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"Hard to Swallow," indeed (The Atlantic Monthly)


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#1 MarketStEl

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Posted 08 September 2007 - 04:04 PM

The September issue of The Atlantic arrived in my mailbox today with a poke-in-the-eye above-the-banner teaser: "The Case Against Foodies."

The teaser refers to a review of Best Food Writing 2006 and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma titled "Hard to Swallow," written by B.R. Myers, a regular contributor to The Atlantic, author of The Reader's Manifesto (2002) and a confirmed vegetarian, judging from what he wrote. The article is available on The Atlantic's Web site, but only to subscribers; if you'd like to read it, PM me and I'll e-mail you a link that's good for three days.

Or I can spare you the enervating task of reading 3,450 subtly (and not-so-subtly) sanctimonious words with the following two-sentence summary of his argument:

If food lovers were truly moral, they would all be vegetarians. These writers clearly aren't, so they deserve no respect.

But that doesn't even begin to capture the contempt that oozes out of every word of this essay. Perhaps the opening paragraph might do the job better:

For centuries civilized society took a dim view of food lovers, calling them “gourmands” and “gluttons” and placing them on a moral par with lechers. They were even assigned their own place in hell, and I don’t mean a table near the kitchen: They were to be force-fed for eternity. Not until halfway through the Industrial Revolution did the word gourmet come into use. Those who have since applied it to themselves have done a fine job of converting the world’s scorn to respect. The pleasures of the oral cavity (though we must say “palate” instead) are now widely regarded as more important, more intrinsically moral, and a more vital part of civilized tradition than any other pleasures. People who think nothing of saying “I’m not much of a reader” will grow shamefaced when admitting an ignorance of wine or haute cuisine. Some recent movies have even tried to turn banquets into heroic affairs. Advertising has abetted the trend, while political correctness, with its horror of judging anyone’s “lifestyle choices,” has done its bit to muffle dissent.


Not enough? How about this passage:

But before going any further, I should allow Pollan to explain the book’s title. “In the fall of 2002,” he tells us,


one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human life abruptly disappeared from the American dinner table. I’m talking of course about bread. Virtually overnight, Americans changed the way they eat. A collective spasm of what can only be described as carbophobia … ruined an untold number of perfectly good meals. So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.

The feverish tone makes clear that Pollan is writing for his fellow gourmets, the sort of people who can read the line “ruined an untold number of perfectly good meals” with a straight face. I can’t help thinking, though, that with hamburgers and milk shakes conquering deeply rooted diets from Mexico to Micronesia, America’s eating habits may well be the most stable in the world. Even the Atkins-diet craze reduced national bread sales by no more than 3 or 4 percentage points. Pollan nonetheless asserts that our dietary upheavals have returned us, with “atavistic vengeance,” to a bewilderment last experienced millennia ago:

When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you. This is The Omnivore’s Dilemma … first given that name thirty years ago by a University of Pennsylvania research psychologist named Paul Rozin.

Then Rozin’s dictionary must be the one that Alanis Morissette used to look up the word ironic, but let that pass. Is our national eating disorder really a matter of people pacing supermarket aisles in an agony of indecision? Or do we perhaps feel too little anxiety about what we eat? Despite his choice of title, the subject does not hold Pollan’s interest for long, so readers will have to make up their own minds.


Now, let's grant that Myers is right when he points out that the Atkins craze did not have the devastating effect on millers and bakers that Pollan suggests it did in his passage. Nonetheless, it's clear that Pollan's uncritical acceptance of humans' omnivorous nature offends him mightily, and he sustains this tone throughout the essay, save for a few approving comments about Pollan's skill as a writer and a grudging nod to his fairness in wrestling with the arguments Australian ethicist Peter Singer makes in Animal Liberation. He can't even spare that for the snippets from Best Food Writing 2006 that he deigns to include.

It's also clear, at least to me, that Myers must not be a Christian. Otherwise, how could he be so dismissive of the opinion expressed by Pollan below?

In the introduction, we are told that eating something—“transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds”—constitutes the deepest possible “relationship” with it, “the most profound engagement” of all. (German police had to listen to similar reasoning in 2002 after arresting one Armin Meiwes, who had just put his omnicompetent jaws to work on a Siemens engineer.) Now, Epicurus, who strikes me as a vegetarian Pollan might listen to, made the rather obvious point that no living thing experiences death. As soon as life ceases, the body ceases to deserve the attribute human or animal, as the root of the latter word makes especially clear. The pig thus takes its farewell from Pollan almost as soon as he pulls his trigger in greeting. The mere flesh left behind tastes remarkably like that of us “long pigs—to use the notorious cannibal term—and the digestive tract cannot tell them apart at all. There is less “transformation” going on here than Pollan would like to think.


With that belittling passage, he handwaves away the central Christian sacrament: the transformation of the body and blood of Christ into food and drink, a recalling of the Last Supper. He does no better by Judaism and Passover later on in his review:

“What troubles me most about my vegetarianism,” Pollan nonetheless has the fatuity to write,


    is the subtle way it alienates me from other people … As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners … I also feel alienated from … family traditions like my mother’s beef brisket at Passover.

It is common these days to see moral arguments veer off into appeals to self-interest. We have reached a pretty pass when they start veering off into the realm of etiquette. The bit about Passover surprised me a little, Pollan having just tacitly admitted what he thinks of Orthodox Jews, but perhaps for him it’s all about the brisket.


That's quite a leap Myers takes in writing that last sentence: The meal is the central ritual of Passover, and the foods eaten at the meal take on more than mere alimentary significance. One does not mess with tradition lightly.

I will also grant Myers his point about vegetarians often being the only ones with the stomach to listen to detailed accounts of how animals are killed for food, but his saying this after acknowledging near the start Gourmet's expose of chicken-slaughtering practices diminishes its force. If Myers' attitude towards food lovers like Pollan who at least make an effort to consider the ethical implications of what they eat is typical of vegetarians in general, it's no wonder there aren't more of them.
Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia
"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen
My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

#2 TAPrice

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Posted 11 September 2007 - 09:15 AM

I really thought that was some of the misguided writing I've ever seen. For a moment, I asked myself if I found it foolish because I don't agree. And then I decided that, no, it's truly foolish.

There is some much to take issue with that I don't even know where to start.
Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"


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#3 MarketStEl

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Posted 11 September 2007 - 01:35 PM

I'll start with this observation: In arguing that meat-eating humans must take the interests of the animals into account at every step of the way (an animal liberationist argument Pollan contemplates and ultimately dismisses, or so we are led to believe in this review), animal liberation advocates ascribe to other species a moral agency that many species lack (does the wolf feel guilt before he eats the steer?). That is no less a form of "speciesism" than what they decry.

But there I'm on a whole different level from the reviewer, who I will wager hasn't even bothered to contemplate this apparent internal contradiction.

I did recognize in Myers' writing some stylistic habits I use, or at least tend to admire when I run across them. That ended up making the article even worse: It's one thing to use wit when one is either satirizing a tempting target or dismantling a position one disagrees with, and another entirely when the purpose is simply to demonstrate one's own (in all likelihood unjustified) moral superiority. His prose couldn't have been more contemptible if he had written "the black man has no rights the white man is bound to respect" (the worst part of Chief Justice Taney's majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford).
Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia
"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen
My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

#4 rconnelly

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Posted 11 September 2007 - 01:56 PM

I'll start with this observation:  In arguing that meat-eating humans must take the interests of the animals into account at every step of the way (an animal liberationist argument Pollan contemplates and ultimately dismisses, or so we are led to believe in this review), animal liberation advocates ascribe to other species a moral agency that many species lack (does the wolf feel guilt before he eats the steer?).  That is no less a form of "speciesism" than what they decry.

But there I'm on a whole different level from the reviewer, who I will wager hasn't even bothered to contemplate this apparent internal contradiction.

I did recognize in Myers' writing some stylistic habits I use, or at least tend to admire when I run across them.  That ended up making the article even worse: It's one thing to use wit when one is either satirizing a tempting target or dismantling a position one disagrees with, and another entirely when the purpose is simply to demonstrate one's own (in all likelihood unjustified) moral superiority. His prose couldn't have been more contemptible if he had written "the black man has no rights the white man is bound to respect" (the worst part of Chief Justice Taney's majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford).

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I actually feel sorry for people like Myers'. They do not get the communion that food is, the joy, the senusality. I often think those with such palates and thinking must have a pretty dull sex life as well.