Are foodies gluttons?

March 11, 2011

By now, the no-longer-new food movement has provoked files full of skeptical responses. Most follow familiar scripts: foodies are elitist, or environmentally ignorant, or impractical about global hunger.

So you have to admire the originality of B. R. Myers's "moral crusade against foodies" in this month's Atlantic. His major concern is not for the hungry or the planet. He does indulge in a bit of anti-elitist rhetoric, but it isn't the thrust of the piece (fortunately for him, since his complaint that food writers never bring up Proust except to "[talk] about that damned madeleine again" doesn't exactly paint him as a person of the people).

Instead, Myers offers this: foodies are gluttons. He rejects the idea that gluttony is about overindulgence, pointing out that "the Catholic Church's criticism has always been directed against an inordinate preoccupation with food--against foodie-ism, in other words." He spends much of the article affixing this foodie-glutton label to chefs and food writers who tend toward unabashed gourmandism.

It's fresh for an anti-foodie screed, but it shares the genre's essential flaw: a narrow sense of the food movement's interests, which in fact are quite broad--and which motivate many foodies to connect their interest in eating well with service and policy advocacy.

Foodies look pretty elitist if you focus on the grass-fed pork belly but ignore urban farms, anti-food-desert efforts and voucher systems--to say nothing of efforts to keep food dollars in rural communities. Eco-concerned locavores may seem misguided if you look only at their tomatoes' carbon footprint, but what about the longer-range effects of large-scale monocropping on not just global warming but soil erosion, water shortages, pollution and biodiversity? Even if our current system for fighting hunger did benefit from GMOs (it doesn't) and tons of chemicals (the UN's skeptical), the system itself is a mess--and changing it means reforming U.S. farm policy.

As for Myers, he calls foodies gluttons and cherry-picks his evidence accordingly. But as 18th-century Catholic bishop and theologian Alphonsus Maria de Liguori argues, gastronomic pleasure doesn't itself make you a glutton--and it can even be virtuous. Myers takes this sentence by Kim Severson--"What blessed entity invented sugar and cacao pods and vanilla beans or figured out that salt can preserve and brighten anything?"--and mocks it as "the kind of thing that passes for spiritual uplift in this set." I don't see the irony here; I see sensual pleasure pointing Severson toward the creator.

More importantly, the food movement isn't just about the pleasure of eating. It's about pleasure, care and ethics around the whole life of food--producing, selling, cooking and eating. "The most delicious meats may be eaten without sin," says de Liguori, "if the motive be good and worthy of a rational creature; and, in taking the coarsest food through attachment to pleasure, there may be a fault." That sounds like the difference between an occasional ethically sourced steak and a nightly Arby's binge.

That distinction wouldn't work for Myers, who is an animal rights activist and a vegan. But he goes seriously astray when he tries to lump Michael Pollan in with the hypercarnivorous extreme eaters. Pollan, after all, is best known for pushing a healthful and low-meat diet--one that doesn't pass muster for anti-meat purists but is accessible enough that it could make a serious dent in meat overconsumption.

The other thing Pollan's known for is synthesizing and articulating an ambitious policy agenda that tackles the many ways in which food affects the life of the planet and its people. The food movement is a many-splendored thing, but it's perhaps best captured by the idea that our food-related choices--as both eaters and citizens--have all kinds of consequences and deserve more attention.

Pollan--and Mark Bittman and other leaders of the ethically oriented foodie type Myers dismisses as "sanctimonious"--aren't "inordinately preoccupied" with fancy food. They're trying to get people to be healthier, cook for themselves and advocate for real food policy change (not just photo ops with Wendell Berry and dubious partnerships with Walmart). Myers's gluttony diagnosis addresses the wrong problem: most Americans still pay too little attention to food, not too much.


I think this misses the point

I think the key point in understanding Myers' piece is that there's a distinction to be made between engagement with food politics and a preoccupation with food for one's personal consumption. Sometimes these both show up in the same individual. Myers is taking aim mainly at the latter. To the extent that he criticizes people in food politics, the argument (which I don't completely agree with) is that certain individuals feign an interest in the issues to make their obsession look more virtuous. I'm puzzled by pieces like this one that see Myers as being critical of the whole food movement.

Michael Pollan nicely illustrates the need for making this distinction. As you point out, he advocates for a low-meat diet. But when he writes about his own eating, there's always an expensive chunk of meat at the center of his plate. While I don't agree with Myers that Pollan is comparable to a guy like Anthony Bourdain, I wonder if this inconsistency might make Pollan less effective as an advocate.

I get that he wants to make

I get that he wants to make that distinction, which is why I think the most egregious problem with his argument is his glossing over the difference between food-reform advocates like Pollan and more straightahead gastronomes like Bourdain. But I don't really buy the distinction, either: while apolitical, hedonistic gourmands certainly exist, the power of the food movement is that it's helped people make connections between their own eating at the wider world. Ethical food is often tastier, and big-ticket items at farmers market etc. help subsidize efforts to bring prices down on staples. More to the point, everybody eats, food choices have many implications, and attentiveness to all this can serve as (and has for many people) an ethical awakening. So the lived distinction is not as clear-cut as the conceptual one.

"That sounds like the

"That sounds like the difference between an occasional ethically sourced steak and a nightly Arby's binge."
I think this really gets to the heart of the matter for many Americans who display shock, and even outrage, at the prices some people pay for higher-quality, organic foods. My family in the Midwest, for example, cannot seem to understand why I would rather spend a chunk of money on a cut of organic, free-range meat once a week than spend the same amount of money mindlessly eating 2 dollar burgers at McDonalds all week. Their basic argument always seems to come down to quantity over quality, but yet they call that "being frugal". I personally think it is more frugal, and less gluttonous, to be conscious and purposeful about my food choices and how those choices impact my own health and the health of the planet. I try to practice mindful eating by savoring and enjoying healthy, wholesome food while giving thanks to the multitude of forces that helped produce that food, including God. For me, this practice encourages an attitude of respect for the gifts God has given us, and I find it very hard to see how that could possibly construed as being gluttonous.

quality vs. quantity

Thank you. Food is one of the pleasures of an abundant life. It seems like better stewardship to me when I eat good food that is well prepared at home, rather than indulging in mindless eating at a fast food place. It's also less expensive in the long run.

Foodies as Good Stewards

For an educational and accessible read on an experiment in being an eco-minded locavore, Barbara Kingsolver's, ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE is a great place to start.