The Moral Crusade Against Foodies
Gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony.
By B. R. Myers
We have all dined with him in restaurants: the host who insists on calling his special friend out of the kitchen for some awkward small talk. The publishing industry also wants us to meet a few chefs, only these are in no hurry to get back to work. Anthony Bourdain’s new book, his 10th, is Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. In it he announces, in his trademark thuggish style, that “it is now time to make the idea of not cooking ‘un-cool’—and, in the harshest possible way short of physical brutality, drive that message home.” Having finished the book, I think I’d rather have absorbed a few punches and had the rest of the evening to myself. No more readable for being an artsier affair is chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter.
It’s quite something to go bare-handed up an animal’s ass … Its viscera came out with an easy tug; a small palmful of livery, bloody jewels that I tossed out into the yard.
Then there’s Kim Severson’s Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, which is the kind of thing that passes for spiritual uplift in this set. “What blessed entity invented sugar and cacao pods and vanilla beans or figured out that salt can preserve and brighten anything?” And I thought I knew where that sentence was going. The flyleaf calls Spoon Fed “a testament to the wisdom that can be found in the kitchen.” Agreed.
To put aside these books after a few chapters is to feel a sense of liberation; it’s like stepping from a crowded, fetid restaurant into silence and fresh air. But only when writing such things for their own kind do so-called foodies truly let down their guard, which makes for some engrossing passages here and there. For insight too. The deeper an outsider ventures into this stuff, the clearer a unique community comes into view. In values, sense of humor, even childhood experience, its members are as similar to each other as they are different from everyone else.
For one thing, these people really do live to eat. Vogue’s restaurant critic, Jeffrey Steingarten, says he “spends the afternoon—or a week of afternoons—planning the perfect dinner of barbecued ribs or braised foie gras.” Michael Pollan boasts in The New York Times of his latest “36-Hour Dinner Party.” Similar schedules and priorities can be inferred from the work of other writers. These include a sort of milk-toast priest, anthologized in Best Food Writing 2010, who expounds unironically on the “ritual” of making the perfect slice:
The things involved must be few, so that their meaning is not diffused, and they must somehow assume a perceptible weight. They attain this partly from the reassurance that comes of being “just so,” and partly by already possessing the solidity of the absolutely familiar.
And when foodies talk of flying to Paris to buy cheese, to Vietnam to sample pho? They’re not joking about that either. Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts. When Marcel Proust’s name pops up, you know you’re just going to hear about that damned madeleine again.
It has always been crucial to the gourmet’s pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford. For hundreds of years this meant consuming enormous quantities of meat. That of animals that had been whipped to death was more highly valued for centuries, in the belief that pain and trauma enhanced taste. “A true gastronome,” according to a British dining manual of the time, “is as insensible to suffering as is a conqueror.” But for the past several decades, factory farms have made meat ever cheaper and—as the excellent book The CAFO [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] Reader makes clear—the pain and trauma are thrown in for free. The contemporary gourmet reacts by voicing an ever-stronger preference for free-range meats from small local farms. He even claims to believe that well-treated animals taste better, though his heart isn’t really in it. Steingarten tells of watching four people hold down a struggling, groaning pig for a full 20 minutes as it bled to death for his dinner. He calls the animal “a filthy beast deserving its fate.”
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. 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.”