Defending 'Foodies': A Rancher Takes a Bite out of B.R. Myers


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Sarah Palin recently brought sugar cookies to an elementary school in deliberate defiance of its "no sweets" policy. Glenn Beck criticized the First Lady's efforts to address childhood obesity as nanny state-ism. Now comes the unfailingly cynical and caustic B.R. Myers in the current Atlantic. But Myers's 4,000-word rant mostly establishes only that from his outpost in South Korea, he is more than a little out of touch with what's happening with food in the cities, suburbs, and rural communities of the United States.

What motivates "foodies," he argues, is their hellbent quest for carnal pleasure, and to excess--in short, gluttony. Lumping nearly everyone who cares about farming, food, or the food system into one giant despicable heap, Myers piles on quotes and anecdotes showing chefs, food writers, and others engaging in decadent and even, in some cases, disgusting behavior--extreme overeating, consumption of endangered species, eating of live animals, and the like. This, he suggests, is what foodies do and what the food movement is really all about.

Myers's case for indicting the food movement with these cherry-picked quotes and stories is not only weak, it's ludicrous. Of course eating good food can be enjoyable.

Yes, the behaviors he cites range from silly to disturbing. And any tolerance or encouragement of cruelty to animals raised for food deserves harsh scorn. But Myers utterly fails to establish any connection between the statements and behaviors he cites and the broad food movement sweeping this country. In fact, there isn't one. None of us who care about food system reform and healthful, ethical eating would defend such excesses, and we certainly are not inspired by them. Fundamental to today's American food movement is holistic thinking and respect--knowing where your food comes from, understanding its history before reaching your plate, and savoring it with family and friends.

Myers's case for indicting the food movement with these cherry-picked quotes and stories is not only weak, it's ludicrous. Of course eating good food can be enjoyable, enormously so, and there's nothing wrong with that. Fred Kirschenmann, a farmer and philosopher who inspires many people who care about good food, has written about the joy of eating fresh, wholesome food as he experienced it growing up on a farm. "The pleasure of good eating was about much more than the taste of the food," he writes. "It was about a deep appreciation for--and connection with--everything on our plates." It's hard to find anything resembling reckless pursuit of physical pleasure in Kirschenmann's kind of eating.

Similarly, in The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry, another inspiring farmer-philosopher, writes that "growing one's own food is not drudgery at all." Working to produce the food oneself rather than having someone else engage in that toil makes eating it all the sweeter, he notes. "It is--in addition to being the appropriate fulfillment of a practical need--a sacrament, as eating is also, by which we enact and understand our oneness with the Creation, the conviviality of one body with all bodies." Would Myers also toss Berry onto his heap of gluttonous foodies?

In sharp contrast to the warped picture painted by Myers, America's food movement emphasizes not only mindful consumption but also reducing waste, conserving natural resources, and respecting the people and animals involved in food production. Moderation and conservation are its fundamental values. Undoubtedly, the movement has evolved this way largely because it is a reaction to an industrial food system that--while claiming to be efficient--externalizes its costs, throws away nearly half of the food it produces, and depends on various public subsidies, including direct payments and anemic enforcement of environmental laws.

In fact, the food movement's most prominent standard-bearers have explicitly articulated the importance of conscious and moderate eating. Michael Pollan (whom Myers references twice) coined the phrase, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Certainly a prescription for such moderation. Mark Bittman's bestselling book Food Matters issues a similar clarion call. "[T]he bottom line here is that to eat well we must first eat moderately, and limit our eating to real food," Bittman writes in the opening chapter, titled "Rethinking Consumption."

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Myers singles out meat eaters for particular scorn, suggesting they relish the suffering of animals and engage in particularly offensive form of gluttony. Yet lately, noteworthy cookbooks and books on meat, including The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whom Myers names, are distinctly anti-gluttonous. "This entire book," Fearnley-Whittingstall announces, "is based on the argument that meat should be something precious, always to be savored, never to be squandered. Personally I think it would make better sense for almost all of us to pay more money for less meat, of better quality." Similarly, James Beard Award-winning chef James Peterson's recent book Meat: A Kitchen Education says, "As you learn to appreciate the flavor of fine meat ... you'll find yourself satisfied with eating less meat." My own book, Righteous Porkchop, encourages: "Eat less meat; eat better meat."

But of course none of that could ever assuage Myers, a committed vegan and animal rights activist, whose real problem here and in his other writings seems to be with anyone who accepts animals as part of the food system.

Especially feeble is Myers's suggestion that a tiny band of food-obsessed writers have somehow hijacked the American media and publishing industry, creating a skewed perspective of how many people really care about what they eat. "The 'slow food' movement that we keep hearing about has fewer than 20,000 members nationwide," Myers writes. This is a particularly egregious failure either to grasp or properly present the facts. Slow Food USA, one non-profit organization working for food system reform, has some 20,000 members. That's what his figure represents. It is one organization of hundreds, perhaps thousands, focusing on such work. Quite obviously, a single organization's membership rolls cannot be used to tally a social movement's supporters.

Food industry research touted by vegan food companies says vegans now make up 0.02 percent of the U.S. population. Considering that Myers, fellow vegan James McWilliams, and numerous other vegans are regularly granted space to air their views in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and other national publications, it's very hard to see his basis for complaining.

The odd set of bedfellows--from Palin to Myers--launching accusations of elitism at the food movement share at least one trait: they remain stubbornly, willfully clueless about the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people in every corner of the country who are reshaping America's food system. Making nutritious, safe, and yes, delicious food available to all people inspires much of their passion. My husband and I have met these people in every region of the country. They are young people setting up diversified farms; chefs dedicated to local, sustainable sourcing; community members establishing farmers' markets; mothers and fathers remaking public school lunch programs, and on and on. They come from all incomes and every ethnicity. Few have wealth or political power. This is the real food movement, and one Myers should come here to learn about. We'll be happy to make the first introductions.