Have you ever rolled your eyes at Anthony Bourdain, or am I the only one?

Well, at least there’s me and B.R. Myers, a vegan and brilliant literary critic, who tears into foodie-ism with zeal in “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies” in this month’s Atlantic.

The essay is great fun. Omnivore blogger Cliff Bostock writes, “The essay is every bit as hyperbolic and sermonizing as the foodie movement he attacks, but it is nonetheless a great read.” New York Times food critic Glenn Collins highlights it as what he’s reading this week.

Myers has read the latest by Anthony Bourdain, Kim Severson, Gabrielle Hamilton, and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and he couldn’t be happier that that reading assignment is over.

He finds that all of today’s foodie writing flows from the spring of Pollan’s “moral logic,” which, in Myers’ reading, goes like this:

The refined palate rejects the taste of factory-farmed meat, of the corn-syrupy junk food that sickens the poor, of frozen fruits and vegetables transported wastefully across oceans—from which it follows that to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself.

It’s not the first time Myers has critiqued Pollan. He identified the danger in Pollan’s line of thinking in September 2007:

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. He shoots a wild pig, for example, hugely enjoying the experience. We even get a spiel about how hunting makes people face the inevitability of their own death.

This is nonsense, says Myers. What has become socially acceptable as being a “foodie” is nothing more than elitism and gluttony. What’s new is that “for the first time in the history of their community,” these gluttonous elitists are left “feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street.” There’s no guilt about eating so much, so well, and at such cost. No one sees that there’s a problem with being so fixated on food, thinking about it all the time, or pursuing it as basely as Bourdain does:

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.”

Francis Lam opens his rebuttal to Myers with an admission: “Look, I hate ‘foodies’ as much as the next guy.” Hannah Wallace, who writes about food for The Faster Times, is on board, too:

Myers has a point: many so-called foodies are elitist and would rather brag about their latest meal at Per Se (and eating ortolan, apparently) than work to make organic fruits and veggies affordable and accessible to low-income communities.

And Robert Sietsema, lashing back against Myers in the Village Voice, has to admit as well that there’s some truth in what Myers says:

Foodism is an unstoppable cultural phenomenon that has outgrown its metaphoric britches. Just like any other human endeavor, its manifestations must be submitted to sane judgment on a case-by-case basis. Good ideas and bad ideas abound, and it’s the job of the thinker, writer, and dining enthusiast to submit these ideas to analysis, and, yes, moral judgment.

Well, here I am, being a thinker and writer, wanting to submit these ideas to analysis and moral judgment. (I’d be more of a dining enthusiast if I could afford more frequent enthusiastic dining.) And what I want to ask is this: As the ranks of foodies grow in Lancaster County, how will our community change?

There is a growing focus in our community on food.

There are blogs: We have Keely Childers Heany’s Note to Self blog on Susquehanna Style. Kathlene Sullivan’s Food-Love-Lancaster blog on Fig. Carl Kosko’s Lancaster Culinary Journeys. Holly High is blogging her way through the Mennonite Community Cookbook on 7 Sweets and 7 Sours, in a Central PA version of Julie & Julia. Every so often we get a fresh post from Ten Pints.

There are institutions, beginning with the sporadically active Lancaster Buy Fresh Buy Local. There are local community-supported agriculture coops (CSAs). There’s Expressly Local on King Street. My friend Antonia Hinnenkamp has East King Culinary. Amy Crystle offers weekly bundles through Everyday Local Food (I’m a happy customer).

Apparently there are even local listservs about food.

And then there’s the growing national attention on Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine—witness the August 2010 issue of Bon Appetit.

It’s easy for me—and, I expect, most readers of this blog—to imagine how much good could come of all this: Better, more nutritious food for all segments of our community, with a positive effect on the environment. More healthy options for dining out. Protection for the traditional agriculture that is such a part of our area’s heritage.

But Myers’ Atlantic article, cheerless as it is, causes me to pause for a moment. I think of John J. Jeffries, which is wonderful but, you cant deny, elite. I rewatch the Fox 43 segment on Susquehanna Style‘s Silver Spoon awards, which gives eating a red carpet treatment. I recall the Buy Fresh Buy Local $60/person dinners. And I wonder if Myers is right to bring up a concern. If we stopped thinking and conversing about this, couldn’t this all devolve into a circle of local elitists congratulating themselves for all the good they’re doing by eating delicious and expensive food?

I’m an American, and therefore an optimist, so I think we’ll see positive outcomes rather than the negative ones that are possible. Still, as foodie-ism continues to erupt in our community, it makes sense to me for us to recognize how precarious a position we’re in. Are we talking about food that’s better for people and the environment, or a convenient disguise for elitism and gluttony?

What about you? Do you share any of Myers’ concerns, or is this a whole lot of buzz about nothing?

9 thoughts on “Foodie-ism in Lancaster County

  1. I spend a lot of time with food marketing, and as I look at other food markets and environments across the country (and the world) I realize again and again how lucky we are to have access to such a plethora of fantastic fresh, organic, all-natural, affordable food. Lancaster County’s culture celebrates the farmer and the farm, and the food, without ever getting too elitist about it. It’s something we all love, and so it’s been kept a very democratic market. I love Anthony Bourdain on TV, but I never want to have him across from me at a dinner table….intolerable.

  2. Thanks for the insight and comments, Mary–especially about how we have “a very democratic market” in Lancaster County. Have you ever read any writing by Bourdain? I’m curious whether that would be more like watching him on TV or having him across from you at a dinner table.

  3. There has been a recent string of “foodie”-bashing on blogs and in the papers. It tends to take on a self-righteous, snarky hipster tone (Tacos are the new cupcakes! Bashing foodies is the new moustache!). So against the eye-rolling, I also roll my eyes. Myers makes a few good points, but it feels like he is railing at a fluffy kitten – I can’t think of any damage that has come out of the localism/foodie scene, and in fact can really only think of the revitalization of farmer’s markets, the push towards making fresh fruits and vegetables affordable, revamping children’s school lunches. People are tasting- really tasting – what real food is supposed to taste like – and it pushes them to make sure others have access to such wonderful food. I have rarely met someone who isn’t passionate about quality food who isn’t also passionate about bringing that food to people who don’t have access to it.

  4. I do think that Myers gets his meat mixed up with his vegetables. He doesn’t really bash anything vegetable-related. If local, organic produce can be sold at large volume by Wal-Mart, it’s certainly possible for great quality fruits and veggies to be affordable and accessible.

    I think he also lumps too many people together as “foodies.” The people who are into the approach of local, sustainable, organic and/or grass-fed are totally different from Bourdain, who is always traveling to crazy places trying to find new animals to shove half-cooked into his mouth.

    Great comments, Amy. Thank you!

  5. Anthony Bourdain is a windbag jerk, and like so many other hosts of travel and food shows, he’s been elevated to some sort of star status, and for what? Snarfing down whatever’s put in front of him in exotic locales? Andrew Zimmern has a show – because he’s willing to eat any creature’s testicles? The mind reels.

    The size of my ass would reveal that I enjoy a bag of chips as much as the next guy, but it’s FOOD, people. And once it’s past your throat and the ooh-ing and aah-ing about its artistic merit is over, well, it’s something else entirely. That’s the great equalizer – all this hoo-hah about celebrity chefs and la-di-da restaurants – and 24 hours later, it’s… um, time for dinner again.

    That said, it would be much more useful if people cared where their food came from – not so they can be holier-than-thou about eating fresh and local – but because even locally-grown food can ruin the environment. Even if your bacon came from a pig that died down the block, it still cost the environment dearly to breed, raise, fatten, kill, process, and then deliver that meat for sale. Free-range chickens still leave tons of muck, as do grass-fed cattle. You can’t provide meat to millions of people without doing a lot of environmental damage – whether it’s fresh, local, or died knowing it was loved.

    Eating further down on the food chain would solve a lot of our problems – in terms of our health, the economy, the environment, even politically. And given how boring a show where Andrew Zimmern went around eating weird-looking fruit and vegetables would be, it would solve the whole Celebrity Eater phenomenon, too. And then we could get back to what really matters – what The Real Housewives Who Live to Dance at the Jersey Shore are up to!

  6. I can’t wait to have a “Real Housewives Who Live to Dance at the Jersey Shore” party! We’ll eat bowls and bowls of carrots and chard! Mmmmm!

    Thanks for your funny and thoughtful comments, Laurie. I’m with you in that I can understand a person’s identity being tied to food because she’s a chef. But because she simply really like to eat great food? Labeling yourself a “foodie” seems to me a bit like shorthand for this conversation: “So who are you? What do you do?” “I eat food and love it.” Umm, OK, anything else? Perhaps something, you know, interesting and meaningful?

  7. For me, being a “foodie” is wrapped up in lots of things — tradition, health and well-being, the environment and the sheer pleasure of sharing a good meal with family and friends. My husband calls me a food snob. I prefer to think of myself as “food conscious” starting with is this good for my body? Can I pronounce the ingredients? The old adage we are what we eat is actually true at a cellular level. (But please don’t think I’m a purist — Swedish Fish are still made with corn syrup and red food coloring and I still eat them.)

    Sure, make fun at the foodie’s like Pollan who go out and shoot a wild boar — and even me for that matter! — but I think foodies are easy targets. Let’s take a closer look at how we have poisoned ourselves through farm subsidies and now live in a country that is growing rounder by the day. In his New York Time’s editorial I do think Michael Pollan got one thing right: if we are serious about addressing rising health care costs, we’ll get serious about what we eat. Without the props of the farm subsidies, food would be more expensive than it is now. And perhaps people would make different food choices.

    Growing up, my family ate from our garden spring to fall. We canned vegetables and fruit. Meat was expensive so we didn’t have it often. Beans were cheap — we ate them a lot. Food stamps helped in the winter. This is the root of my “foodie-ism.” I grew up eating healthy, local, organic food before it was remotely fashionable or elitist.

  8. As someone who cooks for a family of 6-8 each night food is something I’m thinking every night. Sure there are nights where we just order pizza. (Friday movies night with the kids.) In San Diego we used to go out, or brought some form of fast food home to eat nearly 4 or 5 nights of the week.
    But since we moved to Lancaster nearly 3 years ago and have had access to fresh and better food then we did in San Diego I find myself wanting to cook more. I try to cook 5 or 6 nights out of the week now. The boys have become very health conscious and love to help cook, just not clean. I think there will always be those elite people who want to eat the strange, be the first or just “expand” their palate. I do however think there has been much good from the recent movement. At least at our table.

  9. I’m a farmer. I grow food. Really good food. I mean really, really good food. Beyond organic, grass fed, sustainable, pick your favorite popular tag kind of food. Right here in Lancaster County. And, I’m a native. I grew up here and I know this county inside out. I have to tell you, what I do is not rocket science. It is however a symphony. Directing animals to and fro so that they are in the proper location at the proper time in sync with the sun and rain to capture the energy of the earth is truly an art. I am a foodie because I appreciate that art. My customers are foodies because they appreciate the effort that goes into my art. I left a very good job as an engineer to become a farmer because of good food. And I’m not talking Tony Bourdain good. I’m talking good for your body and soul good. Food that is nutrient dense, full of flavor and has a story behind it. That is what I call a foodie, someone who can appreciate good food. I wish more people took the time to consider where their food comes from. Buy from your local farmer, get to know your food and become a foodie. It’s not elitist, it’s your heritage. Just ask your grandma.

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