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.
"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.