Thursday, February 10, 2011

Foodies=Gluttons?

B.R. Myers makes a pretty strong case in the Atlantic that today's foodies are just your typical glutton/gourmand re-branded for the 21st century. The entire article is well worth reading, but his best argument is that much of the attraction to free-range grass-fed meat may simply be how expensive it is:
It has always been crucial to the gourmet’s pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford. For hundreds of years this meant consuming enormous quantities of meat. That of animals that had been whipped to death was more highly valued for centuries, in the belief that pain and trauma enhanced taste. “A true gastronome,” according to a British dining manual of the time, “is as insensible to suffering as is a conqueror.” But for the past several decades, factory farms have made meat ever cheaper and—as the excellent book The CAFO [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] Reader makes clear—the pain and trauma are thrown in for free. The contemporary gourmet reacts by voicing an ever-stronger preference for free-range meats from small local farms. He even claims to believe that well-treated animals taste better, though his heart isn’t really in it. Steingarten tells of watching four people hold down a struggling, groaning pig for a full 20 minutes as it bled to death for his dinner. He calls the animal “a filthy beast deserving its fate.”

And further, in reference to Alice Watters:
“Her streamlined philosophy,” Severson tells us, is “that the most political act we can commit is to eat delicious food that is produced in a way that is sustainable, that doesn’t exploit workers and is eaten slowly and with reverence.” A vegetarian diet, in other words? Please. The reference is to Chez Panisse’s standard fare—Severson cites “grilled rack and loin of Magruder Ranch veal” as a typical offering—which is environmentally sustainable only because so few people can afford it.
Emphasis mine. There is definitely something to this, and it presents a very real contradiction to people like me who largely subscribe to the Pollan/Bittman food policy model. It's one of the drums I beat whenever I talk about food politics: advocates for small farms/locally sourced food don't talk enough about how Niman Ranch scales up to feed 6 billion people. If we don't figure that out, then all this talk about "sustainable food" really is just another way for yuppies to feel superior. If in ten years sustainable meat is still only eaten by the affluent, you'd have to count that as a pretty big failure... but I suspect there is a significant portion of foodies who simply wouldn't care... and for the foodies who do care, I worry that often the perfect is the enemy of the good. When I see people like Bittman bash Wal-Mart's (obviously profit seeking) moves towards healthy and local food, I wonder what they think is a plausible alternative. It's pretty hard for me to imagine a food distribution system that doesn't involve Wal-Mart and its ilk. It's not that there aren't numerous legitimate critiques of Wal-Mart's efforts and their general business model... but to circle back around... how much of the disdain is rooted in elitism?