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.