Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The "Gourmand"

In this month's Atlantic, B.R. Myers flays those foodies who lack any apparent moral sense when it comes to the animals that comprise their gourmet food, in the form of food writer Julie Powell and Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." The whole critique is worth reading, but here are some of the more biting excerpts:

...the idolatry of food cuts across class lines. This can be seen in the public’s toleration of a level of cruelty in meat production that it would tolerate nowhere else. If someone inflicts pain on an animal for visual, aural, or sexual gratification, we consider him a monster, and the law makes at least a token effort at punishment. If someone’s goal is to put the “product” in his mouth? Chacun à son goût.

Of course, the growth of the movement that attempts to link animal welfare with food has produced a "backlash" of sorts among the foodies:

Literate opinion therefore suggests that a few dishes should simply be done without. This is where the serious food lover draws the line. “I detect a backlash … among fed up gourmands,” the editor of Best Food Writing 2006 notes with approval, “who refuse to renounce foie gras and caviar just because they are produced by less-than-noble methods.” (That just because says it all.) The backlash takes the form of pieces like Julie Powell’s essay “Lobster Killer,” which the anthology’s editor found “hilarious”:

Over a period of two weeks … I went on a murderous rampage. I committed gruesome, atrocious acts … If news of the carnage was not widely remarked upon in the local press, it was only because my victims were not Catholic schoolgirls or Filipino nurses, but crustaceans. This distinction means that I am not a murderer in the legal sense. But I have blood on my hands, even if it is the clear blood of lobsters.

This is a prime example of food writers’ hostility to the very language of moral values.

Or to moral values in general. It gets worse:

Another sampling from Powell’s piece:

People say lobsters make a terrible racket in the pot, trying—reasonably enough—to claw their way out of the water. I wouldn’t know. I spent the next twenty minutes watching a golf game on the TV with the volume turned up … When I ventured back into the kitchen, the lobsters were very red, and not making any racket at all … Poor little beasties.

Zoologists have recently discounted the notion that lobsters feel no pain when boiled alive. The gourmets’ response is to giggle at the plight of the “beasties” in the hope that others will follow suit. (With comparable tastelessness, a piece on foie gras in the anthology is titled “Stuffed Animals.”) But when asked to laugh at the suffering of a living thing, or to drown out a moral compunction by turning up the TV, the American meat eater begins to sense that his values are not so far from the vegetarian’s after all. If food writers want to show what “a perverse attachment to certain goods” looks like, they are going about it in just the right way.

Indeed. Which is why there have been successful movements to ban items of food like foie gras, as was done in Chicago earlier this year. To repudiate the moral aversion to over-stuffing animals to produce a delicacy, some try to frame their opposition to such bans as a matter of "individual rights" (via Hit & Run):

Over one of the best and most forbidden meals of my life, Durand and his fellow chefs, their customers, and Don Gordon, a Democratic party candidate for alderman, spoke about the importance of defending individual rights in between bites of forbidden foie gras.

One imagines them sitting around a tiny table in a basement lit only by candlelight, and you would think their act of rebellion was on par with hiding Jews from the Nazis. My comment to the Hit & Run post-"Well, it's not quite on par with dumping tea in the Boston harbor, but you take your acts of civil (and tasty!) disobedience where you can get them"-was intended only to highlight this absurd conflation of individual rights with the "freedom" to eat a food item produced by the torture of an animal.

Bryer goes on to shatter the incomplete and spurious moral reasoning that supports Pollan's argument for a morality as judged by the taste buds:

In contrast to the fearless Becker, Pollan thinks that taking a hard look at human nature is more a matter of leaning over the museum rail at the caveman exhibit. Seeing only the painted mammoth on the horizon, so to speak, he derives the rightness of meat eating from the fact that humans are physically suited to it, they enjoy it, and they have engaged in it until modern times without feeling much “ethical heartburn.” (Only a food writer would use such an appalling phrase.) According to Pollan, this “reality” demands our respect. The same reasoning could be used to defend our mistreatment of children: In body and instinct, we are marvelously well-equipped for making their lives hell. If many cultures now object to abusing them, it is thanks to new values, to people who refused to respect the time-honored “reality.”

But by reducing man’s moral nature to an extension of our instincts, Pollan is free to present his appetite as a sort of moral-o-meter, the final authority for judging the rightness of all things culinary.

Or in otherwords, a "if it tastes good, eat it!" approach that is contemptuously dismissive of legitimate moral concerns. Bryer summarizes the approach thusly:

The Pollan-Küng Technique goes like this: One debates the other side in a rational manner until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one’s belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties. As Pollan writes:

I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.

How arrogant, in other words, how pitifully close to mental illness, to want to be a better person!

Fortunately, though foodies are determined to defend cruelty as delicacy, the average American seems willing to accept that their food be treated a little more humanely before it winds up on their plates.

1 comment:

Nat-Wu said...

Well, whether eating meat is in itself immoral or not, that question is still separate from the question of causing unnecessary suffering to animals in the course of producing them as food. There is no excuse for torturing animals at all. Killing them doesn't mean they should suffer. We give that much consideration to condemned prisoners whose lives are worth nothing to us, so we can afford to give it to animals as well.