Books March 2011

The Moral Crusade Against Foodies

Gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony.
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John Cuneo

We have all dined with him in restaurants: the host who insists on calling his special friend out of the kitchen for some awkward small talk. The publishing industry also wants us to meet a few chefs, only these are in no hurry to get back to work. Anthony Bourdain’s new book, his 10th, is Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. In it he announces, in his trademark thuggish style, that “it is now time to make the idea of not cooking ‘un-cool’—and, in the harshest possible way short of physical brutality, drive that message home.” Having finished the book, I think I’d rather have absorbed a few punches and had the rest of the evening to myself. No more readable for being an artsier affair is chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter.

It’s quite something to go bare-handed up an animal’s ass … Its viscera came out with an easy tug; a small palmful of livery, bloody jewels that I tossed out into the yard.

Then there’s Kim Severson’s Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, which is the kind of thing that passes for spiritual uplift in this set. “What blessed entity invented sugar and cacao pods and vanilla beans or figured out that salt can preserve and brighten anything?” And I thought I knew where that sentence was going. The flyleaf calls Spoon Fed “a testament to the wisdom that can be found in the kitchen.” Agreed.

To put aside these books after a few chapters is to feel a sense of liberation; it’s like stepping from a crowded, fetid restaurant into silence and fresh air. But only when writing such things for their own kind do so-called foodies truly let down their guard, which makes for some engrossing passages here and there. For insight too. The deeper an outsider ventures into this stuff, the clearer a unique community comes into view. In values, sense of humor, even childhood experience, its members are as similar to each other as they are different from everyone else.

For one thing, these people really do live to eat. Vogue’s restaurant critic, Jeffrey Steingarten, says he “spends the afternoon—or a week of afternoons—planning the perfect dinner of barbecued ribs or braised foie gras.” Michael Pollan boasts in The New York Times of his latest “36-Hour Dinner Party.” Similar schedules and priorities can be inferred from the work of other writers. These include a sort of milk-toast priest, anthologized in Best Food Writing 2010, who expounds unironically on the “ritual” of making the perfect slice:

The things involved must be few, so that their meaning is not diffused, and they must somehow assume a perceptible weight. They attain this partly from the reassurance that comes of being “just so,” and partly by already possessing the solidity of the absolutely familiar.

And when foodies talk of flying to Paris to buy cheese, to Vietnam to sample pho? They’re not joking about that either. Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts. When Marcel Proust’s name pops up, you know you’re just going to hear about that damned madeleine again.

It has always been crucial to the gourmet’s pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford. For hundreds of years this meant consuming enormous quantities of meat. That of animals that had been whipped to death was more highly valued for centuries, in the belief that pain and trauma enhanced taste. “A true gastronome,” according to a British dining manual of the time, “is as insensible to suffering as is a conqueror.” But for the past several decades, factory farms have made meat ever cheaper and—as the excellent book The CAFO [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] Reader makes clear—the pain and trauma are thrown in for free. The contemporary gourmet reacts by voicing an ever-stronger preference for free-range meats from small local farms. He even claims to believe that well-treated animals taste better, though his heart isn’t really in it. Steingarten tells of watching four people hold down a struggling, groaning pig for a full 20 minutes as it bled to death for his dinner. He calls the animal “a filthy beast deserving its fate.”

Even if gourmets’ rejection of factory farms and fast food is largely motivated by their traditional elitism, it has left them, for the first time in the history of their community, feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street. Food writing reflects the change. Since the late 1990s, the guilty smirkiness that once marked its default style has been losing ever more ground to pomposity and sermonizing. References to cooks as “gods,” to restaurants as “temples,” to biting into “heaven,” etc., used to be meant as jokes, even if the compulsive recourse to religious language always betrayed a certain guilt about the stomach-driven life. Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face. The mood at a dinner table depends on the quality of food served; if culinary perfection is achieved, the meal becomes downright holy—as we learned from Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), in which a pork dinner is described as feeling “like a ceremony … a secular seder.”

The moral logic in Pollan’s hugely successful book now informs all food writing: the refined palate rejects the taste of factory-farmed meat, of the corn-syrupy junk food that sickens the poor, of frozen fruits and vegetables transported wastefully across oceans—from which it follows that to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself. This affectation of piety does not keep foodies from vaunting their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals—but only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction. This has much to do with the fact that the nation’s media tend to leave the national food discourse to the foodies in their ranks. To people like Pollan himself. And Severson, his very like-minded colleague at The New York Times. Is any other subculture reported on so exclusively by its own members? Or with a frequency and an extensiveness that bear so little relation to its size? (The “slow food” movement that we keep hearing about has fewer than 20,000 members nationwide.)

The same bias is apparent in writing that purports to be academic or at least serious. The book Gluttony (2003), one of a series on the seven deadly sins, was naturally assigned to a foodie writer, namely Francine Prose, who writes for the gourmet magazine Saveur. Not surprisingly, she regards gluttony primarily as a problem of overeating to the point of obesity; it is “the only sin … whose effects are visible, written on the body.” In fact the Catholic Church’s criticism has always been directed against an inordinate preoccupation with food—against foodie-ism, in other words—which we encounter as often among thin people as among fat ones. A disinterested writer would likely have done the subject more justice. Unfortunately, even the new sociological study Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape is the product of two self-proclaimed members of the tribe, Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann, who pull their punches accordingly; the introduction is titled “Entering the Delicious World of Foodies.” In short, the 21st-century gourmet need fear little public contradiction when striking sanctimonious poses.

The same goes for restaurant owners like Alice Waters. A celebrated slow-food advocate and the founder of an exclusive eatery in Berkeley, she is one of the chefs profiled in Spoon Fed. “Her streamlined philosophy,” Severson tells us, is “that the most political act we can commit is to eat delicious food that is produced in a way that is sustainable, that doesn’t exploit workers and is eaten slowly and with reverence.” A vegetarian diet, in other words? Please. The reference is to Chez Panisse’s standard fare—Severson cites “grilled rack and loin of Magruder Ranch veal” as a typical offering—which is environmentally sustainable only because so few people can afford it. Whatever one may think of Anthony Bourdain’s moral sense, his BS detector seems to be working fine. In Medium Raw he congratulates Waters on having “made lust, greed, hunger, self-gratification and fetishism look good.” Not to everyone, perhaps, but okay.

The Roman historian Livy famously regarded the glorification of chefs as the sign of a culture in decline. I wonder what he would have thought of The New York Times’ efforts to admit “young idols with cleavers” into America’s pantheon of food-service heroes.

With their swinging scabbards, muscled forearms and constant proximity to flesh, butchers have the raw, emotional appeal of an indie band … “Think about it. What’s sexy?” said Tia Keenan, the fromager at Casellula Cheese and Wine Café and an unabashed butcher fan. “Dangerous is sometimes sexy, and they are generally big guys with knives who are covered in blood.”

That’s Severson again, by the way, and she records no word of dissent in regard to the cheese vendor’s ravings. We are to believe this is a real national trend here. In fact the public perception of butchers has not changed in the slightest, as can easily be confirmed by telling someone that he or she looks like one. “Blankly as a butcher stares,” Auden’s famous line about the moon, will need no explanatory footnote even a century from now.

But food writing has long specialized in the barefaced inversion of common sense, common language. Restaurant reviews are notorious for touting $100 lunches as great value for money. The doublespeak now comes in more pious tones, especially when foodies feign concern for animals. Crowding around to watch the slaughter of a pig—even getting in its face just before the shot—is described by Bethany Jean Clement (in an article in Best Food Writing 2009) as “solemn” and “respectful” behavior. Pollan writes about going with a friend to watch a goat get killed. “Mike says the experience made him want to honor our goat by wasting as little of it as possible.” It’s teachable fun for the whole foodie family. The full strangeness of this culture sinks in when one reads affectionate accounts (again in Best Food Writing 2009) of children clamoring to kill their own cow—or wanting to see a pig shot, then ripped open with a chain saw: “YEEEEAAAAH!”

Here too, though, an at least half-serious moral logic is at work, backed up by the subculture’s distinct body of myth, which combines half-understood evolutionary theory with the biblical idea of man as born lord of the world. Anthropological research, I should perhaps point out, now indicates that Homo sapiens started out as a paltry prey animal. Clawless, fangless, and slight of build, he could at best look forward to furtive boltings of carrion until the day he became meat himself. It took humans quite a while to learn how to gang up for self-protection and food acquisition, the latter usually a hyena-style affair of separating infant or sick animals from their herds. The domestication of pigs, cows, chickens, etc. has been going on for only about 10,000 years—not nearly long enough to breed the instincts out of them. The hideous paraphernalia of subjugation pictured in The CAFO Reader? It’s not there for nothing.

Now for the foodie version. The human animal evolved “with eyes in the front of its head, long legs, fingernails, eyeteeth—so that it could better chase down slower, stupider creatures, kill them, and eat them” (Bourdain, Medium Raw). We have eaten them for so long that meat-eating has shaped our souls (Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma). And after so many millennia of domestication, food animals have become “evolutionarily hard-wired” to depend on us (chef-writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The River Cottage Meat Book). Every exercise of our hungry power is thus part of the Great Food Chain of Being, with which we must align our morals. Deep down—instinctively if not consciously—the “hardwired” pig understands all this, understands why he has suddenly been dragged before a leering crowd. Just don’t waste any of him afterward; that’s all he asks. Note that the foodies’ pride in eating “nose to tail” is no different from factory-farm boasts of “using everything but the oink.” As if such token frugality could make up for the caloric wastefulness and environmental damage that result from meat farming!

Naturally the food-obsessed profess as much respect for tradition as for evolution. Hamilton, in Blood, Bones and Butter, writes of her childhood dinners: “The meal was always organized correctly, traditionally, which I now appreciate.” Even relatively young traditions like the Thanksgiving turkey must be guarded zealously against efforts to change or opt out of them. Foreign traditions destigmatize every dish even for the American. In Best Food Writing 2010, one foie gras lover asks another whether he would eat tortured cat if there were sufficient Mongolian history behind the dish; the answer is yes.

So tradition is an absolute good? No. When it dictates abstention from a certain food, it is to be rejected. Francine Prose shows how it’s done in her prize-winning Saveur article, “Faith and Bacon.” I need hardly explain which of those two she cannot live without. Prose concedes that since pigs compete ravenously with humans for grain, her Jewish forefathers’ taboo against pork may well have derived from ecological reasons that are even more valid today. Yet she finds it unrealistic to hope that humans could ever suppress their “baser appetites … for the benefit of other humans, flora, and fauna.” She then drops the point entirely; foodies quickly lose interest in any kind of abstract discussion. The reader is left to infer that since baser appetites are going to rule anyway, we might as well give in to them.

But if, however unlikely it seems, I ever find myself making one of those late-life turns toward God, one thing I can promise you is that this God will be a deity who wants me to feel exactly the way I feel when the marbled slice of pork floats to the top of the bowl of ramen.

Yes, I feel equally sure that Prose’s God will be that kind of God. At least she maintains a civil tone when talking of kashrut. In “Killer Food,” another article in Best Food Writing 2010, Dana Goodyear tells how a restaurant served head cheese (meat jelly made from an animal’s head) to an unwitting Jew.

One woman, when [chef Jon] Shook finally had a chance to explain, spat it out on the table and said, “Oh my fucking God, I’ve been kosher for thirty-two years.” Shook giggled, recollecting. “Not any more you ain’t!”

We are meant to chuckle too; the woman (who I am sure expressed herself in less profane terms) got what she deserved. Most of us consider it a virtue to maintain our principles in the face of social pressure, but in the involuted world of gourmet morals, constancy is rudeness. One must never spoil a dinner party for mere religious or ethical reasons. Pollan says he sides with the French in regarding “any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.” (The American foodie is forever projecting his own barbarism onto France.) Bourdain writes, “Taking your belief system on the road—or to other people’s houses—makes me angry.” The sight of vegetarian tourists waving away a Vietnamese pho vendor fills him with “spluttering indignation.”

That’s right: guests have a greater obligation to please their host—and passersby to please a vendor—than vice versa. Is there any civilized value that foodies cannot turn on its head? But I assume Bourdain has no qualms about waving away a flower seller, just as Pollan probably sees nothing wrong with a Mormon’s refusal of a cup of coffee. Enjoinders to put the food provider’s feelings above all else are just part of the greater effort to sanctify food itself.

So secure is the gourmet community in its newfound reputation, so sure is it of its rightness, that it now proclaims the very qualities—greed, indifference to suffering, the prioritization of food above all—that earned it so much obloquy in the first place. Bourdain starts off his book by reveling in the illegality of a banquet at which he and some famous (unnamed) chefs dined on ortolan, endangered songbirds fattened up, as he unself-consciously tells us, in pitch-dark cages. After the meal, an “identical just-fucked look” graced each diner’s face. Eating equals sex, and in accordance with this self-flattery, gorging is presented in terms of athleticism and endurance. “You eat way past the point of hitting the wall. Or I do anyway.”

If nothing else, Bourdain at least gives the lie to the Pollan-Severson cant about foodie-ism being an integral part of the whole, truly sociable, human being. In Bourdain’s world, diners are as likely to sit solo or at a countertop while chewing their way through “a fucking Everest of shellfish.” Contributors to the Best Food Writing anthologies celebrate the same mindless, sweating gluttony. “You eat and eat and eat,” Todd Kliman writes, “long after you’re full. Being overstuffed, for the food lover, is not a moral problem.” But then, what is? In the same anthology, Michael Steinberger extols the pleasure of “joyfully gorging yourself … on a bird bearing the liver of another bird.” He also talks of “whimpering with ecstasy” in a French restaurant, then allowing the chef to hit on his wife, because “I was in too much of a stupor … [He] had just served me one of the finest dishes I’d ever eaten.” Hyperbole, the reader will have noticed, remains the central comic weapon in the food writer’s arsenal. It gets old fast. Nor is there much sign of wit in the table talk recorded. Aquinas said gluttony leads to “loutishness, uncleanness, talkativeness, and an uncomprehending dullness of mind,” and if you don’t believe him, here’s Kliman again:

I watched tears streak down a friend’s face as he popped expertly cleavered bites of chicken into his mouth … He was red-eyed and breathing fast. “It hurts, it hurts, but it’s so good, but it hurts, and I can’t stop eating!” He slammed a fist down on the table. The beer in his glass sloshed over the sides. “Jesus Christ, I’ve got to stop!”

We have already seen that the foodie respects only those customs, traditions, beliefs, cultures—old and new, domestic and foreign—that call on him to eat more, not less. But the foodie is even more insatiable in regard to variety than quantity. Johnston and Baumann note that “eating unusual foods is part of what generates foodie status,” and indeed, there appears to be no greater point of pride in this set than to eat with the indiscriminate omnivorousness of a rat in a zoo dumpster. Jeffrey Steingarten called his first book The Man Who Ate Everything. Bourdain writes, with equal swagger, “I’ve eaten raw seal, guinea pig. I’ve eaten bat.” The book Foodies quotes a middle-aged software engineer who says, “Um, it’s not something I would be anxious to repeat but … it’s kind of weird and cool to say I’ve had goat testicles in rice wine.” The taste of these bizarre meals—as researchers of oral fixation will not be surprised to learn—is neither here nor there. Members of the Gastronauts, a foodie group in New York, stuff live, squirming octopuses and eels down their throats before posting the carny-esque footage online.

Such antics are encouraged in the media with reports of the exotic foods that can be had only overseas, beyond the reach of FDA inspectors, conservationists, and animal-rights activists. Not too long ago MSNBC.com put out an article titled “Some Bravery as a Side Dish.” It listed “7 foods for the fearless stomach,” one of which was ortolan, the endangered songbirds fattened in dark boxes. The more lives sacrificed for a dinner, the more impressive the eater. Dana Goodyear: “Thirty duck hearts in curry … The ethos of this kind of cooking is undeniably macho.” Amorality as ethos, callousness as bravery, queenly self-absorption as machismo: no small perversion of language is needed to spin heroism out of an evening spent in a chair.

Of course, the bulk of foodie writing falls between the extremes of Pollan- esque sanctimony and Bourdainian oafishness. The average article in a Best Food Writing anthology is a straightforward if very detailed discussion of some treat or another, usually interwoven with a chronicle of the writer’s quest to find or make it in perfect form. Seven pages on sardines. Eight pages on marshmallow fluff! The lack of drama and affect only makes the gloating obsessiveness even more striking. The following, from a man who travels the world sampling oysters, is typical.

Sitting at Bentley’s lustrous marble bar, I ordered three No. 1 and three No. 2 Strangford Loughs and a martini. I was promptly set up with a dark green and gold placemat, a napkin, silverware, a bread plate, an oyster plate, some fresh bread, a plate of deep yellow butter rounds, vinegar, red pepper, Tabasco sauce, and a saucer full of lemons wrapped in cheesecloth. Bentley’s is a very serious oyster bar. When the bartender asked me if I wanted olives or a twist, I asked him which garnish he liked better with oysters. He recommended both. I had never seen both garnishes served together, but … (Robb Walsh, “English Oyster Cult,” Best Food Writing 2009)

I used to reject that old countercultural argument, the one about the difference between a legitimate pursuit of pleasure and an addiction or pathology being primarily a question of social license. I don’t anymore. After a month among the bat eaters and milk-toast priests, I opened Nikki Sixx’s Heroin Diaries (2008) and encountered a refreshingly sane-seeming young man, self-critical and with a dazzlingly wide range of interests. Unfortunately, the foodie fringe enjoys enough media access to make daily claims for its sophistication and virtue, for the suitability of its lifestyle as a model for the world. We should not let it get away with those claims. Whether gluttony is a deadly sin is of course for the religious to decide, and I hope they go easy on the foodies; they’re not all bad. They are certainly single-minded, however, and single-mindedness—even in less obviously selfish forms—is always a littleness of soul.

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