moral foodieism

Anthony Bourdain: the face of immorality in America?

I’m a foodie. To ask B.R. Meyers of The Atlantic, this apparently makes me an immoral hedonist, whose insatiable appetite for food and pleasure and elitism will be the downfall of our civilization (seriously, he references the fall of the Roman empire and manages to blame it on food).

Meyers’ piece reads like a particularly strident sermon against what he sees as gluttony, and he lumps a wide variety of people together in order to make his case against the immorality of people who dare to enjoy their food. What do Anthony Bourdain and Michael Pollan have in common? I like both, and both think people should cook more and enjoy food more, but they have pretty different food philosophies. Bourdain probably does fall closest to Meyers’ hedonist vision of a foodie, being a big fan of pork products of all sorts, and unafraid to eat even the nastiest bits of an animal in his worldwide quest for good food on his Travel Channel show. He’s sort of like the Dr. House of food: abrasive, provocative, selfish–he’s doing it on purpose to get a rise out of people like Meyers. But as a longtime fan of Bourdain’s, I think he’s really a softie. He gets off on the kindness and similarities of people all over the world as much as he does a greasy pile of pork, and he’s so very genuinely warm with even the poorest folks who share meals with him on his travels. Sure, he’s known for his profanity-filled bestsellers about the food industry, but he’s a secret softie.

Pollan, on the other hand, comes at foodie-ism from an environmentalist point of view. His mantra, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is about a more sustainable way of eating, not dependent on industrial farming and emissions-causing shipping of food around the world. The “not too much” part flies directly in the face of Meyers’ anti-glutton arguments. Pollan does a lot of advocacy work for things like organic and small farms, and he’s educated a lot of people through his involvement with the movie “Food Inc.,” which personally changed my life and my relationship with food. I’d put him in a category with someone like Mark Bittman, New York Times food writer and author of some of my favorite cookbooks (the Food Matters Cookbook and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian), who advocates a “less meat-arian” diet that is better for our health and for the planet. I wouldn’t put either of them in a category with Anthony Bourdain.

Meyers also seems to think that people who really care about and enjoy their food are simply elitists pursuing physical pleasure rather than people trying to live out deeply held convictions in their daily lives. For one thing, I’m not so sure there’s anything wrong with flat out enjoying food. Being able to taste is a miracle and a gift. That we can take pleasure as we must take sustenance is a wonderful thing. Enjoying the blessings of food is a way of being thankful for it. I’m personally a “foodie” because I care deeply about my impact on the environment, the treatment of animals and workers, the way my eating affects global hunger, and the way my eating affects the health of my community’s economy and my own body. I try to eat less meat, more local organic produce, and to avoid all processed foods. And I love every bite.

Supposedly Meyers is a vegan and has a problem with meat eating in general, and that’s part of his issue with Bourdain. I can respect that. But while I may in fact be drawn toward vegetarianism myself, you aren’t going to win me, or many people, to veganism by suggesting that it’s immoral to really enjoy food. Come to our side! We don’t enjoy our food! Come not enjoy it with us! Why not illustrate that there is pleasure to be had in a deliciously prepared vegetarian dish? What would be wrong with enjoying a perfectly prepared piece of produce?

Are there foodie elitists? Sure. I’m not sure Bourdain is one of them– he’s as likely to eat at a street cart as he is at Le Bernadin. I’m not sure Pollan is either, since one of his major areas of activism is getting people access to fresh, healthy, whole food. And my food hero, Mark Bittman, points out that 90% of Americans own a car and spend an average of 30+ hours a week watching television, so acquiring healthy food and cooking it at home is actually achievable for a large chunk of us.

To me, food is sort of the opposite of elitism, because it’s about sharing. Meals bring people around a table together. They facilitate conversation and understanding and connection. People who are really excited about food want to share those experiences with others–to say “you have GOT to try this,” rather than keeping the experience locked away for only a privileged few. Real foodies have a curiosity about other food cultures, and an interest in reaching out and having new experiences, even if it’s just trying some new and weird looking vegetable that suddenly showed up in a CSA box.

Finally: who is the real elitist? Someone who cares passionately about food (much like others who care passionately about their hobbies and interests), or Meyers himself? Many times in the article, he suggests that people who care a lot about food don’t devote much time to what he believes are higher pursuits, for example:

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.

I mean, the guy in the effing Atlantic quoting Roman historians and referencing Proust can hardly be calling OTHERS out on their elitism, for one thing. For another: you don’t have to choose between the stomach and the mind. Mr. Meyers: I’m a budding foodie and a home-cooking hobbyist. I’m also pursuing a graduate degree in English Literature and hope to be a professor one day. I’m just sayin’, one can love both food and the great thinkers and their great thoughts.

Ultimately, Meyers’ piece comes off as a particularly whiny rant about some people he seems to just not like. He seems particularly bothered by some of the foodies’ use of the f-word and likes to quote them using it, I guess in an attempt to point out that these hedonists use appallingly coarse language and further underline their supposed amorality. And yet, Meyers doesn’t offer an alternative. I can see how he might criticize Bourdain’s meat-fest gluttony, but I really don’t get what his issue with Pollan is. How DOES he think Americans should eat? What exactly is the problem with trying to eat in a way that corresponds to one’s values (Meyers seems to have no problem with people who keep kosher, for example) and enjoying it along the way? What’s so immoral about caring about how my chicken was raised, and how the farmer who raised it was compensated, and how the workers who slaughtered and packaged it were treated, and how much gas was used to get it to me?

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One thought on “moral foodieism

  1. I frankly found the Atlantic piece to be more of a ramble than a rant because he kept changing focus–elitism! Gluttony! Bourdain! Religion!–to really figure out what point he was trying to make. For me, coming home to a delicious dinner after a long workday and arduous commute is the best part of the day–I can collapse on the couch with my husband, we put on The Simpsons, Emeril Live and/or The Office, and we eat and reconnect. If that’s hedonistic and/or amoral so be it–I certainly have no interest in subscribing to his particular brand of asceticism.

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