What’s ‘Slutty Food’?

In late July last year, Bon Appetit’s editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport published a tweet (@rapo4) declaring that he was going out to get some “slutty Chinese food” and Food Twitter exploded. The tweet was just vague enough in its meaning to be intriguing and insulting, and all of the sexual and racial connotations of the word ‘slut’ were front and centre as a male editor in a prominent magazine had a moment of extra fame when he didn’t want to be in the spotlight. A story on the tweet made it into KCRW’s Good Food podcast. Intrigued and confused when I heard about it in August, I thought I’d ask the people around me: “What is slutty food?” The response was overwhelmingly similar. Slutty food, according to my friends, is overindulgent, gooey, messy, most often sweet, and irresistible. You shouldn’t want it, but you do. It’s bad for you, you know that. You want it anyway. Slutty food has endless appeal. It got me thinking. Food and sex are often thrown together in a verbal mashup we use to express the unavoidable presence of humanity’s base urges. But what is the connection between ‘slut’ and indulgence when it comes to what we eat?

Let’s start at the beginning. There’s no unanimous meaning for the word ‘slut’. More often than not, we decide what it means in context; we base its meaning on the tone of voice it’s said in, the thing/person it is said about, and all of the other non-verbal cues in the conversation. A little online digging informs me that more often than not, the word slut makes reference to someone who is untidy and idle, and was originally almost exclusively used in reference to poor women (no insulting words for rich women eating bonbons and tossing the wrappers I guess). ‘Slut’ is not just gendered. It’s classed. The term refers to someone society says ought to be the most concerned with being productive in the labour market — young, impoverished women. Interestingly, there are also some racial elements to its usage. During the early parts of its existence and usage, a slut was a white woman, and given the term’s provenance in the 1400s, probably one who lived in the kind of urban slums most of us are only familiar with through Dickens’ novels (albeit that’s a different era altogether). By the 1960s however, the word had taken on its most common modern meaning: “woman who enjoys sex in a degree considered shamefully excessive”. The sexual revolution taking place in the United States brought the word quite a bit of popularity, as people, generally unaccustomed to treating social change nicely, reached for an insult to hurl at each other. Free love was out of bounds at the time in a much more emphatic way than at present, but ‘sluts’ didn’t care about that.

A graph of the word ‘slut’ and its popularity in books since 1400

While abundant sex has been off the table for one group or another about as long as people have existed, an abundance of food is a relatively new thing. Humans have only really gotten good at providing more food than is necessary in the last few hundred years. As such, indulgence and overindulgence have been taboo for quite a long time. The easiest reference point for many people is the categorization of gluttony as one of the Seven Deadly Sins (though many other cultures and religions have a similar prohibition). And though one might think that we’ve discarded such notions in the 21st century with the McDonaldization of everything in reach, all it takes is a look at modern advertisements to see the ways in which over-eating is still taboo and even startling. Particularly in the case of using women in food advertisements, gluttony is used in all its gendered glory to sell product. Selling to a man? Why not have an attractive (read: model proportioned) woman eat an amount of food that would unsettle him and pique his interest? Selling to a woman? Why not tie those dainty chocolates to anything else travel-sized or shiny? Food is gendered in order to make it sell.

Even more to the point with advertising indulgence to women is the idea that it’s natural. Women indulge cyclically according to most advertising, and channeling their chocolate-gorging ways into one week a month is the socially acceptable way to handle that. ‘Slutty’ food like ‘slutty brownies’ (pictured below; credit to whatsgabycooking.com) are simultaneously a reminder that ladies can get out of control sometimes, but it’s probably just because they’re on their period (my eyes cannot roll back far enough in my head for this line of logic). Slutty food challenges the notion that women ought to be dainty and refined, but only by offering them indulgence we already associate with them. After all, women and forbidden food pleasure metaphors go back as far as Eve. The well-known virgin-whore dichotomy is a trope throughout literature, television, movies and other media. Now it’s made its way into food. For women, ‘sluttiness’ is the thing they are frowned on for, punishable in any number of ways, though with food the implicit threat is weight gain. For men, ‘sluttiness’ is often indulged and forgiven, but even when it’s not, the narrative frequently revolves around a single moment of pleasure for which everything is risked (hello, cheat day and narratives of self-control).

Even more than the aforementioned connections to class and gender dynamics at play, the idea of ‘slutty food’ cashes in on our assumptions about race and sex. Very rarely are pasta or potatoes presented as indulgent, and if they are, they’re not often called ‘slutty’. The thing that makes them so is cheese or sauce or butter, all elements of cooking heavily entrenched in female iconography of languidness, smoothness and desire. Rapoport’s tweet was controversial for its link to Chinese food specifically; for him, that may well be a treat, but for many other individuals spaghetti would be the exoticized and fantastic food of their fantasies. Slutty food is presented often from the perspective of Anglo-American foodways, based on the evolving food culture of the first European settlers of the Americas, and their ancestors on the European continent.

So slutty food, after all my combing through texts on linguistics, food and gender, is a few things.

  1. Forbidden — slutty food is the cheat day of things you can put in your mouth, all in one delicious, ‘sinful’ bite. You shouldn’t have it, but you will.
  2. Unrefined — slutty food is the chicken balls with sweet and sour sauce at 2 am that you needed to prevent a hangover, but not the fusilli you had by candlelight in a posh restaurant. More often than not, it’s wet or gooey, something Helen Rosner at Eater says goes along with the history of the word and being ‘wet as a slut’.
  3. Gendered — Men appreciate, women indulge. More insidious than the overt sexual harassment many women in the food industry face, tropes like slutty food associate women with everyday eating and the labour (often domestic) that goes into it, but not the high end, trend setting cuisine that matters in terms of ratings and fame.
  4. (often) Ethnic — looking back at #2, it’s easy to see how this comes about. Ethnic foods, meaning here anything that’s not Anglo-American or Western European, are strongly associated in people’s minds with hearty portions, perhaps even oversized ones. Adding on to that the long history of Western scholars portraying everywhere east of Europe as a playground for the senses to indulge, and you have the connection between fantasy and food.

I don’t know if I intend to bake myself brownies with oreo middles, or cook pasta that drips with creamy sauce when I wake up with a carb craving, but after an investigation of what the word means, and an inconclusive finding on the place of ‘slut’ in my food lexicon, I probably won’t bother with names as I put whatever food I want in my mouth and enjoy. Until then, I’m waiting for a food metaphor that doesn’t tie in to making women feel bad.

Originally published on my previous blog nextbite.wordpress.com under the same title on 17 December 2015.

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