Sex, HRT, and Lots of Meat
An essay and recipe for steak frites. Words and photographs by Alex Loveless.
Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking – a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our fourteenth writer for Cooking from Life is Alex Loveless. You can read our archive of recipes and essays here.
Sex, HRT, and Lots of Meat
An essay and recipe for steak frites. Words and photographs by Alex Loveless.
Scientific literature on phenomena caused by taking cross-sex hormones, such as being really hungry all the time, is thin on the ground. But, as infamous feminist Camille Paglia writes in her anti-academic diatribe Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders, ‘If you have any doubts about the effect of hormones on emotion, libido and aggression, have a chat with a transsexual’. In finally embracing conventional wisdom, I think, of course I’m hungry and horny – I’m becoming a teenage boy.
A nutritionally scant childhood, spent subsisting on free school meals and oven chips for dinner, left me feeling alienated in my body. Going vegan at the end of my first puberty went a long way, but something still felt off – was there more to it? The difference between body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria isn’t obvious to anyone at first, especially not teenage girls. I just wanted to look fit – the way I did it was just less conventional for my assigned sex. When I tentatively began taking testosterone three years ago, I felt weird about it and kept it to myself. I was body-modding and indulging in nootropics; my somatic sci-fi exploration felt at odds with my affected, ascetic semi-vegan life of siphoning Kolymvari olive oil from work and having toast for dinner. I started getting hungry, hungry in an immediate way that I couldn’t ignore. In taking testosterone, all that was once soft became not; my stomach grew tight and bristly, like when you pick up a Jack Russell. It seemed the more I ate, the leaner I got. So I kept eating and never looked back.
Cut to second dinners, sandwiches containing whole packs of ham, puppy-dog eyes when my girlfriend was struggling to finish her Sunday roast and, of course, eating standing up over the stove. The habit that enabled the ingestion of whatever meat I was cooking at varying degrees of doneness – like a flight of wine, only with raw-to-medium Sainsbury’s basics quarter pounders. In months I’d come full circle to the person I never thought I would be; Linda McCartney sausages, my once beloved failsafe at BBQs, were now disappointing for their lack of calorific density. Was this HRT? Or just part of my increasingly camp adoption of masculinity? I have never thought so much about food but so little about my body as when I started being perceived as just some guy instead of a butch lesbian. This decreasing shift in visibility is apparent when I finish someone’s food, declare my hunger, or dare to take the last bit of antipasti from the table.
My dietary quirks have more in common with those struggling with menopause, pregnancy or being a teenager than those who happen to be male (though the masculine association with meat-eating dies hard). So, if scraps of biscuits and cheese constituted ‘girl dinner’ for TikTok, what was ‘boy dinner’ then? Something does come to mind: a low-cost yet high-protein recipe of beef mince, rice, and sriracha. Bodybuilder TikTok often riffs on this recipe of genius simplicity, perverting it with packet seasoning or low-fat cheese. ‘Boy dinner’ is sacrosanct for the days when nothing quite satiates me like a family-sized pack of mince, though more often it’s served adapted for those who don’t inhale their food, with the addition of cucumber salad and teriyaki instead of Old El Paso.
Before I fell in love it was yellow-sticker surprise, housemate scraps, or staff food in the evening and necking pints, telling myself I could eat again tomorrow. I’d be so hungry I’d eat double of everything – two meal deals, four fried eggs on four bits of toast, six biscuits with tea. Ordering in terms of calories for value, opting for those invariably wet and peeled hard-boiled eggs as my meal deal snack like some sort of transsexual Teresa d’Avila. Even right now I’m writing from my office (Stoke Newington’s Wetherspoons), eating the ‘Empire State Burger’ which is four 3oz beef patties with bacon and cheese – 1897 calories for lunch, plus the pint (vodka tonic). But with the people I love, meals become less ‘feeding time’ and more recognisable as ‘dinner’. I will cook instead of assemble (and inhale) for the sake of someone else. I feed alone, and I eat with someone else. Yet which dish would bridge my gannet-like proclivities and picky bits for tea - AKA ‘girl dinner’? No, ladies and gentlemen, it is not the non-binary dinner – it’s steak frites.
Never do I spend hours procuring, chopping, soaking, salting, freezing, frying (and then frying again) potatoes for myself. Rarely do I bother to go out of the house in my boxers and walk across the road with kitchen scissors under the cover of darkness to steal some rosemary from the neighbours for myself. Could food be a love language? Well, like any great love song, the invisible labour behind it is what casts a spell for the listener. You should cook this dish for someone you truly love – and please note, the more visceral and madly inexplicable the love (to match the sanguine nature of steak) the better.
Recipe for Steak Frites, with a Peppercorn Sauce
‘the prestige of steak evidently derives from its quasi-rawness. Full-bloodedness is the raison d’être of steak; the degrees to which it is cooked are expressed not in calorific units but in images of blood’ - Roland Barthes, Mythologies
Time: 45 minutes
For the steak –
400g bavette steak
A large knob of butter, about 40g
2 sprigs of rosemary
4 cloves of garlic, skin on and crushed slightly with the back of a knife
Salt and black pepper
For the frites –
4-5 Maris Piper potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm frites
About 200ml tallow or olive oil
For the sauce –
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 tbsp black peppercorns, crushed, or fresh green peppercorns
100ml red wine
300ml beef stock
220ml double cream
You bought a big piece of bavette because it is cheap, but delicious and impressive. If you bought individual steaks, they would be carved up together before serving.
1. Prepare an aperitif
2. Refrain from anaemic frites
3. Season in layers, at every opportunity
4. To cook the steak perfectly, cook it for less time than feels right
1. Remove steak from fridge, pat dry with kitchen roll and season generously on both sides with salt. Set aside to come up to room temperature whilst you get on with the frites, about 30 minutes.
2. Peel and slice the potatoes into frites, roughly 1cm squared. Par boiling the potatoes in salted water for 4-5 minutes, until just cooked. (saving some of the starchy water for the sauce (it helps to thicken it).
3. Drain the potatoes, then gently return to the pan to steam dry (it just helps them cook properly) for a few minutes (you can also put them on newspaper). Carefully transfer to a baking tray and place in the freezer for about 45 minutes (if you can). You can also do this the night before.
4. Next, pour the oil into a large, shallow frying pan and bring to a simmer. You should have about 1cm of oil, so the amount that you’ll need may vary depending on the size of your pan – olive oil. I know it’s a lot of oil, but you can get beef fat for free from the butcher and/or reuse after frying.
5. Pop a little chip in to test if the oil is ready, it should sizzle gently around the edges. Add more potatoes, taking care not to overcrowd the pan, and cook for about 5 minutes, turning a couple of times, until blonde. Remove from the pan and set aside on some kitchen paper. Salt! Repeat with the remaining potatoes.
6. Repeat the process again, until the chips - sorry - frites, are becoming slightly too brown, about 2-3 minutes. Salt! Keep warm in a low oven.
7. For the steak, pat dry the meat dry with kitchen paper. Warm the frying pan over a high heat until smoking, add oil or tallow, then add the steak. Busy yourself elsewhere with the procurement of butter, rosemary and garlic. Turn when it is time, about 1-2 minutes, then add the butter, rosemary and garlic. Salt! Baste the steak in the sauce that ensues and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside to rest for a while.
8. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then add the shallots and peppercorns. Cook for about 10 minutes, until softened. You might need to rescue the garlic if it looks in danger of burning.
9. Next, add the red wine (or brandy, or at a pinch - red wine vinegar) and cook down for 1-2 minutes, until reduced. Add the beef stock (I just use the jelly ones from the shop mixed into about half a mug of the starchy water we saved from the chips) and cook down again for 3-4 minutes, until reduced. Pour in the double cream and simmer for a minute, before you taste for seasoning. If you feel the sauce is too rich, this can be combatted with the addition of mustard.
10. Carve the steak against its grain and salt again before serving with the frites and peppercorn sauce.
In an ugly, unnecessary English mistranslation of Roland Barthes’ classic Mythologies, the translator refers to this dish as ‘steak and chips’ – but this dish is not overcooked pub rump doused in ketchup and served with a singular grilled mushroom and pot of peas. No, this is steak frites – the apex predator of dinner. Barthes called steak the ‘bachelor’s bohemian snack’, so it’s true: it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Alex Loveless is a multidisciplinary hack based in East London, capriciously skipping between music, advertising, fashion, nightlife, and now food writing amongst others. In the past year they have been on Radio 1, created campaigns for Balenciaga, and DJ’d the rugby at Twickenham. They have a newly launched Substack and more on Instagram.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead. These recipes were tested by Joanna Jackson.