seeking to impose gender distinctions on food is doomed to failure, but it won't stop food companies trying. This week sees the launch of the BBQ rancher, a new "healthy" (because it's non-fried) offering from Kentucky Fried Chicken. It's a grilled chicken breast slathered in barbecue sauce and clamped inside a deli roll. Think, now. Is it a male or a female food item? You can hear the marketing department trying to pitch it one way ("It's healthy!") then another ("It's a burger!") before deciding, as they have done, to run "his'n'hers" television commercials, with a "fun-loving" theme for the lads and an "etiquette" theme for the laydeez.
What utter tosh. For the best example of unisex eating I know, try the scene from Tom Jones, the 1963 movie, in which Albert Finney and Joyce Redman devour oysters, chicken and soft fruit across the table from each other in an erotogastronomic duet. Food isn't, in itself, male or female; the uses to which we put it, and the strategies we employ to get it inside our bodies, may be gender-oriented – but that's part of the perversity of being human. No member of the animal kingdom ever paused over a gazelle carcass or a fallen apple and thought: "It's too blokeish/too girly. I'm not eating that..."