Books March 2011

The Moral Crusade Against Foodies

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

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