Are foodies gluttons?
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
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
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.