B.R. Myers has stirred up a big pot controversy. In his article this month in The Atlantic, “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” Myers makes the case that well-known foodies–including Michael Pollan, Anthony Bourdain, Dana Goodyear, and lots of others–have turned traditional virtues of temperance and kindness and even civility on their heads; instead, they’ve embraced savagery and gluttony.
He’s not wrong. Myers describes Bourdain‘s story of dining on ortolan, “endangered songbirds fattened in dark boxes.” Yum. He cites example after example of foodies rhapsodizing over bleeding pigs to death, eating live eels, gorging themselves at the table. “Amorality as ethos, callousness as bravery, queenly self-absorption as machismo: no small perversion of language is needed to spin heroism out of an evening spent in a chair.”
Myers, it seems, got what he wanted: lots of readers, for and against his argument. Foodies have been indignant: how dare he accuse them of gluttony? They’re not elitists or pigs: they’re epicures, hobbyists, sensualists indulging in new sensations.
Although he doesn’t admit as much anywhere in the piece, Myers is, allegedly, a vegan and an animal right activist. Much of his argument against foodie culture hinges on foodies’ callous indifference to the suffering of the animals they eat and their attempts to rationalize this suffering as merely the animals’ lot in life. Somehow, roasted ortolan bunting is just too delicious to resist. According to NPR’s Scott Simon, “The Ortolan Bunting, a bird about the size of your thumb…is prepared by drowning it alive in Armagnac, cooked and then served whole, eaten bones and all. Now, aside from being considered more than slightly cruel, even by the standards of French cuisine, serving Ortolan is also highly illegal, because the bird is endangered.” (Which didn’t stop French chef Christophe Eme from naming is L.A. restaurant “Ortolan.” Classy, right?)
I have mixed feelings about Myers’s piece. I am not a vegan, but I am a vegetarian. I don’t care if you eat meat. I won’t preach to you about your food choices. I will, however, encourage you to know how your food is produced and to make conscious decisions about the food you’re consuming. In this way, I empathize with Michael Pollan, whose motto is, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Myers tars Bourdain and Pollan with the same brush, which is hardly fair.
I am also an avid watcher of Top Chef and other foodie TV shows where chefs compete to see who can make the most interesting, beautiful, and delicious dishes. One of the things I love about travel is exploring new restaurants. I love cooking. I love trying new recipes. I am the type of person Myers was pricking when he mentioned that “Vogue’s restaurant critic, Jeffrey Steingarten, says he ‘spends the afternoon—or a week of afternoons—planning the perfect dinner of barbecued ribs or braised foie gras.’” I’ve never spent a week planning dinner, and I’ll pass on both the ribs and the foie gras. But a weekend afternoon devoted to shopping for groceries, baking bread, and making soup is pretty perfect in my book.
I don’t think Myers is talking about me, though. Enjoying food or appreciating haute cuisine is not the issue. He’s skewering the idea of it taking some kind of machismo to kill a pig or eat an endangered songbird, some virtue in stuffing your gut until you’re ready to burst.
And, on that note, here’s Monty Python’s famous Mr. Creosote, from The Meaning of Life. (WARNING: If you’ve never seen it, be advised that it may be the most disgusting movie scene you’ve ever experienced. If you have seen it–even if you’ve laughed hysterically over it–you probably don’t need to watch it again.)
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