Michael Pollan, B.R. Myers, and pleasure

Last week, The Globe and Mail published an interview in which Michael Pollan responded to a number of different criticisms of the food movement. The interviewer, Ian Brown, was quite obviously friendly to Pollan, prefacing the piece by labeling Pollan the “god of the food movement.” Brown asked Pollan in particular about a piece in the current issue of The Atlantic:

What do you make of the complaints of B.R. Myers, who has aesthetic and moral objections to foodies in the latest Atlantic Monthly?

The piece in question is “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” in which Myers tears into food writers ranging from Pollan to Anthony Bourdain. Myers uses the word “foodie” interchangeably with the word “gourmet”; his piece only relates to the food reform movement insofar as it classifies some prominent food reformers like Pollan and Alice Waters as gourmets. Many of Myers’ harshest words are reserved for writers like Bourdain or Jeffrey Steingarten, who are not exactly household names in the food reform movement.

Myers, it should probably be noted, is something of a career controversialist. I’ve previously mentioned his blistering review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Before that, he wrote a book titled A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, and more recently he authored a review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom which The Huffington Post named one of the five meanest reviews ever.

Having read a few pieces of Myers’ work in The Atlantic, I have to think that he writes not to convince his readers but to get attention. If that’s the case, he seems to know what he’s doing. His review of Freedom drew many responses (including a lengthy one from somebody who hadn’t read the book), and Michael Pollan found the need to tweet two responses to his recent piece about foodies.

With that said, here’s how Pollan answered:

His aesthetic problem is an ethical problem, and that’s that he’s a vegan. And if you look at the way he writes about these issues…everything he dismisses as gluttony always involves eating an animal. So there’s a few agendas mixed up in that, and he’s not completely open about what they are.

With respect to the first sentence there, Pollan insinuates that the fact of Myers being vegan means that all of his criticisms are simply a knee-jerk objection to people eating meat. It would seem that in Pollan’s view, vegetarian advocates can’t have opinions worth listening to (which might explain why he didn’t see the need to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals before reviewing it). To be sure, Myers clearly has some opinions that are not expressly stated in his piece, but can’t we evaluate his criticisms on their own terms? (And if somebody’s opinion must be discounted, why is it not the meat farmers like Nicolette Hahn Niman and Joel Salatin, who have a financial interest in selling a particular product?)

As for the point that “everything [Myers] dismisses as gluttony always involves eating an animal,” this might that have more to do with food writers’ bias towards meat than Myers’ bias against it. Myers is clearly disgusted with Bourdain’s tale of eating endangered songbirds. Maybe Myers chose this example because he is vegan, but perhaps he chose it because he couldn’t find any food writing about eating endangered plants. Moreover, I’ve previously commented that Pollan writes surprisingly little about the plant-based foods he eats, so it’s hard to see Pollan’s point having much validity applied to his own work.

Finally, I don’t know what to make of the accusation that Myers isn’t “open” about his agendas. Myers writes of “the caloric wastefulness and environmental damage that result from meat farming,” he slams Bourdain for his indignation towards vegetarians, and he suggests that “delicious food that is produced in a way that is sustainable, that doesn’t exploit workers and is eaten slowly and with reverence” means eating a vegetarian diet. He certainly doesn’t make any effort to hide his vegetarian inclinations. The specific criticism from Pollan here, I suppose, is that Myers raises the objections that he does just because he doesn’t want anybody to eat meat. Even if this is true, it’s not clear how it should invalidate, for example, the argument that “the foodie respects only those customs, traditions, beliefs, cultures…that call on him to eat more, not less.”

Pollan goes on to discuss the role of pleasure in the food movement:

What’s very striking about the current interest in food is that it’s not purely aesthetic. It is not purely about pleasure–people are very interested in the system that they’re eating from…People are mixing up aesthetics and ethics in a very new way, that some people are uncomfortable with, frankly. The idea that you could take any pleasure from politics, that you could mix those two terms, is a very un-American idea. We see it as you’re either indulging yourself, or you’re doing the world good. The fact is, slow food and other elements of the food movement are proposing that the best choice, the most beautiful choice, is often the most sustainable choice.

I don’t buy this idea that the mixing of pleasure and politics is unique to the food movement. After all, we’ve had a sexual revolution, and movements for drug legalization have gained support in recent years.

Furthermore, I’m skeptical of the idea that pleasure will lead us to the most sustainable choice. Pollan, after all, recalls in The Omnivore’s Dilemma having served his friend Liz (whom he says is “such a good cook”) a Polyface steak, which he’d have us believe is “an awful lot like the proverbially unattainable free lunch,” only to have her wrinkle her nose and push it away. And it wasn’t too long ago that Alice Waters said that she’d have shark fin soup as her last meal, only to swear off the delicacy after learning it was cruel and unsustainable.

In another direction, I think it’s important to point out that most people find pleasure in the food they’re already eating. It’s a little surprising to have to make this point, as nobody has described more eloquently than Pollan the various ways in which food companies have learned to satisfy our innate cravings with fatty burgers and sugary soft drinks. Last summer, Pollan cheered on a column in which Joel Salatin wrote, “Don’t complain about being unable to afford high-quality local food when your grocery cart is full of beer, cigarettes, and People magazine,” but I wonder how many people were actually complaining. As James McWilliams writes, “Most omnivores don’t have a dilemma. Most eaters just want a decent lunch.”

It is probably unfair for Myers to say that members of a group including both Pollan and Bourdain are “as similar to each other as they are different from everyone else.” While Pollan seems sincere in his desire for a food system that is gentler on the planet, I have trouble believing the same of somebody chowing down on endangered birds.

Perhaps where Myers’ piece is most valuable is as a warning of what might happen if food reform leaders place pleasure at the front of their movement. For all the ways in which Pollan and Waters differ from the likes of Bourdain, there are some similarities. If they make a few more missteps in the vein of Waters’ comments on shark fin soup, give us too many twisted rationalizations, or insist too stubbornly that we should be eating rack and loin of veal, they’ll seem less like earnest reformers and more like out-of-touch and disingenuous gourmets in the model of Bourdain.

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11 Comments »

  1. […] more bridges with people concerned with animal slaughter. Nice analysis by Adam Merberg. Link. Spread the […]

  2. Cathy said

    What? Michael Pollan writes little about the plant-based foods he eats? Did you miss “Eat Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants?” That is the Michael Pollan mantra.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Right, but have you ever seen him write about a specific plant-based meal? Whenever he writes about the meals he actually eats, there’s a big chunk of meat on his plate. Here’s why it matters.

  3. annmarie said

    we are all so far removed from food. we might all be emotional about it. in different ways according to our cultural background and how screed up we might be by our personal biochemistry being out of whack.
    we as humans are diverse, some of us need animal protein as a main source of protein, others do not. the americans have been tampered with….and the main part of the population might as well eat cardboard, if one considers the depleted nutrional value of everything commercially produced.

  4. […] eat the best food, whereas foodies want to learn everything about food.” Now, Myers, who is known for being a “controversialist,” calls out these specific foodies who are also in the public sphere advocating for types of […]

  5. Chris said

    Myers’ piece is mostly a piece of shit, like his bellicose Reader’s Manifesto. The man is incapable of an honest, polite, open-minded debate…. with anyone. EVERY time he receives letters to the editor questioning his judgment, he feels compelled to reply because he HAS to get the last word. This would be fine if he honestly addressed his readers’ complaints, but more often than not he doesn’t, he simply resorts to yet more obfuscatory, sneering rhetoric. He resorts to bluff and bluster to disguise the shortcomings of his arguments. His prideful veganism is nothing but a variety of self-righteous puritanism, and while he rails agains the deadly sin of gluttony, he ought to remember that another of the seven deadly sins is pride.

    Myers lumps together gluttonous, wasteful gourmets with serious food activists, all under the vague umbrella term “foodies” i.e. he links together people with virtually nothing in common, tars them with the same brush, and excoriates them in toto for the sins of a few. The common sin that links them together in Myers’ mind is simply that they eat meat (as if gorging on foie gras or even rarer delicacies – which require the animal to be abused in order to taste the way they do – is just the same as eating free-range chicken from a local farm) and aren’t the noble, pure, superior vegan that Myers prides himself on being.

    Amusingly, Myers seems oblivious to just how similar, and similarly crude and simplistic, his rant against foodies is to his rant against the literati a decade ago. Both pieces are predicated on the notion that the groups under attack are just a bunch of poseurs and phonies…. food is just a status symbol, like the modern “literary” novel. One eats what one eats, like one reads a novel like Don DeLillo’s Underworld, purely as a status symbol thing, to separate oneself out from the hoi polloi. In this ways, Myers resorts ceaselessly to gross overgeneralization to make his point. ALL “foodies,” like all readers of “literary,” “mandarin-style” novels, are lumped together as poseurs in Myers’ ungenerous, puritanical, Savonarola-like mind.

    The literary character Myers most resembles is Alceste, in Moliere’s THE MISANTHROPE. But so insufferable, loathsome, obnoxious, and narcissistic is he, that Myers will soon resemble Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens even more than Alceste.

  6. Eric B. said

    > Furthermore, I’m skeptical of the idea that pleasure will lead us to the most sustainable choice.

    Is that a fair summary of Pollan’s position? Might we not more fairly summarize his point as pursuing the most sustainable choice will lead us to greater eating pleasure? I feel that way about fruit, for instance. Most of my neighbors eat bananas, orange, apples, peaches, year-round strawberries from 3000 miles away… None of these things can be grown very well in the Southeast (where I live), not without heavy chemical inputs, especially not relative to figs or Asian pears or pawpaws or jujubes or mulberries or seasonal, local-organic strawberries or blackberries… This second class of fruits hasn’t lent itself to mass distribution, but wouldn’t you suspect that following the local-organic trail to this second class of fruits really could lead to more vibrant and pleasurable eating, especially once one gets past initial habits and prejudices?

    • Adam Merberg said

      I understand the distinction you’re trying to make here, though I don’t see why that’s a better summary of his point. In any case, I don’t think the examples I gave above are any less applicable if we interpret it in the way you suggest.

  7. Eric B. said

    Maybe not a better summary — is it fair to read any kind of causation into what Pollan said? — but a more generous one anyways.
    I’m not sure I completely follow the connection between your examples and Pollan’s point, though. On one level I take your point that people find pleasure in their food already but couldn’t we also make the point (as maybe Pollan is) that we could find a truer, deeper, less superficial pleasure in food than we do now?

    • Adam Merberg said

      It’s not particularly a causal statement, but I don’t think what I said was an unreasonable conclusion. If the “most beautiful” choice (which I understand to mean the best-tasting choice) is the most sustainable, then it’s not unreasonable to conclude “that pleasure will lead us to the most sustainable choice.”

      It seems to me that the stated examples are direct counterexamples to Pollan’s point. Obviously, you and I don’t agree with Pollan that the Polyface steak is the most sustainable choice, but one of the messages of his book is that it is the most sustainable choice. So the fact that it isn’t palatable to his friend contradicts the point he makes here.

      I agree with you that we can find pleasure in more sustainable foods, but I think we should be careful about describing our pleasures as “truer, deeper, less superficial” than what other people are eating. Many people don’t like the idea of parting with (for example) their Coca-Cola, and I don’t think we’re going to win over the hearts and minds by telling them their pleasures are less “true.” You may or may not care about this, but Pollan has in the past lamented that he is sometimes said to be preaching to the choir, and this is part of the reason why that happens.

      • Eric B. said

        Are you saying that all pleasure is purely subjective? I don’t believe that. I believe some things really are more worthy of enjoyment. I’d compare the difference between what Pollan calls real food and counterfeit food to the difference in pleasure between a healthy marriage and prostitution. In other words, the difference isn’t simply subjective. There’s a level of potential enjoyment in real food that counterfeit food can’t offer. And at the same time I wouldn’t say that a simplistic pursuit of food pleasure will lead us to more sustainable choices any more than I would say a simplistic pursuit of sexual pleasure would lead to the purest sexuality. Pollan surely wouldn’t say so either. So I don’t think your argument is fair. The story of the steak — which I don’t remember from the book, but I’m going off the little bit you just said about it — is a case in point. It’s not a contradiction if he wasn’t saying pleasure would simplistically (i.e. at first taste by his friend) lead us to sustainability. In any case, I think you have to allow that men are creatures of habit, and we enjoy what we’re familiar with. Pollan surely recognizes this, too, and he must believe in the potential for deeper comparisons than the simplistic tests that say much more about our taste habits and prejudices than they say about the food itself. In other words, there must be something that can be said about the food itself that isn’t purely a matter of subjective taste preference.
        I certainly agree that telling people their taste for coca-cola is less “true” is no winning argument, but on the other hand, if a pleasure can be shown to be unsustainable, then that pleasure isn’t as “pure” as “true” and it is more “superficial,” right? Don’t vegans say the same kind of thing about meat? Insofar as their arguments against eating meat are true, I think it’s fair to say that the pleasures of eating meat are cheap, superficial pleasures. Of course, I don’t believe the arguments are true, and so the claim of superficiality by itself is completely unpersuasive, but I would grant that whichever side is right enjoys the truest eating pleasure.

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