In our era of Whole Foods, slow foods and meal worship, many Americans have become fixated on both the pleasures and ethics of eating. As chefs became celebrities and food writing earned its own anthology series, simple eaters transformed into locavores who write Yelp reviews and buy into the marketing idea that we can somehow eat with abandon and sustainably. But are culinary passion and compassion diametrically opposed? In The Atlantic, B. R. Myers analyzes America’s vocal modern taste-makers’ books, values and influence on our culture of consumption. The piece appeared in March 2011 and remains timely.
If nothing else, Bourdain at least gives the lie to the Pollan-Severson cant about foodie-ism being an integral part of the whole, truly sociable, human being. In Bourdain’s world, diners are as likely to sit solo or at a countertop while chewing their way through “a fucking Everest of shellfish.” Contributors to the Best Food Writing anthologies celebrate the same mindless, sweating gluttony. “You eat and eat and eat,” Todd Kliman writes, “long after you’re full. Being overstuffed, for the food lover, is not a moral problem.” But then, what is? In the same anthology, Michael Steinberger extols the pleasure of “joyfully gorging yourself … on a bird bearing the liver of another bird.” He also talks of “whimpering with ecstasy” in a French restaurant, then allowing the chef to hit on his wife, because “I was in too much of a stupor … [He] had just served me one of the finest dishes I’d ever eaten.” Hyperbole, the reader will have noticed, remains the central comic weapon in the food writer’s arsenal. It gets old fast. Nor is there much sign of wit in the table talk recorded. Aquinas said gluttony leads to “loutishness, uncleanness, talkativeness, and an uncomprehending dullness of mind,” and if you don’t believe him, here’s Kliman again:
I watched tears streak down a friend’s face as he popped expertly cleavered bites of chicken into his mouth … He was red-eyed and breathing fast. “It hurts, it hurts, but it’s so good, but it hurts, and I can’t stop eating!” He slammed a fist down on the table. The beer in his glass sloshed over the sides. “Jesus Christ, I’ve got to stop!”