B.R. Myers and the Myth of 'Sustainable' Food


The Atlantic

B.R. Myers's much-discussed condemnation of foodies and the writers who enable them is, in many ways, a masterpiece of invective. Globe-trotting gourmets, sanctimonious Slow Foodsters, and gonzo adventure eaters all come in for their share of Myers's signature drubbing. Critics of the piece have chided him for cherry-picking examples in order to caricature the food movement. This seems like a fair enough assessment. But the point of a polemic isn't to be balanced. It's to provoke thoughts, spark discussion, and, in some cases, even strengthen the movement it's criticizing. It's in this spirit—the spirit of continuing a dialogue—that I leap into this scrum.

Myers says so many things that I so fully agree with that I initially thought I'd just watch the debate from the sidelines. But then I got a notice from Edible Austin and a local art museum about an upcoming performance piece called "Digestible Beats." On the evening of April 26 an artist and "composer/musician" nicknamed "Butcher Bear" will evidently join forces to "transform the sounds of a meal prepared by Eastside Showroom's chef . . . into a feast for the senses." The promotional ad promises that viewers will "experience cooking and dining at an urban farm as a live sound mosaic."

Foodies never—and I mean never—ask the critical Kantian question: what if everyone in the world consumed these supposedly sustainable alternatives to conventional food?

A live sound mosaic . . . that's what got me. I don't doubt that this will be a very hip event. But it's also a perfect, if perfectly annoying, example of how foodie culture so often takes what's common—food—and transforms it into something inaccessible—in this case, a meal that you are supposed to hear. As the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu argued in his book Distinction, it's precisely this kind of shoring up of "cultural capital" that empowers an elite social class to retreat into privileged insularity. The fact that foodies so often construct their pursuit of rarified taste to be an environmentally and socially responsible act only intensifies the ugly paradox at the core of the movement. Essentially the message sustainable foodies end up of delivering goes something like this: Only a few can eat the way we eat, but the way we eat is the best way to achieve social and environmental justice. Join us if you can. If you can't, that's too bad for you, because we're eating high on the hog and, in so doing, saving the earth.

This exclusive insularity—combined with the shamelessly uncritical glorification of foodie issues in the foodie media—leads its tastemakers to overlook a humbling reality: for most people food is just food. Just food. It's not religion or politics or environmentalism or fashion or travel or art or sex or anything particularly substantial beyond itself. Most omnivores don't have a dilemma. Most eaters just want a decent lunch. In failing to appreciate this broader context of indifference, "foodies" come off as a rarified club out of touch with the true world of food while working under the impression that they're revolutionizing it for us from within.

An older genre of food writing carefully avoided this pitfall. The writings of Jim Harrison, Calvin Trillin, and the late A.J. Liebling tend to do something today's foodie-writers rarely do: they celebrate gluttony as gluttony rather than twist it into a pretext for social and environmental justice (much less sound mosaics or television shows). These writers steer clear of the underlying ethical issues of food and agriculture because, given their dogged pursuit of sensual gratification, they're likely aware that it's impossible to be both slave to the palate and mother to the earth. They wear their salivations on their sleeves, tilt back their privileged gullets, and eat high on the hog without apology. Any concerns they might have about the sustainability of their behavior is left for others to ponder. I don't particularly care for their message. But I admire their honesty (and envy their literary skill).

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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