Yes, Foodies Are Ridiculous. But Then So Is B.R. Myers!

Categories: My Rant, Sietsema

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B.R. Myers
In the March issue of The Atlantic, vegan, curmudgeon, North Korea expert, and animal-rights activist B.R. Myers goes after foodies in an article entitled "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies." I've got to admit, we've given him a very broad target.

He begins by extracting damning quotes from recent books by Anthony Bourdain, Gabrielle Hamilton, and Kim Severson, making them out to be, not only obsessed with food, but just plain addled by it. He writes, "To put these books aside after a few chapters is to feel a sense of liberation."

Next, he heaps abuse on Jeffrey Steingarten for dreaming about foie gras, and Michael Pollan for a 36-hour dinner party in which he and his crew of chefs and hangers-on roasted a whole goat in a Napa Valley backyard. Myers fails to note that it was a drop-in sort of party, in which guests came and left at will. He makes the whole shebang out to be a marathon Satanic mass.

Myers then glances at food writing and epicureanism. He characterizes the former as "guilty smirkiness," while the latter is reviled for requiring that one "eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford." He makes a fairly solid argument that contemporary Foodism is a class phenomenon (though that is changing, as fast-food establishments fiddle with their menus, public schools revamp their lunchrooms, and formerly unfamiliar ingredients infiltrate the grocery store), but then distractedly abandons that argument in favor of a much weaker one: People who eat animals are morally corrupt.

As his real target, the non-vegan, heaves into view, we breathe a collective sigh of relief, since foodies are now apparently in a more defensible position. Don't we celebrate the humane treatment of animals on small local farms? Aren't we concerned about the cruelty and health hazards represented by feedlots? Isn't sustainability of the food supply one of our primary goals?

To him it's all just window dressing, insisting the high moral ground we claim for ourselves is really the Slough of Despond. To Myers, Alice Waters's philosophy "is environmentally sustainable only because so few people can afford it." He continues his indictment of Waters by quoting Bourdain, "[Waters has] made lust, greed, hunger, self-gratification and fetishism look good."

The attacks retain their vitriol, but become increasingly redundant as the long piece progresses. He again savages all food writers because they specialize in "the barefaced inversion of common sense, common language. Restaurant reviews are notorious for touting $100 lunches as great value for the money." And here he revels in half-truths, neglecting the consumer-oriented bent of many food writers. Drop by Yelp, Chowhound, or Fork in the Road some day, and you'll find foodies bitching about overpriced lunches. In fact, the typical foodie often does more complaining than praising.

In turn, Myers hates those who love bacon, nibble on headcheese, secretly try ortolan with hoods on, accept bowls of pho in Vietnam out of politeness just because it's offered them, and the hapless but anonymous fellow who writes, "it's kind of weird and cool to say I've had goat testicles in rice wine." Maybe his real beef is with extreme eaters, since they provide the best fuel for his tirade. Naturally, their activities are intended mainly for personal titillation, but don't they usually acknowledge that themselves?

Myers, of course, is sitting up very high on his horse. Well, he can't actually sit on the horse, because that would be cruel, wouldn't it? As the embattled vegan in a meat-eating world, he tars anyone who allows meat past lips. At various points, he grabs arguments from evolution, animal husbandry, human history, zoology, ancient philosophy, and contemporary gastronomy, proving himself well-educated, but many brain cells short of wise.

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36 comments
MV
MV

This is a pretty shoddy reply by the Voice - ad hominem attacks, genetic fallacies, disingenuous insinuations, and above all clumsy generalizations, the worst of which is undoubtedly the one that closes the article: how on earth are you equating a mother who puts a little extra care into her child's lunch with the desensitized addicts Myers is castigating?

I'm not sure I agree with Livy (whom Myers quotes) that the glorification of chefs is a sign of cultural decay, but contrast Jeffrey Steingarten's disgusting remarks on the murder of the pig with this anecdote of Tolstoy's and it looks like the two of them have an excellent case:

"Once, when walking from Moscow, I was offered a lift by some carters who were going to Serpukhov to a neighbouring forest to fetch wood. It was Thursday before Easter. I was seated in the first cart with a strong, red, coarse cartman, who evidently drank. On entering a village we saw a well-fed, naked, pink pig being dragged out of the first yard to be slaughtered. It squealed in a dreadful voice, resembling the shriek of a man. Just as we were passing they began to kill it. A man gashed its throat with a knife. The pig squealed still more loudly and piercingly, broke away from the men, and ran off covered with blood.

Being near-sighted I did not see all the details. I saw only the human-looking pink body of the pig and heard its desperate squeal, but the carter saw all the details and watched closely. They caught the pig, knocked it down, and finished cutting its throat. When its squeals ceased the carter sighed heavily. `Do men really not have to answer for such things?' he said.

So strong is humanity's aversion to all killing. But by example, by encouraging greediness, by the assertion that God has allowed it, and above all by habit, people entirely lose this natural feeling."

And that feeling lost, they'll be all the more likely to "march behind the banner of foodism". Hope you remember to goose-step (or is that "foie gras-step"?), Mr. Sietsema.

Jonathan Grapentine
Jonathan Grapentine

Reality:To consume is to destroy organic tissue; to take sustenance from a corpse. It doesn't matter if the thing you killed to sustain yourself has a voice or a face, or big, adorable please-don't-eat-me eyes--heck, if killing and eating a lobster or baking old-timey lamprey pie is wrong, if life is precious even if it has no nervous system to speak of, then why draw an arbitrary line where the animal kingdom ends? How can you countenance committing a hundred abortions with every strawberry you pop into your mouth? How can you callously survive that bacterial infection--doesn't it have the right to live, too?There is, at this moment, a bloom of phytoplankton off the North Atlantic coast--a thin haze of single-celled plant life drifting in the water, quietly metabolizing sunlight and doing no harm to any living thing. It is, collectively, the only living creature on the face of the Earth that is not actively engaged in the act of destroying another.To eat is to kill. To live is to kill.Get over it.

BrooklynChef
BrooklynChef

Thank you for putting my outrage at BR Meyers into words.

Catullus
Catullus

I would not eat such an animal unless my daughter's life was at stake. However, inre this 'serious moral transgression' business, you do realize plants are living beings? Even Andrew Weil concedes this.

Huck Pituey
Huck Pituey

It goes without saying that the killing, use, or restraint of any living being - for purposes other than its best interest - is a serious moral transgression. Exotics are no exception! The other day I saw someone bite into and eat the head of a live Brassica oleracea! He had put some kind of sauce on it and claimed it was delicious. I found it revolting and profoundly disturbing. I still can't get the image out of my head. He said it didn't feel a thing but how can we can really know what others perceive?

Jon
Jon

and here I thought I hated Republicans most of all. vegans just topped the list! thanks everyone for bringing this to light.

Foodie, Formerly Fat
Foodie, Formerly Fat

I call myself a "foodie" because I love to cook. I love to think about new recipes I've read and love to think about new recipes I'm creating. I think in simple terms: no matter what I'm eating it's going to be better for me if I make it myself than buy something that's been pre-made. And that's true whether it's vegan, vegetarian, or filled with meat.

Melissa
Melissa

Re: Myers' article. Sietsema is right: I've never encountered so many strawmen in one article, and I'm surprised The Atlantic published something so unfocused and hysterical.

Bucky
Bucky

"Every hamburger isn't a manifestation of insane cruelty". No. You're dead wrong. Every hamburger is the result of a process where cows are tortured and murdered for *no reason* other than to provide gustatory pleasure to those who would consume them. If that's not insane cruelty, what is? Myers may be shrill and petulant but who can blame him? He is taking on a subculture that that not only tolerates but celebrates unnecessary cruelty. I'd say that given the moral facts, Myers takes a gentlemanly approach to his subjects. To wit, there's simply no way I could write a sustained paragraph, let alone a full essay, about Jeffrey Steingarten or Anthony Bourdain and keep the thing sufficiently professional. Within a sentence or two my writing would devolve into name calling and threats of violence. And for good reason...the wrath of sanity is difficult to contain.

Nicole Bestard
Nicole Bestard

Both articles are thought-provoking, and provide much to consider as we delve deeper in foodism, foodies and the like. I applaud anything that makes people stop and think about what they're putting into their bodies and the process behind it--something that both Pollan and Waters and Vegans certainly have in common.

I strongly disagree, however, with the comment that "vegans...love food as much of the rest of us." My experience has proved quite contrary. While many of the vegans I know do enjoy food, just as many do not. How else to explain the plethora of highly-processed and utterly disgusting products disguised as meat--from tofurkey to boca burgers? Or the habit of many vegans I know showing up with chips and dip for potlucks rather than taking the opportunity to showcase the wonderful things that can be made with real food and still be vegan? It's disheartening. I think people with underlying issues of emotional eating/control/and obsessive disorders are apt to use veganism, or raw diets, or anything else of that nature (extreme eating included) as a vehicle for their compulsion. I dare not say all vegans possess eating disorders, just as not all omnivores are self-indulgent or overeaters, but it should be addressed.

I admire the moral determination of vegans and vegetarians, and spent a good decade of my life as the latter. Being a vegetarian just didn't make me happy, however, and I eat healthier (less processed food by far) as an omnivore who does my best to make sustainable choices on a budget than I ever did as a vegetarian. I believe the real immorality and ridiculousness here belongs to the practice of imposing one's gustatory lifestyle on others with the judgment and derision that might make an evangelical pale in comparison.

Irishgem79
Irishgem79

One can knock this one down simply by pointing out that Myers' status as a vegan is one of complete privilege. I challenge him to maintain his chosen diet in most areas of the world where noone in their right mind would turn down a bit of meat, the densest source of calories they will ever see, when it becomes available to them. Of course vegetarianism is strongly rooted in many cultures, but I would argue that it is a result of the demands of environment.

BigRedAngus
BigRedAngus

B.R. Myers' piece in the Atlantic accurately summed up my experience with 'foodies' as gluttonous snobs seeking the meaning of life through their stomachs.

I find it sad that so many personal blogs, and so much creative effort is wasted on reporting about eating. Its one thing to enjoy a meal, its another thing to have it be your primary hobby.

That being said, I never met a 'foodie' or food writer who hadn't longed to be something else first: a novelist, a poet, an artist...you get the drift. Since one can anoint themselves a 'foodie,' and since entry into the club takes only one skill (the ability to eat), 'foodism' has become the outpost of creative failure, a last resort of people wishing they had something relevant about themselves to display or share, but instead have only their meals.

At long last, foodies may eventually realize that no one cares about what they ate, except other foodies, who listen politely because they are waiting for spotlight to shine in their direction.

Sam Vance
Sam Vance

Food Hysterics often speak in sweeping, absolute terms. Maybe 1% of farmed cattle are treated inhumanely, but to him, it's all or none. Food Hysterics do the same thing with GMO's, not admitting that there are thousands of different gene traits that can be expressed in many different ways. Some could be dangerous and should be addressed, but the rest are fine. The other thing that Food Hysterics don't account for is that food is more than life sustaining for people, it's a part of society. We eat because it tastes good and as part of a celebration. Eating isn't like taking prescribed medicine.

The term, 'foodie' may be tainted by some involved that give the impression that foodies are little more than hipsters, scoffing at something because it's popular to do so. For some of these people, I have actually re-purposed the term, 'Foodist'.

I have redefined 'foodism' or more specifically, a 'foodist' as someone that has an irrational disdain for food not supported by any science or reason. Foodists hate a specific food and steer people away, just as a racist may do with a minority they don't like. And like a racist, the foodist has no good reason for the hatred. A foodist can hate all hamburger or a category of food, like anything processed, or anything conventionally farmed, or anything GMO.

Sharon
Sharon

As someone who was more than irked by Myers's screed, I appreciate your well-thought response.

One linguistic niggle, however: "foodism" rather than "foodie-ism"? I know the latter is ugly, but the existence of a "foodism" would make its participants, well, "foodists," not "foodies."

Risky
Risky

Finding a hard time finding anything to like in any of this. Seems like each side just sets up a strawman and burns it down. I know a lot of people who claim the title "Foodie" who wouldn't meet any of the definitions offered by either side of this argument. If you enjoy food that tastes good, and you avoid things that are inhumane, false, chemical, factory-produced, or needlessly bland, you can be a Foodie in my book, and avoid the tar being painted by either side. I'll savor and moan about a roasted chicken, but I avoid Chicken McNuggets after one too many blog posts describing their finer details. That doesn't mean the appetizer will be foie gras, or even that the third course will be veal.

Chef Gwen
Chef Gwen

Although Meyers is a bit windy (almost 4,000 words), I did enjoy reading his point of view. I don't agree with him and I found it amusing that he feels smug enough to call people who don't view food the way he does as soulless. And I cheered when I read this concise (only 1,000 words) response, because it sheds light on the motivation of Meyers' diatribe. More than anything, I love that both writers made me think.

Marcus
Marcus

I am vegetarian for moral reasons, as the lesser of evils, and am no "foodie".

Serge
Serge

The problem is "loving" food in the first place. One can enjoy food, but to "love" it is an excess already.

rsietsema
rsietsema

Thanks jb, I think I found a better picture.

jb
jb

The picture you have of B.R. Meyers is really novelist Denis Johnson.

Malaprop49
Malaprop49

No, actually, I think he's making the point not that people who eat meat are morally corrupt. But that people who violently abuse animals and take great glee in doing so, hidden under the rhetorical and artistocratic cover of "foodie," are morally corrupt. Your criticism of Myers' brilliant analysis of these self-serving, spiritually and morally bereft specimens of humanity, is nothing more nor less than snarky and childish petulance.

orchestoid
orchestoid

I had never read that passage in Tolstoy. It so perfectly exemplifies the issue I've been trying to encapsulate but which Myers did better. I understand the vitriolic responses toward pieces like the one in the Atlantic. The writer is challenging the paradigm of exploitation and invariably, those who enjoy or benefit from that paradigm will rise up.

I find it disheartening, however, that those who fight for the status quo, do it with so much arrogance and heartlessness on the topic of animals. I'm seeing this over and over again, among foodies, among hunters who now equate the taking of animal life with a spiritual quest and communion. It's almost become a badge of honor to kill or consume an animal without flinching, without reflecting on what that life truly was -- as opposed to a taste sensation. 

In the past, I would have said that Tolstoy's words might alter a few hearts. But in today's climate of almost vehement and unthinking defense of meat eating at all costs, I rather doubt some of these heartless commenters will even be moved to emotion by that scene. It's a tragic statement of our current cultural norms, that we are not more aghast at how often we exploit non-human, sentient beings without adequate justification. Just look at the current obsession with suckling pig, foie gras ice cream and so forth -- totally unnecessary dishes that take significant toll on animals. 

Despite Michael Pollan's positive message about eating more plants, less meat, he is almost singularly responsible for creating a hipster, spiritualist meme around the killing of the hog, described in his book. I cannot tell you how many new hunters I've spoken with who cite Pollan as their inspiration to begin hunting, with personal "connection" to "their" animal as their cited reason. There is a perverse notion of possession in all of these quests ... of owning the experience, whether its an exclusive taste of a new offal dish or the killing of an animal. We have a long way to go before we truly understand the concept of sustainability and co-existence. It is not this -- this strange, self-centered world we've created around the palate.

Brenton Clifford
Brenton Clifford

Because, you moron, plants don't endure suffering; animals do.

Kate the Great
Kate the Great

Do I get tarred with the dreaded "foodie" brush because I'm laughing at your joke?

Catullus
Catullus

It probably would have helped if Myers had pointed out what a useless vanity project Alice Waters' Edible Classrom is, but Caitlin Flanagan had done that in a prior issue of The Atlantic.

Sol Wnuk
Sol Wnuk

Especially for the insane -- I.e., you.

ramone huckstable
ramone huckstable

so whats your excuse? assuming you arent a starving Cambodian child..

Catullus
Catullus

I guess the next time a friend says to me, "you're a foodie; teach my spouse how to make something other than pot roast," I should decline because it's just a venue for my RV-sized ego.

Jonathan
Jonathan

@ Sam Vance - Your "maybe 1% of farmed cattle are treated inhumanely" statistic is wildly inaccurate. According to the USDA, about 70% of American beef cattle are fattened on high-density feedlots. All of these cattle, and a great many more, are castrated without anasthetic, branded, dehorned, and shipped long distances without food or water. What is humane about any of that?

Of course, focusing on "humane treatment" is to ignore the fundamental claim of animal rights theory: that the killing, use, or restraint of any sentient animal - for purposes other than the animal's best interest - is a serious moral transgression. But that's clearly beyond the scope of your comment.

Kmcklaw
Kmcklaw

You're a vegan, too, aren't you?

Morningstar9
Morningstar9

"Animal rights theory" doesn't deal in reality. Animals kill other species for food all the time. We're animals.

cyris8400
cyris8400

We are not justified in doing something just because other animals do it. The naturalistic fallacy is that just because x happens in nature doesn't mean we are justified in committing x. Cannibalism and coprophagy and rape also occur in nature. Animals also eat plants all the time (if the majority of animals didn't there couldn't be carnivores). Which animals and habits are we to emulate? You're cherry-picking and not dealing in reality.

aldarase
aldarase

and with that attitude perhaps you deserve to be treated like one.

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