Monday, April 11, 2011

Haters Gonna Hate: BR Myers’ Crusade Against Foodies.

I should probably leave B.R. Myers’ recent attack on "foodies" alone--it's one of those articles where the wrongness comes in waves, where you hardly have time to come up for air from one onslaught of wrongness before another one is crashing on your head. All you really need to know is that the guy is wrong, and that's obvious from a quick glance at the article, so why wade in at all? Also, Francis Lam has already done a nice rebuttal for, which everyone should read. But Myers is so plainly unpleasant a writer that I feel compelled to respond, too.
It’s hard to know just where to begin, though. Maybe with Myers' premise, that “foodies” are self-centered boors who prioritize eating above all else, even human decency. "[Foodies] are certainly single-minded," Myers concludes. "And single-mindedness—even in less obviously selfish forms—is always a littleness of soul.”
Now, for Myers, a foodie is anyone who writes about food--he lumps together in this category everyone from Jeffrey Steingarten to Michael Pollan. And how does Myers know that foodies are single-minded? Well, they write about food! And those essays about food are all about food!
You see what we’re dealing with here? Myers is wrong, but even if he were right it would be an absurd complaint, like bitching that sportswriters only write about football and baseball and stuff.
Embarrassingly, Myers takes Francine Prose as an example of one of these single-minded meat-heads, dismissing her as a "foodie writer" who "quickly lose[s] interest in any kind of abstract discussion.” But is Francine Prose really just a foodie? Okay, she writes for Saveur and is the author of an essay entitled “Faith and Bacon.” But she has also written more than a dozen novels, on topics that range from immigrant domestic labor to professor-teacher romance. She has books on Caravaggio and Anne Frank. She edited an edition of Mrs. Dalloway. I mean, come on, Myers: she publishes everywhere, on every topic imaginable. Just last week, I found an article of hers in Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine on which came first, the chicken or the egg. Not kidding. And, for the record, that article included no mention of either frying or scrambling.
Myers claims to be something of a reader, so he should know who Francine Prose is. Either he doesn’t, or he believes that because she also wrote an essay about bacon, she’s incapable of thinking with anything other than her belly.
But even more troubling is Myers’ misreading of the food writing he reviews. His favorite target is Anthony Bourdain: Myers calls him oafish and thuggish, and accuses Bourdain of “greed, indifference to suffering, the prioritization of food above all.”
Look, I get not liking Bourdain. He’s abrasive and impatient and he says mean things about Rachael Ray and other harmless people. But you have to be either a very selective reader of Bourdain or an inept one to conclude that his writings are truly all about food. In the introduction to A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain writes:
I wanted the perfect meal.
I also wanted--to be absolutely frank--Col. Walter E. Kurtz, Lord Jim, Lawrence of Arabia, Kim Philby, the Consul, Fowler, Tony Po, B. Traven, Christopher Walken... I wanted to find--no I wanted to be--one of those debauched heroes and villains out of Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Francis Coppola, and Michael Cimino. I wanted to wander the world in a dirty seersucker suit, getting into trouble. (5)
That was 10 years ago. Since then, he has written and commented on Nicaragua’s Ortega regime, the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon, and Ted Nugent’s crazy-ass conservatism. Yes, his books and TV shows are about food, but they’re not about food, if you know what I mean. Here’s a clip from Bourdain’s current TV series, No Reservations--watch from about the 8:30 minute mark until 11:30:
It’s a jaw-dropping scene: Bourdain, his crew, and a Haitian movie star visit a street vendor on the edge of Port-au-Prince. The woman has struggled since the earthquake, someone tells Bourdain. Meanwhile, a crowd of kids surrounds Bourdain’s table, staring at his food, making Bourdain “painfully aware” that he’s eating three times more food than most of them will get all day.
“What would you do?” Bourdain asks his viewers in a voiceover. “Hungry kids and a hard-working business woman. A brief conference with producers, and I think, in this case, easy to make the situation better. Right?”
He decides to pay the woman full price for her all of her food and give it to the surrounding crowd. But instead of cheerfully lining up for the free food and giving Bourdain’s viewers a feel-good moment, young men push the children out of the way, and Bourdain stands around, awkward and helpless, as the crowd descends into violence.
“We didn’t think it through,” Bourdain concludes.
Is that scene about food? Of course not. Can we honestly say that Bourdain is indifferent to suffering? We could, if we enjoyed bathing in oceans of wrongitude.
The closest Myers comes to a fair point is his complaint that foodies tend toward elitism. But again, Bourdain is a bad example. In fact, as my wife and I watched that Haiti episode of No Reservations a couple of weeks ago, we were eating one of our mid-week specialties: black bean tacos with fresh pico de gallo. The dinner was everything Myers says foodie food is not. It’s vegetarian, cheap, and simple. All you do is chop up some tomatoes, an onion, a serrano pepper and some garlic, toss that with a bit of lime juice, salt, and olive oil. Then scoop that into a tortilla on top of some heated black beans. If the ingredients are good, the meal is great: it tastes like pure summer.

Where did we learn to eat like this? From Bourdain, in part. My wife and I had his first nonfiction book, Kitchen Confidential, pressed into our hands by a friend in college (Word up, Larry!). In that book, Bourdain writes about his first appreciation of well-prepared Italian food:
All the food was simple. And I don’t mean easy, or dumb. I mean that for the first time, I saw how three or four ingredients, as long as they are of the highest and freshest quality, can be combined in a straightforward way to make a truly excellent and occasionally wondrous product. (165)
Later, in A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain writes:
Of course, I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at the dinner table. Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life. (6)
Somehow, Myers misses that Bourdain praises simple food as much as he does complicated food. But then he misses a lot.
The thing is, what really pisses Myers off about Bourdain, Prose, and Michael Pollan is that they eat meat. In other words, they draw a distinction between the suffering of humans and the suffering of animals. Is that a fair distinction to draw? I would say yes, but it’s a fair question. And I know lots of smart vegans who would argue that it’s not (Word up, Traci!). But Myers doesn't make that argument. Instead, propelled by his dislike for happy food-eaters, he aims for total evisceration, and that leads him into absurdity after absurdity.