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Food Fight

2011 March 2
by Mike

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.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. April 15, 2013

    Think it being a journal or even a magazine from general interest for everyone to understand. Funny, witty, controversial, entertaining, useful, acerbic, thoughtful, serious, curious, unexpected comebacks are generally welcome.

  2. March 7, 2011

    Bill,

    I agree with you–the “Reader’s Manifesto” article served a useful purpose. And as I said in my reply to Christo, the difference between that piece and the screed against foodies is the perspective that Myers brought to the respective subjects.

    I have no problem with the swipe that he took at me; though as I’m thin-skinned as the next writer, I long ago recognized that not everyone is going to like everything I write, and some people might not like anything that I write. That’s just the way it goes.

    As I said in my post, Myers could have written a very effective and interesting piece had he limited himself to the meat issue. But he didn’t have the discipline to do that, or just figured it would be a lot more fun to rile up the foodies by attacking them on multiple fronts–by calling them gluttons, philistines, etc. He certainly succeeded in riling people up, but I think this is a classic case of generating more heat than light.

    Mike

  3. March 6, 2011

    Christo,

    Thanks very much for the great comments. I did not read his book (and certainly won’t now, thanks to your description of it!) but I read the article that was the basis for it. Although Myers is clearly of the Dale Peck, slash-and-burn school of criticism, I thought that the article made some fair points, and it was good to see the literary consensus challenged. It is amazing that the book turned out to be so bad, and to be such a glaring example of the very thing that Myers had deplored (love your “fake blood” quip).

    Part of what made that 2001 article effective was that Myers clearly had a deep knowledge of and passion for literature. By contrast, his tirade against foodies was driven by his indifference to food and his contempt for the idea that one can seek pleasure at the table and not merely sustenance, and I think it made for a much weaker and far less credible essay.

    Mike

  4. March 6, 2011

    S Kwak,

    Excellent point. I suspect he either coined that phrase or chose to use it because it is indeed such a clunker–certainly, compared to gourmandism, which Brillat-Savarin described so well (and Brillat-Savarin emphasized that it was not to be confused with gluttony). “Foodie-ism” sounds almost like a disease, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that was exactly what Myers found appealing about the term. Thanks for writing.

    Mike

  5. Bill permalink
    March 6, 2011

    I think good polemics are a healthy and necessary element of our cultural evolution, and Myers’s “Reader’s Manifesto” (the article, not the book…I heartily agree w/Cristo in that regard) is a prime example of that. Yes it’s mean-spirited, unfair, and full of generalizations, but it forced A LOT of people to question their assumptions, refine their arguments, and rouse themselves from complacency. I think that’s a healthy part of any intellectual tradition.

    I don’t think Myers was on the same sound footing with his polemic on “foodies” and food writing, and I’m certainly dismayed that his scattershot assault wrongly maligned Mike, but I think he’s achieved some of the same positive effect with this latest screed as his earlier “manifesto.” Words and terms like “sustainable,” farm-to-table, organic, and “locally sourced” are now commonplace descriptors that are lazily tossed around and have an assumed, intrinsically good quality to them (this is nowhere more evident than in the world of wine). To challenge those assumptions and elicit counter-arguments from all quarters (as Myers’s article has done) is again a healthy addition to the discourse. Myers clearly isn’t in his field of expertise nor does he seem to enjoy food much at all, but if his observations were truly idiotic, I don’t think he would have touched a nerve as much as he has. I agree he’d be a whole lot more effective if he was more precise and fair in his arguments, but I still think it’s of net benefit overall.

    Mike, if anything, you can take solace in the old adage about any publicity being good publicity….

  6. March 6, 2011

    Want to utterly waste your time? Read “A Reader’s Manifesto,” the book that came out of the 2001 Atlantic article.

    When that article came out, it felt refreshingly useful in response to much of the bluster and inaccessible writing churned out in the 80s/90s – writing that felt like you had to wade through mud up to your armpits just to get to the good stuff.

    It caused quite the shitstorm at the U. of Iowa among the English department professors and Writer’s Workshop types, people I waited on regularly at the time. The conservation over that article went on for weeks so…it hit a nerve.

    But the book! Oh, the book! It takes about 50 pages to realize that it becomes the very thing it was supposedly condemning – tediousness and pretension – so perfectly and exactly that it comes off like something akin to performance art. As if it’s an elaborate hoax or something. At one point, you almost expect the last chapter to be a vitriolic critique of everything that came before it in the book and then have fake blood splatters on the last page…you know…just for that perfect pretentious effect.

  7. March 6, 2011

    Hi Tabitha,

    Thanks very much for the note. I see your point about eating becoming a selfish pleasure. But I think cooking is an act of giving, and I also believe that meals are a wonderful communal activity; gathering around the dinner table with friends and family is such an important and rewarding ritual, regardless of what is on the menu. That’s great that you enjoy cooking, and I admire the thought and care that you put into the ingredients.

    Mike

  8. March 6, 2011

    I completely agree, Wine Harlots. B.R. Myers writing about food is like me writing about cars. I have no interest in cars and can’t stand driving. My idea of hell is an auto show. I don’t live to drive, I drive to live, and I can’t fathom why people get excited about these boxes on wheels. But am I going to write a 4000-word article attacking car enthusiasts simply because they get a charge from Ferraris and I don’t? Sure, I could probably construct a “moral” case against car buffs (think of all that gasoline, and the environmental costs!), and could cherry-pick examples to cast them in an unflattering light. But as someone who detests cars and derives no pleasure from driving them, I am clearly the last person who should be commenting on car culture, and I think the same goes for Myers and “foodie” culture.

    Mike

  9. S Kwak permalink
    March 6, 2011

    What is this ugly word, “foodie-ism”? The proper word is gourmandism, which Myers obviously hasn’t bothered to look up in the dictionary. But then the latter term lends itself somewhat less easily to being equated with sheer gluttony, so he’d probably rather butcher the English language instead, even if he were aware of the word.

  10. Tabitha Phillips permalink
    March 5, 2011

    I agree that Myers’ article was not up to snuff.

    I’m interested in food myself, and every article I read is largely a testament to that one moment of intense pleasure where food meets tongue. And in that sense, eating becomes a selfish thing. I enjoy food by preparing it myself. A preparation that includes research and consideration for every step that those ingredients took.

    But, yeah…Myers is kind of a princess. But it’s always a good thing to get an outsiders perspective on something that you’re immersed in head to toe.

    -Tabitha Phillips (a sweet little vegan who you can email for some recipes if yall want)

  11. March 4, 2011

    It’s hard to argue the benefits of gastronomy with someone who clearly hates food (and those whose livelihood is spent creating it.) Yeah, hard-core foodies can be as tedious as strident vegans (I’m more of a soft-core foodie myself) but what’s the point of making eating (something everyone needs to do several times of day) a miserable experience instead of a pleasurable one?

  12. March 3, 2011

    You are the best, my friend; hilarious comments. And you are right: someone like Pollan has done so much to advance the cause of ethical eating–far more, I suspect, than this guy sitting in his office in South Korea (that’s where Myers lives) and lobbing spitballs across the Pacific. I agree, too, that “foodie” is not a great term; someone needs to come up with something better.

  13. March 3, 2011

    You don’t have to be a pretentious literary type to see a straw man.

    While I am also a bit annoyed by “foodies” (anyone who uses that term to describe themselves is suspect), this guy is obviously demented. Serious diners are actually responsible for food localization and more humane treatment. I’ve yet to meet a vegan who thinks clearly about food, they’re always too hungry.

    On a personal note, I’d gladly eat vegans if it were legal.

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