In the March issue of The Atlantic, vegan, curmudgeon, North Korea expert, and animal-rights activist B.R. Myers goes after foodies in an article entitled “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.” I’ve got to admit, we’ve given him a very broad target.
He begins by extracting damning quotes from recent books by Anthony Bourdain, Gabrielle Hamilton, and Kim Severson, making them out to be, not only obsessed with food, but just plain addled by it. He writes, “To put these books aside after a few chapters is to feel a sense of liberation.”
Next, he heaps abuse on Jeffrey Steingarten for dreaming about foie gras, and Michael Pollan for a 36-hour dinner party in which he and his crew of chefs and hangers-on roasted a whole goat in a Napa Valley backyard. Myers fails to note that it was a drop-in sort of party, in which guests came and left at will. He makes the whole shebang out to be a marathon Satanic mass.
Myers then glances at food writing and epicureanism. He characterizes the former as “guilty smirkiness,” while the latter is reviled for requiring that one “eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford.” He makes a fairly solid argument that contemporary Foodism is a class phenomenon (though that is changing, as fast-food establishments fiddle with their menus, public schools revamp their lunchrooms, and formerly unfamiliar ingredients infiltrate the grocery store), but then distractedly abandons that argument in favor of a much weaker one: People who eat animals are morally corrupt.
As his real target, the non-vegan, heaves into view, we breathe a collective sigh of relief, since foodies are now apparently in a more defensible position. Don’t we celebrate the humane treatment of animals on small local farms? Aren’t we concerned about the cruelty and health hazards represented by feedlots? Isn’t sustainability of the food supply one of our primary goals?
To him it’s all just window dressing, insisting the high moral ground we claim for ourselves is really the Slough of Despond. To Myers, Alice Waters’s philosophy “is environmentally sustainable only because so few people can afford it.” He continues his indictment of Waters by quoting Bourdain, “[Waters has] made lust, greed, hunger, self-gratification and fetishism look good.”
The attacks retain their vitriol, but become increasingly redundant as the long piece progresses. He again savages all food writers because they specialize in “the barefaced inversion of common sense, common language. Restaurant reviews are notorious for touting $100 lunches as great value for the money.” And here he revels in half-truths, neglecting the consumer-oriented bent of many food writers. Drop by Yelp, Chowhound, or Fork in the Road some day, and you’ll find foodies bitching about overpriced lunches. In fact, the typical foodie often does more complaining than praising.
In turn, Myers hates those who love bacon, nibble on headcheese, secretly try ortolan with hoods on, accept bowls of pho in Vietnam out of politeness just because it’s offered them, and the hapless but anonymous fellow who writes, “it’s kind of weird and cool to say I’ve had goat testicles in rice wine.” Maybe his real beef is with extreme eaters, since they provide the best fuel for his tirade. Naturally, their activities are intended mainly for personal titillation, but don’t they usually acknowledge that themselves?
Myers, of course, is sitting up very high on his horse. Well, he can’t actually sit on the horse, because that would be cruel, wouldn’t it? As the embattled vegan in a meat-eating world, he tars anyone who allows meat past lips. At various points, he grabs arguments from evolution, animal husbandry, human history, zoology, ancient philosophy, and contemporary gastronomy, proving himself well-educated, but many brain cells short of wise.
Sometimes, he simply rants like a madman. Can things really be this bad? Is the modern diner doomed to plumb the moral abyss as a condition of mere eating?
The Foodism he reviles embraces his kind as well. Vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, people who won’t touch red meat, gradualists who eat as little flesh as possible, nut addicts and the nut allergic, and the lactose intolerant are all welcomed into the foodie ranks; all have celebrated foodie culture. The book entitled The Vegan Guide to New York City by Rynn Berry and Chris Abreu-Suzuki is every bit as enthusiastic as Josh Ozersky’s Meat Me in Manhattan. Indeed, the Church of Food is an edifice with many doors and no locks.
Foodism is an unstoppable cultural phenomenon that has outgrown its metaphoric britches. Just like any other human endeavor, its manifestations must be submitted to sane judgment on a case-by-case basis. Good ideas and bad ideas abound, and it’s the job of the thinker, writer, and dining enthusiast to submit these ideas to analysis, and, yes, moral judgment.
Aren’t humans often absurd, if you look at them dispassionately? Arguments as detailed as Myers’s could be made against hang-gliding, running for political office, breeding dogs to retain their pedigree, turtle racing, buying expensive cars, spanking, and spelunking. Is the contrarian Myers also against pest control? If he found bedbugs in his mattress would he express concern for their well-being and safety? And does he refrain from eating honey on his unbuttered whole-wheat toast?
Every hamburger isn’t a manifestation of insane cruelty. Myers’s arguments are the product of an embattled ego. He is the ascetic in a cave, who knows that all human activity is mere vanity. He also knows he has no hope of prevailing. In submitting to despair, and attacking his opponents with a stick rather than offering them a flower, he injures his cause, because vegans — even the most militant — love food as much as anyone else, and are every bit as obsessed.
That’s the beauty of Foodism. It’s a banner behind which everyone is welcome to march. It isn’t limited to people who can enjoy a $300 dinner at Per Se, but also includes the fellow who hikes an extra block or two to buy a favorite jar of peanut butter, or a mom who puts love into a simple dish for her kids.
Ultimately, I think Myers’s real problem is dyspepsia. He really, really doesn’t enjoy eating. And resents those of us who do.
Thanks to Andre Theisen for the link.