notes on foodie navel-gazing

As part of my staunch commitment to acting like I’m still 12, I do one really weird thing: I still frequent public libraries.

For the record, from top to bottom: 1.) one book I’ve picked up on a few occasions and then promptly re-shelved, because it opens with such a dull rehashing of that propaganda-darling framework, “I understand the argument of my opposition perfectly; I used to be one of them!” and thanks for that, but I’m not actually still 12; 2.) one book I took out and started reading once a long while back, but that never held my interest and went back to the library largely unread; 3.) one book chosen partly to deflect any potential suspicion on the part of the librarian that I might actually be considering veganism and that this would be how I’d go about it if I were, and partly because I can’t wait to give it a second look through Gwyneth Paltrow-colored glasses; and 4.) one book by Alicia Silverstone.

I actually just humped these back to my house and haven’t cracked any of them open yet. This post is not about these books, but more about why I took them out. (Hint: not because of any recommendations from Alice Walker. BLURBING: WHY, HOW??)

There are a number of things that taint food writing and “foodie culture” as a whole for me, but there are two that particularly assert themselves, and they go hand in hand. The first is the tendency to indulge in preachy moralizing and snobbery. The second is the continual need to apologize for certain things you like to eat. One is more self-aggrandizing and the other more self-deprecating, but both are just expressions of a small-minded obsession with the self.

While veganism is an easy mark for the discussion of overmoralizing food, it’s hardly alone. Locavores often take on the same shrill tones, as can porkophiles. And it’s easy to get caught up! There are moral issues tied up in food and food production, same as any other form of consumption. But the reason I usually avoid books like some of those pictured above is that by now I’ve come to expect more proselytizing than sound argument, over-reliance on truisms and flawed studies, and appeals to the reader’s sense of superiority over those who would disagree.

The way I see it, we are all raping the planet, every day. We are all contributing to the suffering of other people and of animals, and not only through our dietary choices. (I’d be willing to concede that there may be a few people who don’t, but I also feel very confident that they’re not reading this food blog.) I’m not a nihilist; I applaud people making thoughtful choices in an attempt to lessen their negative impact on the world. But if, for instance, you really think that universal or widespread vegetarianism is the solution, you might first want to swap out the real U.S. population with some other one—because if there’s one thing people here might love more than animal products, it’s food from a box. And soy protein contributes to the rape of the planet, too.

(Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe one of these books will be so meticulously researched and so convincing that I will come back to you a fervid vegan or mindless carnivore. At the very least, the surprisingly large number of jokes I make at Jonathan Safran Foer’s expense will be coming from more solid ground.)

Moralizing types are bolstered by their convictions, which—much like a religion—they feel they need to convince others of or even legislate for the good of the planet, the animals, or our health in general. As a card-carrying pinko, I think some measure of regulation is absolutely necessary. But at a certain point, it helps to take a step back from yourself and remember all the other groups who fully believe they’re doing what’s necessary to save us from ourselves: Prohibitionists, the anti-choice crowd, the Westboro Baptist Church.

Then there are those whose only guiding conviction in life seems to be that no one else has a palate so refined as theirs, or a wealth of experience to rival theirs. Read the comments section of any popular food blog, and you’ll recognize these people by the way they react to every recipe with something like, “Cute idea. Next time, try a 36-month Parmigiano-Reggiano made in the northern Apennines in October, so much more complexity than whatever Whole Foods sold you.” In other words, they’re insufferable, and much of the time they’re just mining old Jeffrey Steingarten articles anyway. But this isn’t news to anyone.

So is it a result of these attitudes that so many people seem so insecure about the things they like to eat? Or is it just that if we acknowledge in passing our unease at eating so much junk food, we can move on, pretending we’ve actually addressed it? Whatever it is, I wish everyone would agree to stop throwing around the phrase “guilty pleasure” so damn much. (And that goes for your taste in TV and websites, too.) It’s so gross on so many levels. It implies a faux-morality that you clearly don’t actually ascribe to, and it also tries to imply that you live this intensely principled or harried or meaningful life for 23.5 hours a day and then hey, you’ve just gotta blow off a little steam by watching Kendra On Top.

Maybe you also saw that NYT piece a few weeks ago. I don’t have a problem with the article itself; I just hate that it had to be written. Even some of the chefs quoted just make me sad: Gabrielle Hamilton makes sense, but Tony Maws “[doesn’t] know why” he likes to eat Fritos. (Hint: they’re manufactured to be nothing other than addictively delicious.)

Why would anyone apologize for eating American cheese? Are you afraid that people are going to think that you’re only using it because you’ve never tried any other cheeses? If that’s been a real problem for you, how about this: the answer might not be to worry about your standards when it comes to food. Maybe you need to raise your standards when it comes to the people you surround yourself with. If you can’t extricate yourself from them, my advice would be to stop eating around them and stop telling them anything specific about yourself, because they sound awful, like really boring poison.

That kind of lazy, mean-spirited questioning into what other people are eating and why is what leads to the foodie one-upmanship I mentioned a few paragraphs back. Why would someone eat American cheese when they could have that one particular blue you’re so fond of right now? Well, maybe because they have entirely different properties, or maybe just because of nostalgic ties. It’s ok to eat something without a label approved by the foodie cabal, even without the blessing of Wylie Dufresne. It’s even ok to eat and enjoy something without ever asking to see the label. Which is not to say it’s not ok to note the provenance because you’d like to buy it again, but it is absolutely to say that it’s never ok to take note only so that you can later impress someone else with the fact that you ate it. If you ever feel yourself getting caught up in that race, have enough self-respect to drop the fuck out of the running.

(I should note that there is also the phenomenon of foodie shame surrounding anything one doesn’t like to eat. If you happen upon a crowd of trendy foodie types and want to ensure they won’t want to talk to you, try casually mentioning to them that you hate oysters, or that you can’t bring yourself to eat any animal’s eye.)

There are a lot of people who want to tell us what we should be eating. But if there are some we should listen to on that subject, I feel all right about assuming that the star of Clueless (or Pepper Potts, or Mark Bittman, or or or) does not number among them. I’ll read some of their books, though, even if the only result turns out to be that I have a fuller understanding of what’s being put out there that’s making us more and more stupid about how we feed ourselves.

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  1. Mr. Fed Up

    The title “Eating Animals” had me laugh out loud just now and get my co-workers to all stare at me…thanks.

    anyway…I am always looking for more books to read on long flights.

  2. Carly

    It’s a few years old; like I said, I tried to read it once but it really didn’t grab me. It’s about the author re-evaluating his relationship with meat as he starts a family, and not surprisingly, it was recommended to me again recently by a 30-something dude who just had a kid. Figured I might as well give it another shot. Full disclosure: still sitting on my desk unopened.

    • Mr. Fed Up

      Ok..well then maybe I will hold off on it for a little while longer…Sometimes I hate catchy names…they drag you into stuff that is stupid.
      False advertising. Reminds me of some of those crappy exotic fruits that have great sounding names and look interesting…but end up being bland and crappy (ex:Dragon Fruit)

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