Super Bowl LII will soon be upon us, along with its super-sized spread of snacks, an American meal as iconic as Thanksgiving. Matching debates over what to serve on the fourth Thursday in November, food rules guide what supposedly pairs perfectly with the nation’s favorite sport. Super Bowl party menus most often include foods like chicken wings, pizza, chili, potato skins, chips dunked in numerous dips, beer, and just about anything involving bacon. Where things get interesting are the Super Bowl food “don’ts.” The culinary outcasts of football reveal much about the slippery state of American masculinity on and off the field.
This January, Food & Wine’s “Super Bowl Food” webpage highlighted a party tip from celebrity chef Michael Symon: “Who eats vegetables at a Super Bowl party? You eat fried food!”1 Popular culture abounds with this prescribed anti-veggie attitude. In a ranking of the best and worst Super Bowl party foods for E! News, Jenna Mullins dismissed salads, veggie trays, and fruit platters as too healthy to accompany the big game.
Similarly, Rebecca Orchant included kale chips among “11 Foods that Don’t Belong Anywhere Near a Super Bowl Party” in the Huffington Post. She scoffed, “Chips are a requirement. Kale is exactly the opposite,” a snarky sentiment reinforced by her claim, which found its way into this article’s title, “This day is not a day for salads.” Even as women pen these lists of football fare, they reinforce gender conventions that code “healthy” food as derisively feminine and unfit for Super Bowl Sunday. These food rules also diverge from reality, as market research data indicates that vegetables, like finger-food-friendly baby carrots, are actually the top food eaten at Super Bowl parties.
Chevrolet Silverado’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial “Wheatgrass” also cut to the heart of the football food imaginary. As a gleaming white truck with a behemoth barbecue in tow pulled up to a tailgate party, John Cusack’s voiceover recited a poem-like ode to simple and straightforward masculinity, football, and the food that ought to accompany them:
In so many words, the commercial sentenced these vegetable-based options to eternal football damnation. Furthermore, the ad depicted men and women alike chowing down on meats of every size, shape, and sauce, each expertly prepared by the truck-driving grill master. To the soundtrack of “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright & Watts 103rd Street Rhythm, he wore a full beard, plaid shirt, and carnivorous appetite with pride. At one point, he even showed off his raw ingredients to another man. He held a hunk of meat gingerly from the bottom and behind, like a parent presenting a new baby, careful to support her neck.
The commercial incited such ire from vegetarians, vegans, and profanity watch groups alike that later airings modified the final line of the commercial to “all fine, just not today.” While this revision softened the degree of denigration, the updated commercial nevertheless excluded vegetables from Super Bowl spreads, embracing meat instead.
While coded as a masculine food in cultures the world over, meat and meat eating also help to construct manhood itself. In her foundational work, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Carol Adams argued that the gender politics that structure Western life link together the welfare of women, animals, and the environment. Collectively, they are oppressed by the cultural connections forged between men, meat, virility, and appetite.2 Adams proposed veganism as an engaged feminist politics capable of righting such power imbalances. It’s perhaps no wonder then, that truck commercials and Super Bowl party menus resist plant-based diets, and ridicule tofu, veggie burgers, and raw vegetables in particular.
As much as these sources define football food in terms of masculine, satisfying meat rather than feminine, “healthy” produce, these culinary rules also express a degree of class-based resistance against foods considered too posh, and by extension too inauthentic, to grace the football table. Just as it banishes kale chips, Orchant’s Huffington Post list also proclaimed that “fancy cheese” doesn’t belong, universalized with the claim, “Tiny, fancy foods are for other parties. This party is for big, messy, overblown foods.” Similarly, a 2012 DIRECTV commercial for NFL Sunday Ticket landed its jokes by disparagingly framing tapenade as too highbrow, as antithetical to the unpretentious simplicity that governs football and its food.
Just as football food rules resist the encroachment of “healthy,” “fancy,” and above all else “feminine” options, football—as a sport routinely described as ferocious, intense, hard, and tough—endorses and enacts conventional masculinity, which has health implications beyond the dietary. In his work on the social construction of masculinity and men’s health, Will Courtenay wrote that “a man who enacts gender as socially prescribed would,” among other things, “face danger fearlessly, disregard his risks, and have little concern for his own safety.”3
Related to this gendered interpretation of health, danger, and risk, new NFL regulations drew opposition. Critics, commentators, viewers, and even some players protest new NFL rules that seek to make the game safer to play, penalizing hits and maneuvers that can cause concussions and other injuries. A striking 2017 study further increased public awareness of the health issues that triggered the rules.4 While admittedly hampered by significant selection bias, the study found that 110 of 111 brains from deceased former NFL players were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that experts believe to be caused by blows to the head. Such blows can occur during tackles, nearly as common a feature of football as chicken wings and beer at tailgate parties.
A quick scouring of angry posts online finds dissatisfied viewers calling the new rules “sissy,” “powder puff,” and “not football.” As one of today’s most poignant examples of toxic masculinity, Donald Trump commented last year that the new rules were “ruining the game” and NFL ratings along with it. New York Times sports reporter Bill Pennington summarized Trump’s remarks as “the NFL has gone soft,” an unmistakably gendered and sexualized interpretation. For Trump (and others as well) the new rules impinge upon the raw, aggressive, and conventionally masculine tenor of football, a tone that also guides the food we eat when we watch it.
To some it might seem like a stretch to associate concussions, CTE, and claims of “ruining the game” with the food served on Super Bowl Sunday. But all of these factors are implicated in football culture and what it deems “man enough,” the destructive edge so often present in the impossible performance of conventional masculinity. This constricted form of masculinity requires balancing the strident acceptance of risk, danger, violence, and aggression with the subtle pursuit of safety, care, calmness, and gentleness. The constraints of gender can be reimagined, however, yielding more flexible, open, fluid, and productive definitions of femininity and masculinity, of how women and men should act (on the gridiron, in the stands, and at tailgate parties), and of what they should eat. As the rules of NFL football continue to evolve, perhaps we will also see the reconfiguration of the Super Bowl as a day for chicken wings, chips, and salads too.
- In a fascinating turn of events, Michael Symon’s, “Super Bowl Food,” piece for Food & Wine was recently updated, removing Symon’s quote and adding his super bowl party menu, which includes “Arugula Salad with Olives, Feta and Dill.” Return to text.
- Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York: Continuum, 1990), 16. Return to text.
- Will H. Courtenay, “Engendering Health: A Social Constructionist Examination of Men’s Health Beliefs and Behaviors,” Psychology of Men and Masculinity 1, no. 1 (2000): 10. Return to text.
- Jesse Mez et al., “Clinicopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Players of American Football,” JAMA 318, no. 4 (July 25, 2017): 360–70, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2017.8334. Return to text.