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The moral majority

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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In the September issue of The Atlantic magazine, contributing editor B. R. Myers published a book review of Michael Pollan's 2006 bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

Myers is a college professor based in South Korea. He's best known in the States for another Atlantic essay, a skewering of postmodern American novelists that later became a 2002 book titled [%bookLink code=0971865906 "A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose"].

Myers' latest article, "Hard to Swallow" (full online edition available to subscribers only), is subtitled "The gourmet's ongoing failure to think in moral terms." Both terms — "gourmet" and "moral" — are central to the piece. It's clear from the first paragraph (where Myers lumps "gourmet" and "food lover" together with "gourmand" and "glutton") as well as the magazine's choice of illustration (a fat, bald man in a business suit wearing a halo and a beatific smile after polishing off the carcasses of several animals) that a gourmet is considered a creature hardly better than a snuffling pig. Worse, in fact, because real pigs don't bother priding themselves on how civilized they are.

[%image witte float=left caption="The Atlantic's illustration for Myers' article."]

Which leads to Myers' second term, "moral." He uses this word liberally; an appreciation for food, he says, is these days considered "intrinsically moral," while food writers repeatedly demonstrate "hostility to the very language of moral values." But nowhere does Myers pause to define what he means by "moral." And that presents a problem.

Linguistics aside (Merriam-Webster distinguishes between a gourmet, who is "a connoisseur of food and drink," and a gourmand, who is "excessively fond of eating and drinking"), any college professor should know to define his terms, particularly if he intends to offer a different definition from the norm. By the end of Myers' essay, it's hard not to suspect that what Myers means by "moral" is "being an animal-rights activist and eating a vegan diet." (Oh, and maybe practicing Christianity, too, given the flurry of references to Jesus and Christians in his conclusion.) Still, without specifics, it's tough to tell what Myers really thinks — except that he strongly resents Michael Pollan, Julie Powell, Jeffrey Steingarten, and all other decadent "food writers" who dare to write about the animals they ate and, occasionally, killed.

In structure, Myers' book review is a mirror of Peter Singer and Jim Mason's 2006 book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Both publications begin by declaring an interest in modern food morals while refusing to reveal the authors' own food attitudes. Myers never comes clean. Singer and Mason wait more than 200 pages before stating their consciences:

bq. The line between what conscientious omnivores can justify eating and what they cannot justify eating is vague. Since we are all often tempted to take the easy way out, drawing a clear line against eating animal products may be the best way to ensure that one eats ethically — and sticks to it.

Michael Pollan, on the other hand, makes sure his readers know from the get-go that he's a meat eater who hopes, by finding out exactly how his food is produced, to learn what constitutes a better or worse meal for all the parties concerned: the eater, the eaten, and the environment. In the introduction to The Omnivore's Dilemma, he describes the four meals of the book's subtitle, emphasizing that by the last meal ("from ingredients I hunted, gathered, and grew myself") he intended to "confront some of the most elemental questions . . . faced by the human omnivore." Not for him is "the easy way out." And neither is he willing, like Singer and Mason, to draw "a clear line against eating animal products."

Pollan accepts the idea of man as meat-eater; Myers does not, and cannot forgive Pollan this transgression. "He apparently believes that we cannot fully relate to animals until they become food," Myers sighs over Pollan, before asserting that Pollan's flights of meat-eating fancy are little more than a depraved justification of cannibalism.

Most of us do not eat humans. Many of us are troubled by the ways in which the (non-human) meat available in our markets is raised, slaughtered, and processed. Some of us become vegetarian or vegan in response. Others (including Pollan) try to find a middle ground, a place where the killing and consumption of animals feels not only satisfying but right.

Meat, after all, is considered delicious by much of mankind. But Pollan's search for a way to eat animals and feel good about it, according to Myers, puts us on a lower plane than the animals themselves:

bq. 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.

This, however, is exactly what Pollan doesn't do. If appetite were all, he would never have ventured onto the factory farm or into the cornfield. Instead, he kills a wild pig and is overcome by nausea; in a line evocative of Dante, he writes, "So we are left standing there in the woods with our uneasiness and our disgust, and disgust's boon companion, shame." Perhaps Myers would say, "Stop there, then," since for him the omnivore's dilemma doesn't exist. Pollan, on the other hand, literally embraces the pig. 

Earlier in his review, Myers wags a finger at the great American public, bathed in "idolatry of food," for tolerating animal cruelty on a massive scale. "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."

But what Myers forgets — and what The Omnivore's Dilemma is all about — is that most Americans do not consciously think this way when they eat. They are ignorant of the myriad ways in which their food is produced, be that a shiny, juicy apple from an organic orchard or a cheap, dry burger from a cow (as depicted by Pollan) forced to live out its last months standing in manure and chewing corn. It is exactly the work of writers such as Pollan — and Upton Sinclair, and Eric Schlosser — that we need to shock us out of our ignorance. 

[%image promo-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/DorianGray"]

Myers is appalled by the food writers Julie Powell and Jeffrey Steingarten, whose work — on lobsters and foie gras — was included in the 2006 edition of [%bookLink code=1569242879 "Best Food Writing"]. Powell, as part of her project cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, has to buy and cook live lobsters. Myers depicts her struggle with the crustaceans as "giggl\[ing\] at the plight of the 'beasties.'" On the contrary, as Powell has pointed out on her blog, killing lobsters by boiling them alive was a very discomfiting task: "\[Myers\] seems to think that I'm all about mocking people's sensitivity to the lobster killing, but that isn't the case at all. On the contrary, my lobster chapter was all about the real hesitancy I had to boil the lobster." 

The same is true of Steingarten's article about foie gras, a carefully researched bit of reporting into the foie-gras industry and the sliding moral scale practiced by all humans. "Do you think it's all right to eat foie gras?" Steingarten begins. "That would be an easy question if foie gras were not one of the most delectable foods on earth." Myers calls the entire essay "tasteless" and leaves it at that, betraying what might be his true belief about food: that if you find food interesting at all, you are letting your gut do your thinking for you. 

Myers also misses a real opportunity to make like Pollan and Steingarten and lay out an evidence-based argument in favor of, say, going vegetarian. "Gourmets love to preach the benefits of organic fare to the country at large," Myers writes, "feigning a child's ignorance of economics all the while; it is the only way they can pass of their pursuit of pleasure as a social conscience." Myers offers no numbers in support of an economic argument; for that, you'll have to check out the archives kept by the mathematically inclined folks over at the environmental webzine Grist, particularly the Victual Reality column regularly penned by Tom Philpott. Lately, for example, Grist has been exploring the question of whether or not vegetarianism can save the planet. A worthy question indeed; too bad Myers simply takes this proposition for granted instead of pondering it.

But perhaps Myers has never heard of Grist. Or Alice Waters, for that matter, who was depicted in a recent New York Times profile as a 63-year-old activist who's restless "because true, radical change — a country full of people who eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the earth — is simply not coming fast enough."

"No reformer ever gave a damn about fine dining," Myers declares triumphantly at the end of his review. "Or the family dinner table either." Myers, it turns out, has completely missed the very moral point of Sinclair, Schlosser, Pollan, Waters — and Grist, and Culinate. We're all reformers. And we do give a damn about what we eat.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.

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