Any Scotch Will Do as Long as It’s Not a Blend of Course: Cultural and Gender Signification of Food and Alcohol

I remember big family gathering where drunken relatives would get us youngens to sip and taste the alcohol they were drinking, usually an after dinner brandy. Of course, already drunk, they would laugh at my cousins and me as they told us to breath through our noses while we tasted the harsh liquors that made our faces crunch up in horror and distaste. The idea was that we were supposed to learn how to drink and learn how to drink properly. The other idea was that if my cousins and I knew we could drink at home, we wouldn’t overindulge as teenagers at parties.

My brother tells me a story about our grandfather teaching him (my brother) how to drink scotch. After taking a sip, my brother stood up saying “This would go great with some coke.” Of course, my grandfather explained to my brother that the point was to enjoy scotch for its taste and that adding a mixer or ice would take away from the taste. As I got older and started drinking, my aunt introduced me to good wine, my brother taught me to drink scotch, and my uncles taught me how to drink beer. My friends taught me what it looks like to overindulge.

The more I bartended and learned about alcohol and food, the more I saw how all food serves as a sign for modern society and culture and the more I became a snob. As Barthes says, “People may very well continue to believe that food is an immediate reality (necessity or pleasure), but this does not prevent it from carrying a system of communication” (22). In serving the public, I quickly began to see the signification. A man on a date orders a steak and scotch to signify his masculinity and “refined” taste, but he nullify it by ordering his steak well done and his scotch with coke . The woman, to signify a feminine refined taste, orders fish with vegetables and a glass of Sutter Home blush wine. These choices are a break down of the signifying system of what these foods represent while also illustrating how food is gendered.

Right now as I write this in a coffee shop, I got up to serves myself coffee from the table the cafe has set up. Next to the table the owner and a woman sit, and as I poured my coffee, the woman apologized, “I’m sorry. I think we used up all your soy milk or cream, whatever was there.” “I like my coffee to taste like coffee,” I responded. She looked at the owner and said “Why is it men drink coffee black?” As I shrugged and walked back to my table, the answer became obvious: because black coffee signifies masculinity for men and seriousness for women. This signification is the same that manifest itself in people’s food and alcohol choices. A steak signifies manliness; a well-done steak signifies ignorance. When a man orders a single-malt scotch, it signifies good taste as well as status. Here is a man who appreciates the finer things in life and is willing to spend the money to enjoy it. Additionally, woman who orders a good wine that pairs well with her food demonstrates her knowledge and status; a woman who orders blush wine reveals her ignorance.

The manners in which certain foods signify appear to be a glitch in Barthes’ system. Barthes’ makes the observation that once food is the standard for consumption, “as soon as it takes on the characteristics of an institution, its function can no longer be dissociated from the sign of that function” (21); however, scotch, wine, and steak have become an institution symbolizing wealth, class, and good taste, but only when consumed properly . When not consumed properly, these items can signify the exact opposite of what they are meant to signify and reveal the character of their consumer. The man who orders a Macallan single malt scotch and puts more than one ice cube in it or adds a mixer is signifying the opposite of taste and class just as the woman who orders blush wine is signifying the opposite of good taste and refinement.

Furthermore, food and alcohol signify gender as strongly as clothes. This signification is the same that works in sexual engagements. A man who experiments with having sexual encounters with men is gay or at least bisexual; a woman who engages in sexual encounters with women is not necessarily lesbian and is just “experimenting.” This same societal rule applies to food. A man who orders a salad with a crisp white wine is considered feminine while a woman who orders a raw steak and a beer is seen as down to earth or as “real” for eating like a “real” person. While I know this signifying systems mean very little, I still can’t help to scorn the man who can afford to order Macallans but puts ice in it; just like in Starnucks, I judge the guy who gets the salted caramel Frappuccino® with extra whip cream.

I think there is a cultural significance to this as well. Most of the people who would get their steaks well done are Central American or from the Caribbean. My Cuban family eats its steaks well done while my brothers and I eat our steaks medium at most. I don’t know what this cultural difference signifies. This cultural difference correlates to the alcohol as well. It was mostly South Americans who would drink their scotch with a mixer, but my family is the one who taught me not to mix good scotch with anything, which was later reinforced as I started bartending. I don’t understand it.

Scotch’s status symbol is perfectly illustrated in a scene from Swingers
Mikey makes it a point to order a scotch, single-malt, of course, because he is trying to signify wealth and status.

I was going to put “properly” in quotation to signify that there is no real proper or improper way to consume these food items; however, as I stated before, I am a food snob and believe these foods do have a proper way to be consumed.