B. R. Myers is the Dr. Evil of American cultural criticism: from a secure base at South Korea's Dongseo University, where he teaches Korean literature, he shocks the world with surprise attacks upon our nation's cultural institutions. Having waged, from afar, a war upon "the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose," he's now turned his attention to "gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism" in his new essay, "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies," published in this month's Atlantic.
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Foodie culture, Myers argues, is morally bankrupt, hopelessly self-involved, and boring. "Foodie-ism" presents itself as a movement, but is actually the single-minded obsession of wealthy city-dwellers who write about one another in an incestuous circle. ("Is any other subculture reported on so exclusively by its own members?") Its insularity means that foodie culture has only gotten weirder and weirder with time. Seen from the outside, Myers writes, it's obvious that foodies hold all sorts of bizarre beliefs. The most central is the idea that "to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows," and even by "Earth itself" - and that, therefore, being a foodie makes you "more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street." This is senseless: if you really want to do well by the Earth, Meyer argues, you should be vegetarian. It's an "affectation of piety."
From this central tenet, all sorts of other self-serving and even nonsensical attitudes follow. Foodies claim to revere tradition, for example, but actually only respect the ones that encourage you to eat more, not less; at a foodie home, "One must never spoil a dinner party for mere religious or ethical reasons," so forget about keeping kosher. Similarly, foodies evince a wacky kind of "concern" for animals: they write reverently about killing them and believe that human beings, because they have evolved at the top of a "Great Food Chain of Being," have a near-moral obligation to eat meat. Myers is a little coy about his own opinions; in fact, he's a vegan and a member of the Green Party. Reading through Best American Food Writing 2009, He's appalled to read about little foodie children who look forward eagerly to killing their own cows. Reading through a huge stack of foodie books was torture for him: "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."
Myers' objections recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's surprising repudiation of foodies a few years ago. "We have always had two philosophies that wrestle for our soul and for the souls of our customers," Mackey said. "One is the foodie philosophy, that food is primarily about indulgence, about pleasure. The other part is that food is primarily to nourish us, to make us vital. Whole Foods has always had a synthesis of those two, but over a period of time, one or the other has tended to triumph . . . . We are launching a reversal now.” Are foodies the new bankers? Could the culture at large be turning against them? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the Internet anxiously awaits the inevitable foodie response to Myers' broadside.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.