Archive for March, 2011

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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