B. R. Meyers thinks you’re single-minded and small.
So he says in his Moral Crusade Against Foodies this week in The Atlantic, where his simpering disgust for food writers and food enthusiasts in general is palpable. Where it comes from, other than some vaguely moral high ground, is not clear. We are weak, he presumes – blinded by gluttony and consumed by our own grass-fed desires.
I know people who are annoying about all kinds of things. Where there is passion, there are fanatics, and whether fanaticism is a positive or a negative depends on the execution and, to a large extent, on the individual. People are insane about everything from video games to religion, and in every subject in between there will be people who are so excited it’s irritating. And good for them. To care about something with so much enthusiasm that it defines you is something really special. Is Anthony Bourdain obnoxious? Certainly. But so what?
The point Meyers largely misses is that food writing is not simply writing about food. If it were, The Joy of Cooking would have been the end of it. “Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts. When Marcel Proust’s name pops up, you know you’re just going to hear about that damned madeleine again,” he says, as if writing on food had contributed nothing to our literary history. As if food metaphors are just cheap whimsy produced in those uncomfortable moments before so many inconvenient meals. As if the absence of MFK Fisher, Laurie Colwin, Ruth Reichl, AJ Liebling, Molly Wizenberg, or Jeffrey Steingarten from our libraries would not be conspicuous.
Meyers believes that food writers have given nothing to culture and foodies – that catchall term used with such derision – offer nothing culturally important. That the madeleine is synechdoche for Proust to any of us who aren’t Proust scholars is hardly relevant. The appeal of the madeleine is the universal nature of that experience. Taste is tied more to our memories than our tongues, and food writing is how we document that. We share our experiences, the way our tastes evoke our histories, and in that sharing we find common ground.
Of course, food writing is not just sentimental schlock (thank goodness), and to be honest, I’m glad someone’s out there trying goat testicles in rice wine and writing about it. I’m grateful that such knowledge exists, and that it is available to me if I want it. I’m glad someone is finding beauty in animal viscera. Taken in snippets it’s easy to make a case for the fetishization of eating’s unsavoury aspects, and to make generalizations about the writers’ character; to read these pieces in their entirety is to understand that food has an ugliness that we must appreciate if we are to fully respect it.
But perhaps the most disappointing part of the article is where Meyers suggests that it is moral elitism that has driven modern foodies toward organic, free-range, grass-fed everything, as if choosing ingredients for their limited impact on our limited resources is an act of snobbery. Another case of using snippets to represent an entire body of work, Michael Pollan is reduced to an eco-friendly fancypants sneering down on the lesser classes. Regular people can’t afford a lot of cage-free eggs or organic milk or grass-fed beef, but that’s the point; we don’t need a lot. Eat more plants, he tells us. And he’s right. And shouldn’t sitting down to dinner every night feel like ceremony? Isn’t that our ideal?
Michael Pollan and others like him are easy to skewer, I suppose, and they misstep and say things that are easy to spin against them. Eight-dollar eggs and four-dollar peaches? It’s easy to see his point but a paycheque can only go so far. Unlike Pollan, I am not a successful author with the income to support that kind of grocery bill. And unlike Jeffrey Steingarten, I don’t have afternoons all week to plan dinners. There are a lot of people I’m not like, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them, or that it’s appropriate to write a bitchy, condescending article about all the reasons why I might not like them. Is Meyers a jealous little man drunk on sanctimony? Is gluttony really all he sees when he sees writing about food?
How sad for Meyers, that he cannot see the beauty, the artistry, and the literary importance of food. What a dour look he must have on his face if his company happens to enjoy a meal in his presence. He denies the sensuality of food and eating, and the pleasure of tasting and of occasionally eating too much, but what’s worse, he doesn’t want you to enjoy it either.