Thursday, February 10, 2011


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?


  1. I agree completely. My solution is one that was forced on me by (admittedly voluntary) financial hardship. During my days of being a ski bum, I took up a predominantly vegetarian diet. Moral reasons? Please. It was a lot cheaper (and healthier) to live off rice and canned beans than it was to scarf down burgers from the McD's the next town over.

    Over the years, I've kept the taste for non-meat meals and even adopted a bunch of easily grown, inexpensive, healthy vegetables into the diet (winter greens, etc.). The only true way to be "sustainable" is not to stop eating meat - I don't enforce that on myself, and I'd be loathe to force it on anyone else - but to eat less of it (and maybe eat less environmentally demanding meats like pork and chicken (versus beef) and fish like tilapia or trout). Easier said than done, I know.

  2. This is total bullshit. I love food. I love trying new things. I love learning about the science behind cooking. I do not have much money. The two things do not have to have anything to do with one another.

    I don't buy a god-damned thing because it's "expensive." In fact, in my family, the philosophy behind spending what you can on high quality food is based on the fact that health care is really what isn't affordable!

    This guy is a cranky, whiny asshole who is clearly using limited anecdotal knowledge to paint a HUGE group of people with his demented brush.

    And screw you for jumping on his bandwagon without putting any more thought into it than he did.

  3. Anonymous, I think you'll see if you look around this blog that I also enjoy cooking and learning about cooking... and I agree with you that Myers screed is over the top. If I had known a blog as big as Balloon Juice was going to link to this post I would have put in those caveats.

    I however do see some truth to what he says... that there are many people who buy sustainable grass fed beef because it is "the best", not because they care about sustainability or the suffering of animals in any concrete way.

  4. Two points: the first is that Bittman is concerned about Wal-mart bringing its corporate practices to bear on an unexploited field. Read up on what they did to the Vlasic pickle company and you'll get the drift.

    Second point: meat should be expensive. The things we do to make it cheap, like profligate antibiotic use and feedlot fattening, are the biggest problems. Raise a steer on grass and it's going to cost $5/lb, minimum.

  5. 1) That is a fair criticism and something that needs to be monitored, but I find it hard to imagine a sustainable food distribution system that doesn't involve profit seeking multinational corporations. If Bittman has a better way (and he has hinted at such) I would love to hear it.

    2) I don't know what "sustainable meat" should cost... but I'm generally in favor of making it cost as much as the environment and humane treatment of the animals requires. However, I think the point here is: if animals cruelly treated and injected with hormones were more expensive/exclusive and alleged to be more delicious, how many foodies would switch sides? I worry the number is higher than I want to contemplate.

  6. Grass-fed beef is also more nutritious than "cow factory" feedlot beef (because antioxidents from the grass diet make it into the meat), the meat is tastier, and the cow has led a healthier life eating more nutritious feed itself. The "hot" feed (consisting of mainly corn) that feedlot cattle and also "production unit" dairy cows eat is not a healthy diet for them, and causes all sorts of digestive problems. It would be roughly equivalent to a human living on donuts and Pepsi.

  7. Both of these articles/screeds just leave me stunned. Where does all this vitriol toward "foodies" come from? When was it decided that people's food choices must be judged and, if found wanting through some mystical reading of their minds and the motivations of their hearts, roundly condemned? What gives?
    I'm sure there are plenty of pompous asses and other assorted malefactors over in "foodie" world that someone needs to go straighten out, and by all means, go and engage that conversation. Seriously. It's important stuff. But both of these pieces read like potshots from a safe distance taken by people with other axes to grind with the "elites".

  8. There is pretension in food, everywhere, at all times. Some of these folks really do only care about the status markers. Percentages? I dunno, can we run a social science experiment that will give us the answer? Otherwise your guess is as good as mine, i.e., useless.

    Foodiness has become so popular. It's helpful in resolving supply issues (it used to be impossible to buy extra-virgin first cold pressed oil at a grocery store anywhere, for ex) but ugh, it's not necessarily pretty.

    A visit to Whole Foods is sufficient to tell the tale: Yikes. And thank god at the same time.

    last commenter guy: you read this one wrong. the other guy, you might be right about.

  9. Shell, I reread Hamner's article and comments. What bothered me most in his and Myers' was this need to lump people into the "foodies" category and then divine and judge their motives. Your point about needing a useless social sci experiment to do this was dead-on, but that current ran through both articles over and over.
    After looking around Hamner's blog, he's certainly engaging the world of food and it's discussions, so I did miss that, but I don't understand this food police mentality worrying there may be gluttons or other impure motives in our midst.

  10. Greg, if you are bothered by the fact that I didn't address Myers' implication that people who want to cook with the best ingredients are evil people... I'd say that's a fair criticism. I am such a person, so I thought it would go without saying that I support it and think he's a bit nutso in that area.

    Regardless, I am painting with a broad brush.. no doubt. But I am merely seeking to highlight the fact that being into food and caring about food are two different things.