Monday, February 14, 2011

In Defense of "Foodies"

I know, I know. Not exactly a title I ever expected to write. I hate the infantilistic word "foodie," am often less than enamored by those who self-identify as such, and don't particularly relish having it applied to me either. And yet, a recent, bilious polemic in the Atlantic monthly, "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies," has done the unthinkable: it has inspired me to come to the foodies' defense.

Though subtitled "Gluttony Dressed Up as Foodie-ism is Still Gluttony," and using as its platform several recent food-related publications (Anthony Bourdain's "Medium Raw," Gabrielle Hamilton's upcoming "Blood, Bones & Butter," Kim Severson's "Spoon Fed," the "Best Food Writing" compilations[1]), as well as older works like Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" and Jeffrey Steingarten's "The Man Who Ate Everything," the piece seems less about gluttony, and more an outraged indictment of the very notion of writing about food at all. It's clear where this is going from the very start: "We have all dined with him in restaurants: the host who insists on calling his special friend out of the kitchen for some awkward small talk." In other words: if you actually know a chef, you must be a douchebag. It's all downhill from there.

B.R. Myers is unhappy when people pay too much attention to their food; he's unhappy when they eat mindlessly; he's unhappy when food writers care about sustainability and animal living conditions; he's unhappy when they don't; most of all, he's unhappy when people actually care enough to write about food.[2] Which of course might make you wonder why he chose to write about food books at all. In Myers' moral universe, it appears that any interest in food as a subject of writing whatsoever equates to gluttony, making it ever so easy to indict the entire genre. The proclaimed "moral crusade" is undoubtedly the right reference: Myers pursues his task with all the grimly self-satisfied smugness of a soldier doing battle against the infidels.

In doing so, his diatribe suffers from any number of logical fallacies, but the most egregious is the repeated over-generalization from specific examples, even when the evidence against such generalizations is staring him in the face. To him, "foodies" are one monolithic tribe, such that the voice of any one speaks for the whole. Chefs, food writers, and eaters all get tarred with the same broad brush as being members of a "unique community" of "so-called foodies." It takes him little time to conclude that "In values, sense of humor, even childhood experience, its members are as similar to each other as they are different from everyone else." This is, of course, patently ridiculous. In what universe do the caustically snarky Anthony Bourdain or the deadpan Gabrielle Hamilton share the same sense of humor with the primly self-righteous Alice Waters or the wryly analytical Michael Pollan?[3] Prove to me that Alice Waters even has a sense of humor!

(continued ...)

To the extent there is such a thing as a "community of foodies," it is one of diverse opinions, values and tastes, sharing only that which you choose to make your definition of "foodie" - typically, a passion for food. But Myers' disdain for such a passion is simply overwhelming. Appalled by the notion that people would actually travel to other countries to try their foods, he sniffs, "Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts - the real arts." By this logic, I suppose, an art critic should be deemed a failure if he doesn't comment on the sandwiches at the gallery café. Indeed, even where there is other subject matter to explore, he chooses not to do so. Hamilton's memoir - which, from the excerpts I've read, speaks as much about family and relationships as it does about food - is reduced to a one-sentence quote about animal viscera. For someone who obviously cares so little about food, he manages to focus almost exclusively on just the food bits in writing that often has much else to offer.

Myers repeatedly resorts to preposterously overbroad generalizations: "It has always been crucial to the gourmet's pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford." "Gourmets' rejection of factory farms and fast food is largely motivated by their traditional elitism."[4] "Restaurant reviews are notorious for touting $100 lunches as great value for money."[5] On and on it goes, completely untethered to any semblance of support.

Myers' indignation blinds him even to obvious internal contradiction. He declares "In short, the 21st-century gourmet need fear little public contradiction when striking sanctimonious poses. The same goes for restaurant owners like Alice Waters." Yet he can't even reach the end of the paragraph without noting Bourdain's characteristically hyperbolic indictment of Waters as having "made lust, greed, hunger, self-gratification and fetishism look good." Of course, Waters has of late been subject to at least equal amounts of praise and ridicule in the food community, not just from Bourdain the raconteur and agent provocateur, but many others as well.

In another instance, Myers broadly claims, "We have already seen that the foodie respects only those customs, traditions, beliefs, cultures - old and new, domestic and foreign - that call on him to eat more, not less." Somehow, he must have missed what is the most fundamental and basic of Pollan's mantras: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Acknowledging the existence of a diversity of opinion would undermine Myers' thesis, however, and so differences of viewpoint go unanalyzed.

But to try to identify and refute all of the ridiculous assertions made in this ugly rant is a waste of time. Digging through the layers upon layers of bullshit will reveal nothing underneath, other than someone who is clearly uninterested in, if not disgusted by, the subject matter they've chosen to review. Not everyone takes pleasure in food. I understand that, even though I find it sort of sad. Yet to Myers, such asceticism becomes grounds for claiming moral superiority: "They ["foodies"] are certainly single-minded, however, and single-mindedness - even in less obviously selfish forms - is always a littleness of soul." Littleness of soul, indeed. Instead of dwelling so much over gluttony, perhaps Mr. Myers' time would be better spent meditating a bit on the sins of wrath and pride.[6]

Rather than being a "unique community," my experience has been the exact opposite: that food, and the enjoyment of it, is something that nearly everyone has in common. I may not like the word "foodie," and I may not like all the people who call themselves "foodies." But I've nonetheless found that almost all of us take pleasure in a good meal, and that it is a happy point of connection even for those who do not consider themselves "foodies" or any other sobriquet. It is sad that Mr. Myers has no clue how to partake of that pleasure.

[1]For which the selection criteria have never been terribly clear to anyone other than the editor.

[2]You know what Goldmember would say? "There is no pleasing you."

[3]I enjoy Pollan's writing, but I don't recall many LOLs in Omnivore's Dilemma.

[4]This particular notion - which he completely fails to support with even a single isolated example - is apparently driven by the author's sub rosa militant veganism: to him, any failure to reject the eating of animals outright is deemed elitism. Now I have nothing against vegetarians, but I do have a problem when it clouds an author's judgment to such a degree that they willfully mischaracterize another's writing.

[5]Can anyone recall the last time they read such a thing?

[6]For those who may have felt slighted by Myers' attack, it may perhaps be some comfort that this is simply his modus operandi, as suggested here: "The Soul-Sucking Suckiness of B.R. Myers".


  1. Your post should have been titled "In Moral Defense of Foodies" (or morel defense) since the focus of a moral crusade is obviously an immoral target. Didn't really understand the immoral condemnation of giving a shit about what one eats until I realized that the author was vegan (and suddenly it all made sense).
    Really, it's funny and expected that many will come out and spear their voices against this guy... but it's hard to take seriously someone who seemingly puts himself in a position so lofty he shits marble (a little Amadeus reference for you, Frod).

  2. Nice blog. Lotsa spins and twists. You know, I'm a young bitter hateful fuck myself, but I sure as hell can't be as bad as this Myers cat. He seems like a capitol "D" bag. You definitely spoke well, you stood your ground. I'm curious to read some of his material now. Hmm..

  3. Fro:

    Oh I used to be disgusted
    and now I try to be amused.
    But since their wings have got rusted,
    you know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes.
    But when they told me 'bout their side of the bargain,
    that's when I knew that I could not refuse.
    And I won't get any older, now the angels wanna wear my red shoes.

    Here's the thing.

    The guy is a douche and you are investing your time, effort, energy and significant intellect parsing douchebaggery.

    I think... Don't.


    Now go out and eat something and don't come back here until you do.


  4. I always though "foodie" came as a derivative of "Trekkie."
    Just about everyone has seen or knows of Star Trek but only some would consider it a passion or hobby or even pay more than passing attention to it.
    Same way everyone eats, but some are okay with a Subway sandwich for lunch and calling Papa Johns on the way home for dinner. Not much thought or passion goes into it.
    I never really thought the term foodie was elitist in any way but was used to describe those who had taken more of an interest in what they were eating.

  5. F:

    First, Myers needs a colonoscopy.

    Second, Infantile as I may be (via @zestfoodie on twitter and my blog Zest: The Florida Foodie Insider's Guide), I devote most of my free time in the pursuit of good food and writing about same. Just like you I imagine. Even though my approach may irk you, I still think we could be friends in spite of my "foodie-ness."

    Why? You said it best: "... my experience has been the exact opposite: that food, and the enjoyment of it, is something that nearly everyone has in common.... almost all of us take pleasure in a good meal, and that it is a happy point of connection even for those who do not consider themselves "foodies" or any other sobriquet."

    Thanks for reluctantly sticking up for the foodies.