The Moral Crusade Against Foodies (and Food Writers)

I’m not entirely sure what B.R. Myers is trying to say in this piece at The Atlantic – that Foodies (for want of a better term) are, at heart, inherently sinful? That a passion for food is gluttonous, because it deals with consumption as much as it does the food itself? That we “foodies” are a shallow, insular bunch?

Let me give you a taste (ha! Taste! A Foodie is always trying to get you to eat something, aren’t they?) of what Myers has written.

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.

Oohhhh…so we’re cold-blooded carnivores. I see.

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.

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.

Umm…so we’re smug, cold-blooded carnivores? Who aren’t really convinced of our own arguments?

…food writing has long specialized in the barefaced inversion of common sense, common language. Restaurant reviews are notorious for touting $100 lunches as great value for money.

We’re elitist, smug, cold-blooded carnivores? Now Meyers is just being mean.

Every exercise of our hungry power is thus part of the Great Food Chain of Being, with which we must align our morals. Deep down—instinctively if not consciously—the “hardwired” pig understands all this, understands why he has suddenly been dragged before a leering crowd. Just don’t waste any of him afterward; that’s all he asks. Note that the foodies’ pride in eating “nose to tail” is no different from factory-farm boasts of “using everything but the oink.”

We’re hypocritical, elitist, smug, cold-blooded carnivores? Wow, we foodies are a pretty evil bunch.

I have some of my own observations about food writing at large, being that I am (albeit nominally) part of this group.

For one, I can pick and choose snippets of writing from a collection of all sorts of writers, be they political pundits, music journalists, or gossip bloggers, and make them out to be the jack-assiest of jack asses. It’s not a particularly difficult skill to bring up.

That being said, there are some points that Myers brings up which are worth scrutinizing. Let’s start with the intent of writing about food. From my own experience, it has nothing to do with promoting gluttony, although I will admit it is a by-product. My own reasons for taking up food writing was to accomplish three things:

1) Remove myself from the mundane environment of the typical American food culture, where food is made as inoffensively (in order to catch the broadest possible net on consumers)and as cheaply(to make the most money) as possible. Nothing makes me want to put a gun to my temple more than walking down the frozen food aisle at the local Safeway, with muzak humming incessantly above.
2) Exploring the diversity that life has to offer me with the resources I have available. This includes food. It’s not happenstance that “Hedonist” is part of this blogs title.
3) Document my discoveries as to let me work out what I am thinking.

And honestly? Getting an audience is a happy benefit, not a primary motivator.

As for why other food writers get the bug, you’ll have to ask them. But the reason for food writing is important.

As for what happens once one enters the food media world, that’s a whole other sack of potatoes (jeez, another food metaphor?). It is a limited genre after all, and there’s only so many “This dish reminds me of my childhood, and this meal reminds me of my dead mother” type of stories that are worth hearing. The thing is – these stories still do sell, because that feeling connecting food to a person or moment in time is universal. Marcel Proust did it best, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds if not thousands of other food writers from trying.

Then there are the restaurant reviews. If there’s an aspect of food writing which is more open for pompousity than restaurant reviews, I’m not sure I know what it is. The premise is simple – tell readers which restaurants are worth their time and money. What this has evolved into is an enterprise unto itself, where chefs having to know as much about Public Relations as they do about running a kitchen.

The end result? A handful of writers who tell us their thoughts on a place that 99.99% of us will never visit. To become a restaurant reviewer is to enter a world where reality takes a back seat; where dozens, if not hundreds of e-mails enter one’s inbox, clamoring for one’s time in order to p promote the next Per Se; where, to be successful, one must go out incognito, and where, at least due to American custom, the be paid for out of the reviewers own pocket (or the pocket of the newspaper/blog/magazine to which the review will show). This is insanity, and the end product often means very little to many of the readers the review reaches. Tempest, meet teapot.

That’s not to say there aren’t good restaurant reviewers out there. But like any genre, you have to search for them.

Then there is the insular aspect of the food media. This is due in large part to the fact that most of the large magazines titles and book publishers are based in New York, and thus a great amount of the food world starts to look like only New York. Which is cool if one lives in Brooklyn, but irrelevant if you live in Denver.

And the less said of the Food Network, the better.

All of this, all of it, misses a larger point – That we, individually, are ultimately responsible for the food choices in our lives. To make good choices, whether we define good as ethical or qualitative, or quantitative, we need good, solid information. The problem is that a great majority of food writing is approached as entertainment, a variation of “lookie at what I’ve done! Here’s what I think about it!”. Good information will always be secondary to those who make readers drool, or give the perfect party/holiday dinner/dessert to a pot luck.

Part of this is institutional. The food writing business is set up for, primarily, entertainment purposes, and sells a lifestyle. Attention can be gathered by advocating politically correct food philosophies, sure. But equal or more attention can be had by talking about how one killed a goat, just to see it die. That these two philosophies can co-exist in an industry is as natural as improving the unemployment rate by either investing in government infrastructure or cutting government jobs. Don’t hate the players, Meyers. Hate the game.

So how does one escape the gravitational pull of hackneyed premises, irrelevant reviews, and overwrought descriptions of a plate of veal? It goes back to why one writes in the first place. Personally, I’m under no illusions on why I do what I do. I can’t make that same claim for anyone else.