Hard to Swallow

The gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms

For centuries civilized society took a dim view of food lovers, calling them “gourmands” and “gluttons” and placing them on a moral par with lechers. They were even assigned their own place in hell, and I don’t mean a table near the kitchen: They were to be force-fed for eternity. Not until halfway through the Industrial Revolution did the word gourmet come into use. Those who have since applied it to themselves have done a fine job of converting the world’s scorn to respect. The pleasures of the oral cavity (though we must say “palate” instead) are now widely regarded as more important, more intrinsically moral, and a more vital part of civilized tradition than any other pleasures. People who think nothing of saying “I’m not much of a reader” will grow shamefaced when admitting an ignorance of wine or haute cuisine. Some recent movies have even tried to turn banquets into heroic affairs. Advertising has abetted the trend, while political correctness, with its horror of judging anyone’s “lifestyle choices,” has done its bit to muffle dissent.

From the archives:

"I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook" (January/February 2004)
True stories from the Dear Leader's onetime chef. By Kenji Fujimoto (Translated from the Japanese by Makiko Kitamura).

The sexual revolution went faster than this but not as far, which is why we can still call someone a lecher. Our common language no longer has a pejorative for those who live to eat. Gourmand has taken on an even fancier ring than gourmet, while the word glutton can be applied only to someone who eats an enormous amount of food at one sitting—usually cheap food, and with the standard of what constitutes “enormous” revised upward each year for obvious reasons. When discussing Kim Jong Il, who dines on imported delicacies while his countrymen starve, even our own journalists must describe his fixation in terms of connoisseurship. The last holdover of the old way of thinking is the Catholic catechism, which keeps gluttony on its list of sins and indicates—by using the word gourmandise in the French version, and by defining sin in part as “a perverse attachment to certain goods”—that the original meaning of gluttony is to be understood. No doubt this too will change. A French committee wants to convince Rome that God condones expensive multicourse meals; He just doesn’t like us getting extra helpings.

But the idolatry of food cuts across class lines. This can be seen in the public’s toleration of a level of cruelty in meat production that it would tolerate nowhere else. If someone inflicts pain on an animal for visual, aural, or sexual gratification, we consider him a monster, and the law makes at least a token effort at punishment. If someone’s goal is to put the “product” in his mouth? Chacun à son goût.

Still, people are more concerned about animal welfare than they used to be. They also know that the more humanely the average animal is treated, the better it will taste. Thus it is that Gourmet magazine recently ran an unflinching exposé of the conditions in chicken slaughterhouses. But some things cannot be produced humanely; to taste the way it should, the foie-gras duck must be force-fed, the lobster must be boiled alive, and so on.

Literate opinion therefore suggests that a few dishes should simply be done without. This is where the serious food lover draws the line. “I detect a backlash … among fed up gourmands,” the editor of Best Food Writing 2006 notes with approval, “who refuse to renounce foie gras and caviar just because they are produced by less-than-noble methods.” (That just because says it all.) The backlash takes the form of pieces like Julie Powell’s essay “Lobster Killer,” which the anthology’s editor found “hilarious”:

Over a period of two weeks … I went on a murderous rampage. I committed gruesome, atrocious acts … If news of the carnage was not widely remarked upon in the local press, it was only because my victims were not Catholic schoolgirls or Filipino nurses, but crustaceans. This distinction means that I am not a murderer in the legal sense. But I have blood on my hands, even if it is the clear blood of lobsters.

This is a prime example of food writers’ hostility to the very language of moral values. In mocking and debasing it, they exert, with Madison Avenue’s help, a baleful influence on American English as a whole. If words like sinful and decadent are now just a cutesy way of saying “delicious but fattening,” so that any serious use of them marks the speaker as a crank, and if it is more acceptable to talk of the “evils of gluten” than of the “evils of gluttony,” much of the blame must be laid at their doorstep. Another sampling from Powell’s piece:

People say lobsters make a terrible racket in the pot, trying—reasonably enough—to claw their way out of the water. I wouldn’t know. I spent the next twenty minutes watching a golf game on the TV with the volume turned up … When I ventured back into the kitchen, the lobsters were very red, and not making any racket at all … Poor little beasties.

Zoologists have recently discounted the notion that lobsters feel no pain when boiled alive. The gourmets’ response is to giggle at the plight of the “beasties” in the hope that others will follow suit. (With comparable tastelessness, a piece on foie gras in the anthology is titled “Stuffed Animals.”) But when asked to laugh at the suffering of a living thing, or to drown out a moral compunction by turning up the TV, the American meat eater begins to sense that his values are not so far from the vegetarian’s after all. If food writers want to show what “a perverse attachment to certain goods” looks like, they are going about it in just the right way.

This brings me to a would-be exception: Michael Pollan, the New York Times Magazine writer whose best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma has just been published in paperback. In the first seven chapters, Pollan writes of the role of corn in American life in such an improbably thrilling manner that I have to recommend the book despite my reservations about the rest of it. About a McDonald’s meal Pollan shared with his family in a moving car, for instance, we learn that

if you include the corn in the gas tank … the amount of corn that went into producing our movable fast-food feast would easily have overflowed the car’s trunk, spilling a trail of golden kernels on the blacktop.

What a startling and memorable image; a lesser writer would have said “road” instead, and wondered why it didn’t quite work.

Presented by

B. R. Myers

B.R. Myers is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).

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