On a recent Tuesday afternoon, following a morning of throwing elbows and running suicide sprints, professional soccer players Matt Reis, Kelyn Rowe, and Chris Tierney left their field with plans to, as Reis put it, “go unwind.”
But the New England Revolution teammates did not head to a pub for burgers and beer. They drove to Reis’s home in Franklin and they cooked a late lunch of fish tacos, with baked and pan-seared tilapia, homemade red cabbage slaw, and homemade mango pomegranate guacamole on the side.
Cooking together, it turns out, is one of many new ways men are finding to unwind and socialize. As pub crawls and ESPN marathons lose appeal, more men are taking up what might seem surprising group experiences: Not just cooking groups, but book clubs, and even, yes, knitting.
“Since men are marrying later, they tend to like hobbies and organizations that either include women or have the potential to lead them to women,” said Patrice Oppliger, an assistant professor of mass communications at Boston University and an expert in gender roles.
That does not bode well for the Elk Clubs of America, or other traditional service clubs for men.
On its website, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks reports a national membership of 850,000. The organization had 1.6 million members in 1980. The Masonic Service Association of North America, the national hub for the Freemasonry Grand Lodges in the United States, says its membership in 2011 was 1.3 million, compared to a high of 4.1 million in 1959.
“The membership decline started when we lost the Vietnam generation,” said George O. Braatz, executive secretary of the Masonic Service. “Unlike prior generations, the Vietnam-era men simply weren’t interested in joining anything. They were suspicious of large, well-organized groups. And organizations like ours suffered for it.”
He says young people are joining, but membership fees are a hurdle. And it is harder to convince them of the benefits.
There is another reason men are turning to traditions previously seen as more feminine. They don’t care about that stigma, especially men who have already settled down into family life.
“I think the proof is in how Wall Street is approaching men and women,” said Julie Hall, executive vice president of Boston-based Schneider Associates and editor of an annual product launch study that examines 45,000 new product launches, how they are promoted, and to whom. “It used to be that 85 percent of household products were marketed to women. And the joke was the other 15 percent were influenced by women. Now, we’re quickly approaching the point where a majority of that marketing will be aimed at men.”
Even marketing for knitting needles?
“I’d wanted to try knitting three years ago,” said Jeremy Bratt, a construction company service manager who lives in Wayland. “The reason I eventually started is I like to make stuff, and I like to watch sports.”
Knitting was a way to marry those two passions. “I’ve made a bunch of hats, scarves, and gloves.”
Bratt says the reactions from friends varied at first.
“Some people — some guys — definitely raised eyebrows,” he said. “But I found that a lot get it, especially creative types.’’
Whatever misgivings he had washed away the first time Bratt strolled into Gather Here, a hobbyist store in Cambridge built around knitting, sewing, and stitching.
“I saw men,” Bratt said. “Not just one here and there, but a lot and all the time. I’m confident in myself. I don’t care what anyone thinks. But it was comforting to know that I wasn’t rare.”
Debbie Johnston, program and events coordinator for the national Knitting Guild Association and the Crochet Guild of America, says her national KGA conference attendance and her organizations’ surveys into knitting and crochet activity in the United States suggest a 3 percent to 4 percent increase in male knitting and crochet activity over the past several years. Two men have even joined the board of the KGA’s master knitters’ program.
If that percentage seems slight, consider that the national Craft Yarn Association says that close to 50 million people knit and crochet in the United States.
“I think what we’re seeing is that social interests are merging,” Johnston said.
On a recent Thursday evening, Tim Kardatzke strolled into Gather Here to find a scene that could have been in any well-lighted corner bar in Cambridge: a dozen or so guys sipping pints of beer and chatting. The difference was they were chatting about the latest technology in knitting needles and the outcome of recent knitting projects.
Kardatzke, a former educator at Boston’s Museum of Science, describes the event, called Pints and Purls, as a “guys gathering much of the time,” not because it’s exclusively men, but because the numbers of men in attendance have consistently increased over the past three years.
“We all love the craft of knitting, and getting to tip a pint of great beer while we knit and talk about it just puts everyone even more at ease.”
Guido Stein, a 35-year-old knitter who lives in Cambridge with his wife, a psychologist, sort of stumbled into the craft.
“I love physical activity that involves creation,” he said. Several years ago he cofounded a group called KGB, short for Knitting Gentlemen of Boston. Stein also created a knitting podcast —
Knitting is not for all men, of course. But there’s always a book club.
Publishers Weekly says that although women buy and read more books than men, men still account for about 40 percent of book buyers and readers.
“It’s funny that this is another example of something that people used to say was women’s territory,” said Paul Hodlin, who hosts a book club for men that meets in Milton and Quincy. “I’m not sure all guys would embrace a book club. But there are certainly a lot that do. And they bring to it their interests in genres.”
Dr. Sherman Geller, a Plymouth optometrist, hosts a book club that is reading “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” by Jon Meacham.
“We’ve been going strong for about seven years,” Geller said. “These days we have about 12 regular members, sometimes more. All men, all married. And we just find the process of not just reading the books relaxing, but talking about them too. People like to joke that men don’t enjoy chattering. But the conversation, the social aspect I think, is what actually attracts more men to book clubs as a pastime.”
Back in Matt Reis’s kitchen, while the guys cooked their tacos, they talked about soccer, politics, and women, with Reis and Tierney teasing Rowe, who recently turned 21, over whether the meals he makes for girlfriends qualify as romantic.
“I guess some people might lift an eyebrow at this, but it’s a good hobby, a good way to kill time,” said the 37-year-old Reis. “It’s relaxing, and best of all, it’s healthy. There’ll always be time for a beer and the backyard barbecue and all the regular guy stuff. But you know what? There’s room for this too. Cooking — good cooking — doesn’t need to have a gender attached.”
James H. Burnett III can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.