Why B.R. Myers Can Choke on His Article
Many food writers have responded to B.R. Myers’ hissy fit in The Atlantic, “Fed Up: Gluttony Dressed Up as Foodie-ism Is Still Gluttony.” This article as Mike Steinberger points out was launched with a laser-like trajectory from South Korea where Myers resides and was meant to quite purposefully cause convulsions among a certain segment of the population. Namely those involved in writing about food. Myers makes innovative assertions in his piece that 1) chefs tend to be individuals who enjoy overindulging (shocking), 2) that foodies are responsible for tainting the pleasure of eating and confusing it with sex (paging Dr. Freud!), and 3) that food writers employ annoying narrative tools like hyperbole. Enlightening commentary to be sure. That is if you happen to be living on the same Pre-Freudian, post-hyperbolic, and psycho-analysis-free planet where Myers himself lives.
First can we please dispense with the word “foodie”? At last year’s Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier both attendees and panelists bristled at this term and the inadequacies of the word in describing those who make food writing their profession. (I won’t describe here and now why I personally find this term irksome, but referring to Anthony Bourdain, Michael Pollan and others as “foodies” is a little akin to calling Gandhi a “community organizer.” I’m not saying food writers should be revered in the same way that Gandhi is, I’m just pointing out that the term is not an apt description). Why? “Foodie” carries with it connotations of someone who is ignorant of the responsibility of having a public platform to write about food; it conjures images of self-proclaimed bloggers who “just like to eat,” and I wouldn’t put any of the aformentioned individuals in these categories.
The subtext of Myers’ article is the real issue here and that subtext is the fact that he is a vegan; and also how annoying he finds both foodie and food culture’s propensity to be sanctimonious, including the foodie morality that exalts the pleasures of food above all else, even at the, and especially, the expense of, animal suffering. He’s even taken the time to read most of the Best Food Writing Anthology of 2010 and a few assorted other tomes on food writing to prove his point. If his diatribe was meant to illuminate the virtues of not eating meat (one of them being that you can give yourself the go ahead to be self-righteous), his article accomplishes little in this regard. My own personal reference point: when I was in high school I volunteered for an animal rights organization in Alexandria, Va. and most of the staff there was vegetarian. Not one of them ever made attempts to convert me to the Tofu Side. Their weapon was to lead by quiet example. Even Myers’ defender and co-contributor to The Atlantic James McWilliams’ argument for eschewing pleasures of the flesh makes a more poignant, powerful and also timely case for vegetarianism. Myers’ argument just tends to be a little too heavy on the personal grudge side (Fess up, Bourdain. What did you do?!)
“The Next Floor”: A shortfilm about real gluttons and no doubt plucked from Myers’ subconscious. Video: Youtube
The very people Myers lambasts (chefs, restaurateurs and food writers) for reducing the ephemeral elegance of, say a tantalizing bearnaise sauce, to mere fetishism are in fact the very ones responsible for stirring a great awakening of concerns related to animal welfare, as well as environmental and human health regarding food consumption and production. These are in fact the very people that Myers really needs to co-opt. What he does not seem to realize is that, while yes, in our current zeitgeist there is a hyper-awareness about food, more importantly people like Anthony Bourdain and Michael Pollan also have the ability to promote the incremental change needed to propel society at large towards a more enlightened view of comestibles. It only stands to reason that as the public at large becomes more preoccupied with food as spectacle, this interest will serve as a gateway towards nutritional health and environmental stewardship, and ultimately concern will surely blossom into advocacy for animals in general. This certainly isn’t going to happen overnight, and it won’t change with one article. But it’s not difficult to imagine a not too distant future where the trend to decrease meat consumption leads to a trend to decreased farming of animals, and ergo the horrors of factory farming. It’s a short leap from getting the public to care about how animals are treated when we raise them for food, to grappling in a collective way with insecurities surrounding the killing of animals for food.
The other aspect of this article that is as tired as a late 90s pop song (and also McWilliam’s response) is the age-old tactic of those who play the fetish card and fold their arms in smug victory as if to say,” ’nuff said” and then drag out Alice Waters across the food debate stage as well as the associated Slow Food movement to illustrate their point about the snobby nature of foodies. Myers writes this about Water’s mecca of food culture, Chez Panisse, in his article:
“…grilled rack and loin of Magruder Ranch veal as a typical offering-which is environmentally sustainable only because so few people can afford it.”
This is such a hackneyed tactic on the part of Slow Food detractors like Myers. Primarily because Slow Food in its original Italian iteration actually was born of a leftist political movement in the mid-80s, and as led by Carlo Petrini its mission was to protect the environment and defend consumers, not a competition to see who can ingest the most rarified and expensive morsels. And speaking of rarified morsels, Myers mentions Tony Bourdain’s eating of seal, bats and guinea pig as an indictment of foodie immorality: “I’ve eaten raw seal, guinea pig and even bat, ” says Bourdain in his latest offering “Medium Raw.” But these aren’t examples of gluttony gone wild. I can order guinea pig at the local Honduran eatery in my neighborhood any day of the week (it’s called cuy), and you can bet that the elite, foodie establishment (whoever that is) isn’t eating there. So, is Myers saying that meat is good enough for poor people but not for him? I would also hazard to guess that Tony Bourdain isn’t randomly ordering raw seal off the “animals-beaten-to-death-with-a-club” side of the menu. He probably ate seal because “No Reservations” was filming in a community where seal was common fare. Last I heard seal was *not* the daily special at any midtown Manhattan eatery. In this regard Myers is actually the one employing hyperbole here, or at the very least stretching the word the meaning of exotic to fit his own argument.
Here in D.C., where The Atlantic is housed, establishments like D.C. Central Kitchen are testament to the power of not only food , but food policy and have become a model of financial sustainability. I would submit the rise of empowering nonprofits like these is due in part to the increased hyper-awareness and “fetishization” of food that Myers loathes. That’s to say nothing of our chefs who are unabashed proponents of sustainability: Rob Weland at Kimpton’s Poste (who incidentally attended the Terra Madre conference at the birthplace of Slow Food in the Piemonte last year), Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong at Restaurant Eve who painstakingly take the time to work with suppliers who care about the sustainability of the products they provide, as well José Andrés who has built a mini culinary empire in this city by espousing not only trendy molecular gastronomy, but also the use of sustainable ingredients.
People who really treasure food and breaking bread (or other assorted meat-based dishes) with others aren’t gluttons. They’re humans. It makes me wonder if Myers actually has warm blood pulsing through his veins or an anti-freeze-like substitute, because if he did he might understand that while food, is yes hopelessly fetishized in the milieu of our capitalist framework, it could not exist as the powerfully political tool it has become without the “annoying” food worship of the masses.