Foodie backlash

BY SHAY O'REILLY | MARCH 10, 2011 7:20 AM

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Apparently, my very favorite thing is to kill my own goats. For meat.

Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the Paleolithic details — I’m a vegetarian. But a book-review-cum-scathing commentary in this month’s Atlantic professes that slaughter is a requirement of the “food movement,” that ill-defined amalgam of Pollan-style locavores, farmers’ market nerds, and Bourdain-esque professional gourmands.

Other requirements? Snobbery, sanctimoniousness, and a hefty dose of hypocrisy. As someone who admits to caring a great deal more about food than your average American, I’ll have to say this: I’m worried about the growing backlash against sustainable food, but I’m more worried that it’s right.

Atlantic contributing editor B.R. Myers kicked the hornet’s nest with an article declaring “Gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony.” Then came a follow-up by James McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, in which McWilliams offers this gem: “for most people food is just food.” And there my existential crisis began.

Admittedly, having a crisis over food politics proves Myers’ point, at least a little bit.

But there it was: Do I think food matters because it matters to me, or because it matters on a larger scale? Am I riding in on my white horse, trying to champion pancakes made with real blueberries when there’s nothing truly wrong with a Betty Crocker variety that contains “artificial blueberry flavor bits”?

I have no delusions of grandeur or revolutionary spirit; my frozen whole-wheat carrot muffins (microwave for 1:00, spread with butter, enjoy) are not going to save anything but my wallet. But I’ve read Pollan’s books. I’ve consumed media pieces about the Epicurean and environmental promise of local farming and DIY chicken-raising. And I felt pretty damn good about those muffins, both because I find baking and cooking to be enjoyable activities and because I — and here’s the confession — place a bit of moral weight on the food I consume.

Is this fundamentally a bad thing? I don’t know. I’d like to think, as the trope goes, that the personal is political. I recognize my privilege in being able to cook regular meals and enjoy “healthy” food; I proselytize only to my closest friends. As foodies go, I’m fairly inoffensive compared with the rogues’ gallery established by Myers.

But an inherently effete, snobbish food revolution is only accessible to the effete and snobbish. Perhaps Iowa City is the wrong place for this sort of invocation, but any movement must look outside of the trendy in order to effect real change. Love songs to the hottest new party dip aren’t going to help the nearly 15 percent of U.S. households struggling to put food on the table or change America’s obesogenic environment. Indubitably, the problems of malnutrition and obesity require revisiting the way we eat, but not the kind of sanctimonious gluttony wrapped in holier-than-thou robes.

Instead, food activists must find some pleasant middle ground between self-indulgence and resignation to a status quo that substitutes fat and sugar for actual flavor. Tastiness doesn’t imply complexity (particularly not the kind of industrial complexity in processed foods). Myers’ insistence that foodies are disingenuous when they (we?) trumpet the Epicurean merits of sustainable food fall a little flat when one applies them to vegetables: It’s clear that energy-intensive hydroponic winter tomatoes can’t hold a candle to the home-grown summer variety.

Maybe what the food movement needs is this dose of accessible simplicity. Maybe this is the seed of something better. And I’ve realized I’m OK with it, as long as it grows from there.

In the end — and this is where Myers fails to fully realize his critique, as it gets lost in grisly description — the gourmand lifestyle he describes is not the food-loving of my grandfather that he has passed on to me.

At 93 years of age, he still makes his own ice cream, with some help from my younger grandmother.

His favorite flavor? Simple chocolate.

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