Books March 2011

The Moral Crusade Against Foodies

Gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony.
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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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