In my latest Slate column, I mention an article in the current issue of the Atlantic called “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.” The author, B.R. Myers, is an Atlantic contributor who achieved notoriety back in 2001 with a splenetic attack on contemporary American literature. He dismissed as pretentious and essentially unreadable the works of novelists such as Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Annie Proulx, David Guterson, and Rick Moody, and attacked the American literary establishment for puffing up their reputations. Sneering and bombastic, the piece was clearly meant to épater le bourgeois, but there was also a distinct whiff of ressentiment (oops, there I go being all pretentious myself and using fancy French phrases). That’s the Myers style, and it is on vivid display in his windy rant about foodies.
I’m not a disinterested observer here; as I note in my Slate piece, I’m cited by Myers as an example of a debauched live-to-eat type. His article is ostensibly a review of several food-related books, including Best Food Writing 2010, which includes an extract from my book Au Revoir to All That, in which I recount a dinner at a restaurant in Strasbourg and how I let the chef flirt with my wife because I was so enthralled by his foie gras preparation. I thought I wrote that section in a gently self-mocking way, and many readers seemed to find the story amusing. But Myers, whose writing is not distinguished by its humor, considers it emblematic of just how low the food-obsessed will sink in order to satisfy their whims. I’m also rapped on the knuckles for hyperbole; my enthusiasm grates on Myers. That’s fine: reading is personal, and tone and content that works for one reader might not please another.
Myers is apparently a vegan and an animal rights activist, and one of his beefs with foodies is that they are duplicitous when it comes to the treatment of animals. On the one hand, he says, they piously condemn factory farming and industrial agriculture, yet most of them are meat eaters, and they often seem to revel in the slaughter of animals. By way of example, he quotes Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten, who writes of a dying pig that it is “a filthy beast deserving its fate.” If Myers had confined himself to this issue, he might have produced an interesting essay. Whether a chicken is raised in a fetid warehouse or allowed to wander around a farmyard, it is still being put to death so that humans can eat it. There is certainly an argument to be made that factory vs. free-range is a distinction without much of a difference and that foodies are both deluding and flattering themselves in claiming otherwise.
But Myers doesn’t restrict himself to meat consumption; the article is a scattershot assault on “foodie-ism” (his phrase) in general. He denounces its practitioners as gluttons. He attacks them for being profligate and obtuse (“Restaurant reviews are notorious for touting $100 lunches as great value”), and for traveling vast distances in pursuit of gustatory pleasure (“And when foodies talk of flying to Paris to buy cheese…they’re not joking”). He claims they are philistines, and that the “glorification of chefs” is a sign of a declining culture. He sees no fundamental distinction between, say, the gonzo antics of Anthony Bourdain and the erudite meditations of Michael Pollan; both men are moral pygmies whose passion for food bespeaks a “littleness of soul.”
As Myers ricochets from one grievance to the next, it becomes clear that the real issue is that he personally derives no satisfaction from the act of eating (“no small perversion of language is needed to spin heroism out of an evening spent in a chair”), considers this testament to his own rectitude, and is incensed that a very different ethos now prevails (witness the popularity of Bourdain and Pollan, the proliferation of television cooking shows, etc.). Reading his essay, you can almost imagine him running into a restaurant, overturning the tables, and sending all the dishes crashing to the floor. It is a tantrum masquerading as a critique.
Perhaps sensing that he has revealed more about himself than about the matter at hand, Myers makes a flailing attempt at the end of the piece to arouse the reader’s indignation by suggesting that sanctimonious food zealots are plotting to invade our kitchens. He writes, “Unfortunately, the foodie fringe enjoys enough media access to make daily claims for its sophistication [note the resentment] and virtue, for the suitability of its lifestyle as a model for the world. We should not let it get away with those claims.” This is what pretentious literary types refer to as a straw man argument. Myers offers no examples to back up his assertion, and that’s because he can’t. Apart from encouraging people to eat healthy foods, to make time for family meals, and to be environmentally conscious, there is nothing prescriptive about “foodie-ism”, and certainly nothing that smacks of a determination to impose its views on others. As for the foodie “lifestyle,” it simply amounts to giving some thought to what you put in your stomach and to taking pleasure in what you eat—and it is this last part that Myers cannot abide.