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Ethan Kahn

Ethan Kahn

Posted: February 17, 2011 01:27 PM

Foodies are decadent, hyperbolic, and cultureless obsessives -- or so says B.R. Myers in the most recent issue of the Atlantic. Ostensibly, his article is a review of four food-related books, but perhaps it would be best characterized as a rant, in which he rails against a "gourmet community [secure] in its newfound reputation...that it now proclaims the very qualities -- greed, indifference to suffering, the prioritization of food above all -- that earned it so much obloquy in the first place in the first place."

On the one hand, I agree with him. Foodies and their ilk have gotten a bit out of hand. Suffice it to say that a lot of the time, foodies can be insufferable creatures, constantly discussing how many Michelin-starred restaurants they've been too, what obscure dishes they've eaten, or what hidden ethnic-restaurant gems they've discovered in some bland strip mall. It's quite reminiscent of the hipster who promotes the band he loves that you've never heard of, and how he was the one who discovered Vampire Weekend before they were famous. It's interesting at first and gets tiresome very quickly.

But foodies represent a broad culture, one replete with both positive and negative aspects. Respect for food, a desire not to waste any of it, a desire to combat obesity, or revel in the cuisines of other cultures that have radical different flavors than ones' own, drawing attention to the problems within the American food production system, and a general open-mindedness -- these are good things.

In his diatribe, 'The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,' Myers sees and describes only the negative aspect of foodie culture and none of the positive. His take on foodies' concern for the lives of the animals that they've eaten, for instance, is narrow-minded to the extreme. Instead of seeing the good that comes from promoting small farming operations that treat their animals well, he sees "doublespeak," "affectation[s] of piety," and "feign[ed] concern" -- all on the part of the foodies.

Myers is a vegan, and he brings his biases to the table, turning the article into a subtle, clandestine polemic designed to stress the carnivorous aspect of foodie culture as degeneracy. Almost every single anecdote or example that he gives as a sign of the foodies' decadence and hypocrisy involves meat, fish, or game.

The few, and I mean few examples he gives that don't involve flesh are brought to the table to rail against the obsessive nature of the foodie. Myers is unable to understand why someone would devote "Eight pages [to] marshmallow fluff" or "expound[] unironically on the 'ritual' of making the perfect slice [of milk toast]."

Note that these are both comfort foods, in a sense -- marshmallow fluff is reminiscent of childhoods, happy ones if they were spent with some marshmallow fluff, and milk toast involves sugar, butter, toast, and warm milk -- a dish that just sounds reassuring. To this inability to understand nostalgia, I want to say, "My god man. Do you not understand that food, a multi-sensual experience, has the ability to tie in indelibly with our memories, so that someone might actual feel passion for a particular food, and want to explore it through their pen, and perhaps honor it in their own way??" This type of food writer, the borderline obsessive, the "milk toast priest," write as much for themselves as they do for us.

But Myers fails to see this. He fails to comprehend, as Francis Lam puts it, "that there might be value, however odd or small, in this kind of examination. He offers no sense, even, that a person interested in food can actually process it as an interest." This is a cold person indeed, who rejects outright that can be really enjoyable, and thus deserving of praise. Food can be, and is to so many people, more than simple nourishment. We, as humans, don't eat flavorless, vitamin-filled mush for breakfast, lunch, and diner, because we like taste. We enjoy eating -- and Myers won't see this.

It's a shame, really, because by affecting a purely contrary and vitriolic position, he weakens the most powerful part of his article. The presence of gluttony in foodie culture is certain something that we can all agree should go, just as easily as we can all agree that it should be banished from American culture. Unfortunately, though, Myers groups all foodies under the banner of gluttony -- surely this isn't correct. After all, the mantra of Michael Pollan, whose book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Myers explains "now informs all food writing" is: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Gorging is conspicuously absent. Instead, Myers would have us believe that every foodie is Anthony Bourdain -- letting alone the common knowledge that Bourdain's shtick is impudence and hyperbole, and that he writes in such a way as to attract outrage or controversy.

Gluttony amongst the foodie world isn't right -- but to fallaciously suggest that all foodies are devoted to "the same mindless, sweating gluttony" is a deliberate mischaracterization. We could give Myers the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that he's specifically discussing the books that he's reviewing. That would be an error on our part, though, since Myers makes it clear that it's the entire foodie world that falls prey to this vice.

Hypocrisy makes an appearance in the article, too, as Myers tries to excoriate foodies for "their traditional elitism" (this is his basic tack throughout the entire article). He does so, though, without realizing that he's the one staring down his noses at "these people" -- his words, I kid you not. Over the course of the article, he criticizes foodies because "no one shows much interest in literature or the arts -- the real arts," because they "eat with the indiscriminate omnivorousness of a rat in a zoo dumpster," and as mentioned before, they write odes singing the praises of specific foods. But by assuming the moral and intellectual high ground, he instead ends up ceding it through his judgments and outright dismissals. Who knows -- there might just be something to the resume of foods that Bourdain's eaten: "'I've eaten raw seal, guinea pig. I've eaten bat.'"

But even if Myers were not a vegan, he would never deign to try these foods. They're below him, after all, even if they are what another culture subsists on or even loves. Here he betrays his inability to consider other perspectives or to accept other points of view. And yet he chooses to close his essay with this: "[Foodies] are certainly single-minded, however, and single-mindedness--even in less obviously selfish forms--is always a littleness of soul."

I'll leave it to you, readers, to decide who's displayed the littleness of soul.