Foodies and the sacred

B.R. Myers goes on a tirade against foodies in the March The Atlantic. Having read a number of recent books on the theme, he got enough ammunition for some cheap shots:

So secure is the gourmet community in its newfound reputation, so sure is it of its rightness, that it now proclaims the very qualities—greed, indifference to suffering, the prioritization of food above all—that earned it so much obloquy in the first place. Bourdain starts off his book by reveling in the illegality of a banquet at which he and some famous (unnamed) chefs dined on ortolan, endangered songbirds fattened up, as he unself-consciously tells us, in pitch-dark cages. After the meal, an “identical just-fucked look” graced each diner’s face. Eating equals sex, and in accordance with this self-flattery, gorging is presented in terms of athleticism and endurance. “You eat way past the point of hitting the wall. Or I do anyway.”

But his attempts at put down are often little more than cheap shots. For example:

And when foodies talk of flying to Paris to buy cheese, to Vietnam to sample pho? They’re not joking about that either. Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts.

But he does point to something in his essay, foodie culture as a search for meaning, even spirituality (but that’s my wife’s project):

Even if gourmets’ rejection of factory farms and fast food is largely motivated by their traditional elitism, it has left them, for the first time in the history of their community, feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street. Food writing reflects the change. Since the late 1990s, the guilty smirkiness that once marked its default style has been losing ever more ground to pomposity and sermonizing. References to cooks as “gods,” to restaurants as “temples,” to biting into “heaven,” etc., used to be meant as jokes, even if the compulsive recourse to religious language always betrayed a certain guilt about the stomach-driven life. Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face. The mood at a dinner table depends on the quality of food served; if culinary perfection is achieved, the meal becomes downright holy—as we learned from Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), in which a pork dinner is described as feeling “like a ceremony … a secular seder.”

His essay repeatedly cites examples of food writers grasping for spiritual language to interpret their experiences and their lives. Of course, he is critical of such efforts, but it seems to me that the use of such language is an attempt to make meaning. At its best, he foodie quest is above all, for authenticity and meaning. Given the prevalence of religious language in the movement, it seems also a quest for the sacred.

His essay is here: The Moral Crusade Against Foodies – Magazine – The Atlantic.

For a rejoinder, read Patrick Lam’s takedown in Salon.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, there’s the Episcopal Foodie Network.