I was once riding in the backseat of my friend Nick’s car as he drove back to his residence. His wife, Ashley, was in the passenger seat, and because it was late we were talking, quite openly, about food. With a tone of biting criticism, Ashley accused me of being “a bit of a snob”. This comment came as a shock to me for two reasons: First, she is also a foodie/naturalist, and second, it’s a stinging attack for which there is no rebuttal. When someone calls you a snob, you bite your tongue and move on.
March’s edition of The Atlantic includes a dense and thorough piece, written by B.R. Myers, that amounts to the entire foodie movement being called out for snobbery.
The moral logic in Pollan’s hugely successful book now informs all food writing: the refined palate rejects the taste of factory-farmed meat, of the corn-syrupy junk food that sickens the poor, of frozen fruits and vegetables transported wastefully across oceans—from which it follows that to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself. This affectation of piety does not keep foodies from vaunting their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals—but only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction. This has much to do with the fact that the nation’s media tend to leave the national food discourse to the foodies in their ranks. To people like Pollan himself. And Severson, his very like-minded colleague at The New York Times. Is any other subculture reported on so exclusively by its own members? Or with a frequency and an extensiveness that bear so little relation to its size? (The “slow food” movement that we keep hearing about has fewer than 20,000 members nationwide.)
The same bias is apparent in writing that purports to be academic or at least serious. The book Gluttony (2003), one of a series on the seven deadly sins, was naturally assigned to a foodie writer, namely Francine Prose, who writes for the gourmet magazine Saveur. Not surprisingly, she regards gluttony primarily as a problem of overeating to the point of obesity; it is “the only sin … whose effects are visible, written on the body.” In fact the Catholic Church’s criticism has always been directed against an inordinate preoccupation with food—against foodie-ism, in other words—which we encounter as often among thin people as among fat ones. A disinterested writer would likely have done the subject more justice. Unfortunately, even the new sociological study Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape is the product of two self-proclaimed members of the tribe, Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann, who pull their punches accordingly; the introduction is titled “Entering the Delicious World of Foodies.” In short, the 21st-century gourmet need fear little public contradiction when striking sanctimonious poses.
Myers’s piece is worth taking the time to read. At first you’ll scoff, and then you’ll think.
In principle, I agree with Myers’s main tenet that the edge of foodie-ism, those leading the charge, teeters into the gray area of sheer snobbery. But, this is not a trait unique to foodie-ism. It is true of anyone who is passionate about a topic; we tend to believe that our way of thinking is the correct way of thinking.
Myers argument is supported by a series of cherry-picked examples from that edge, from the extreme of foodie-ism. In one spot, he claims that foodies have always tried to reject the mainstream. Prior to the emergence of factory farms, this meant that foodies preferred meat from animals who had been tortured (and that cruelty even made the food taste better). Myers contends that when factory farms made meat available to everyone at a discount rate, foodies shifted to prefer more expensive, free-range meat products. Though an accurate account of what a British dining manual stated, Myers has constructed a straw man of foodies at large. We are not one body adhering to elitist principles; rather, we are another generation. There may be some common threads of elitism at the edge, but the core is much different.
I think Myers’s piece is best consumed as a warning: Don’t allow a lifestyle choice to manifest as moral superiority.
When Ashley called me out as a snob, I wanted to strike back with a poignant barb of my own. I held back, because, in the moment before I could reply with a witticism, it occurred to me that she was correct. When it came to food, I had a tendency to feel morally superior based on my dining choices alone. That I could suppress verbalizing that mindset wasn’t enough: I still felt it.
Today, I like to think I have changed. I pay close attention to what I eat and answer questions from friends, but I no longer feel like I stand on a higher plane of morality.