The eternal allure of Engagement Chicken
Feminist backlash and the food of marriage
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Okay, now, let’s talk about chicken…
On October 3, the New York Times published a recipe for “Marry Me Chicken” — a buttery and creamy recipe that is so good, the recipe's author claims that men have said that they’d marry her for that chicken.
The recipe is different from “Engagement Chicken,'' which made its debut in the pages of Glamour in 2004. But its functionality and its title are essentially the same — a meal so good that the person you cook it for will fall in love with you. These recipes are simple; the ingredients are usually inexpensive. The idea is that it’s a meal any woman can create, and by doing so, become the object of enduring love.
The lore of Engagement Chicken holds that in 1982, Glamour fashion editor Kim Bonnell, gave her trusty chicken recipe to an assistant who needed something to cook for her boyfriend. The boyfriend proposed a month later.
When the recipe was published in the magazine’s January 2004 issue, it became a celebrity. A 2012 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reads, “Glamour editors went on NBC’s ‘Today Show’ to demonstrate how to make the dish. Print headlines soon followed as word spread about the recipe — chicken stuffed with whole fresh lemons, basted with ‘marry me’ drippings from the pan and fresh herbs.”
A 2011 New York Post story claimed that Howard Stern’s then-girlfriend Beth Ostrosky made the recipe for him; when he described it on air, someone called in to tell him he'd been fed engagement chicken. When Stern asked Ostrosky if she had made the recipe, she confessed. She even said she’d torn the headline off so Stern wouldn’t see what she was up to. Stern and Ostrosky married in 2008 and are still together.
It hardly seems like coincidence that Engagement Chicken peaked at a time of post-feminist backlash to the women’s movement. A time when the goals of feminism were conquered, or so we believed. The pay gap had been closing. Women were entering and graduating from college at higher rates than men. The radical Riot Grrrls of the ‘90s had been replaced by the less angry pop stars — Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. And even Hillary Clinton had long since repented of her infamous line about not making cookies and had published, in Family Circle, a cookie recipe that beat out one submitted by Barbara Bush.
Part of this post-feminist backlash was the idea of the empowered woman as the lonely woman. The woman more likely to be hit by a bomb than married. The woman who had it all, except love.
In the post-feminist discourse of 2023, it’s still the woman as the one eating that draws our most unnerved responses. A woman feasting, especially on the dime of a man, is unruly in her appetites for sex and power and pizza. She must be restrained either by looking as if she never feasts or by becoming the producer of food — sublimating her desires into dishes that communicate all that she is not allowed to say.
That nearly 20 years later, the New York Times is wink-wink-nudge-nudge reviving the marriage chicken trope in a time of feminist backlash, where women are experiencing a restriction in their reproductive rights and healthcare access, doesn’t seem like an accident. It comes after other sections of the paper have suggested that the answer to male loneliness is for women to just have more sex or get married. It comes after other sections of the paper have exhaustively reported that women still do more of the domestic labor.
Of course, anyone can make a Marry Me Chicken. But anyone doesn’t. A 2019 Pew study reports that in heterosexual couples, women “spend 52 minutes a day on meal prep, vs. 22 minutes for men.”
And because cultural scripts for love put women (willingly or otherwise) in a passive role, engagement isn’t something a woman initiates. In 2019, 97 percent of engagements were initiated by male partners. A man wants an engagement, he asks. A woman wants an engagement, she makes a chicken.
Food as the stuff of courtship is nothing new. Male birds often use offerings of fresh or regurgitated food to lure females into partnerships. In invertebrates, the act of gift-giving between breeding partners is called the “nuptial gift.” For example, in hermaphroditic land snails, one partner will shoot a mucus love dart at the other partner. This gift can often result in the death or injury of the recipient. But for the love-dart-shooter, it increases sperm capacity.
Animals aren’t the only ones. In Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, she documents her special vinaigrette that kept her cheating spouse coming back to her. In the novel Like Water for Chocolate, food becomes a vehicle for communicating the despair and passion of the main character, Josefita de la Garza.
Food is such a ubiquitous metaphor that in Mythologies, Roland Barthes writes, “To eat is a behavior that develops beyond its own ends, replacing, summing up, and signalizing other behaviors. What are these other behaviors? Today we might say all of them: activity, work, sports, effort, leisure, celebration — every one of these situations is expressed through food."
In her 2020 book The Mating Game, a study of modern courtship rituals, Ellen Lamont, associate professor of sociology at Appalachian State University, notes that no matter how liberal or progressive a person identifies as, it’s in romance where we cede our radical politics. Lamont spent time with 107 dating individuals in California’s Bay Area, all of whom identified as liberal, and noted how those radical politics went out the window when it came to courtship. Cis heterosexual women who professed to want equality become strident about gender norms when dating. Men have to ask a woman out. Men have to pay on dates. Men have to propose.
It’s a complicated dance that’s more about the appearance of an acceptable relationship than the actualities of one.
One woman told Lamont that if her boyfriend wasn’t ready for marriage but she was, she would simply tell him to propose. “I would say, ‘You need to propose.’ But I would never ask him myself… So, I would informally ask him and tell him what I need him to do but I would never actually do it myself.”
But a woman’s desire for marriage is still perceived as manipulative. Men, it is assumed, have a right to propose. But women don’t. Women are supposed to want marriage but not ask for it — to want love, but not pursue it.
One of the women Lamont studied talked about making the Engagement Chicken recipe, which she describes as generic and boring. She explained, “So, I’m going to make it for [my boyfriend] and then he’ll just hurry up and propose. I was like, but then I would feel like I kind of like coerced him into it.”
Lamont concludes, “This taboo against women’s influence is so strong that even making a basic chicken dinner is framed as manipulative.”
When I first began dating my ex-husband, I’d go to his parents’ house on breaks from college. There, I made a sour-cream apple pie, which my future-father-in-law declared made me marriage-worthy. It was a joke ha ha ha. But it also wasn’t a joke. My ability to produce food was a marriageable trait. And later, when I’d look around at the lopsided labor of my marriage, I’d know it began there: with this idea that it was my ability to feed that had been the first concession (of many).
Years later, as a divorced woman dating men, I’d always offer (and I still do) to split the cost of dinner and drinks. Sometimes I’d even pay for everything. It felt equal to me. And even though a lot of my female friends think it’s stupid, I don’t want to feel indebted to a man financially. The whole issue is extremely fraught, but that’s how I feel.
Meanwhile — and almost unbelievably — some people still believe that women are going on dates for a free meal. (For the record, if you are hungry, this is perfectly fine.)
It’s an exhausting dance of consumption and offering. And through it all, I ask myself: Who gets to consume, and who has to feed? Whose offering is one of love? Whose taking is greedy?
The question is not who cooks. Not really. But it’s about who has to produce and who gets to produce.
It’s ironic that almost 20 years after its publication in Glamour, Engagement Chicken has been rebranded as Marry Me Chicken. A dish that is harder, more intricate, and yet still rife with all the same expectations.
It’s no coincidence that the dish is making a comeback, as the forces of our culture try to force women back into traditional roles by rolling back reproductive rights, health-care access, and LGBTQ rights — attempting to force people into heteronormative roles.
In the post-feminist discourse of 2023, it’s still the woman as the one eating that draws our most unnerved responses. A woman feasting, especially on the dime of a man, is unruly in her appetites for sex and power and pizza. She must be restrained either by looking as if she never feasts or by becoming the producer of food — sublimating her desires into dishes that communicate all that she is not allowed to say. The trick of Marry Me Chicken is that it pushes us back under the guise of choice.
After reading the Marry Me Chicken article, I joked that there was no equivalent for men. No, “End Male Loneliness Eggplant Parmesan.” No “Get the Girlfriend Gnocchi.”
But it’s less about equivalency and more about expectation. I do not want to stop making chicken, but I do want to renegotiate the terms of my existence as a consumer of food and a producer of food. I want to be able to say my own desires aloud — with the same mouth I use to consume my food.
I think a lot about food, feminism, and culture:
and the feminine art of the butter cow.
Finally, I love this analysis of using food to catch a man as a film trope by.