Thought Pieces

Okay, Here’s an Anti-Foodie Rant Actually Worth Reading

Photo: istockphoto

Yes, it’s yet another anti-foodie screed, but this latest one in The Atlantic, by the ever-opinionated B.R. Myers, goes beyond the usual complaints of “I have this one foodie friend who’s so annoying!” and, via quotes from recent books by Kim Severson, Michael Pollan, Gabrielle Hamilton, and Anthony Bourdain, actually lays down a somewhat coherent, compelling argument! In short: Myers believes that foodies are a minority (“the ‘slow food’ movement that we keep hearing about has fewer than 20,000 members nationwide”) that has managed to sell its mythology to the media to such a degree that there’s no limit to the delusion and hypocrisy it can get away with. Myers seems to be on the side of the Roman historian who “famously regarded the glorification of chefs as the sign of a culture in decline,” but he’s well aware that the foodies who celebrate “sexy butchers” feel differently.

References to cooks as “gods,” to restaurants as “temples,” to biting into “heaven,” etc., used to be meant as jokes, even if the compulsive recourse to religious language always betrayed a certain guilt about the stomach-driven life. Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face. The mood at a dinner table depends on the quality of food served; if culinary perfection is achieved, the meal becomes downright holy — as we learned from Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), in which a pork dinner is described as feeling “like a ceremony … a secular seder.”

Among the things Myers thinks foodies are hypocritical about is their fetish for sustainability. He says the food at Chez Panisse is “environmentally sustainable only because so few people can afford it,” and congratulates Bourdain on at least acknowledging that Alice Waters (in Bourdain’s words) “made lust, greed, hunger, self-gratification and fetishism look good.” To Myers, however, it doesn’t look good at all. Especially since foodies cloak this greed in a sort of sanctimoniousness.

Even if gourmets’ rejection of factory farms and fast food is largely motivated by their traditional elitism, it has left them, for the first time in the history of their community, feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street. Food writing reflects the change. Since the late 1990s, the guilty smirkiness that once marked its default style has been losing ever more ground to pomposity and sermonizing.

Myers thinks this sermonizing (complete with the foodie mythology that “after so many millennia of domestication, food animals have become ‘evolutionarily hard-wired’ to depend on us,” and that “nose to tail” eating is anything different from the “factory-farm boasts of ‘using everything but the oink’”) is really just a cover-up for what he calls the “hungry power” that causes foodies to eat anything and everything, no matter how morally questionable. That’s why when “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,” and yet, says Myers, that same food lover would probably take offense if a Kosher-keeping guest declined to eat pork.

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.

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?

According to Myers, “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” — hence shows like Bizzare Foods that celebrate foodies that have the “indiscriminate omnivorousness of a rat in a zoo dumpster.”

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.

The best part, easily, is the piece’s concluding paragraph, in which Myers says that, compared to foodies, Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe, in his memoir Heroin Diaries comes off as “a refreshingly sane-seeming young man, self-critical with a dazzling wide range of interests.” Myers writes: “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.”

By the way, we have to applaud the author for his own sustainability here — a lot of this is recycled from an equally long anti-carnivore manifesto he penned for The Atlantic when Omnivore’s Dilemma came out in paperback. Here’s hoping he has more success fighting those evil foodies this time around!

Update: Robert Sietsema weighs in with an absolutely delicious response: “Yes Foodies Are Ridiculous. But Then So Is B.R. Myers!”

The Moral Crusade Against Foodies [Atlantic]

Okay, Here’s an Anti-Foodie Rant Actually Worth Reading