James McWilliams: B. R. Myers and the Myth of 'Sustainable' Food

Roundup: Historians' Take

[James McWilliams is an Associate Professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where
Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.]

B. R. Myers's much-discussed condemnation of foodies and the writers who enable them is, in many ways, a masterpiece of invective. Globe-trotting gourmets, sanctimonious Slow Foodsters, and gonzo adventure eaters all come in for their share of Myers's signature drubbing. Critics of the piece have chided him for cherry-picking examples in order to caricature the food movement. This seems like a fair enough assessment. But the point of a polemic isn't to be balanced. It's to provoke thoughts, spark discussion, and, in some cases, even strengthen the movement it's criticizing. It's in this spirit—the spirit of continuing a dialogue—that I leap into this scrum.

An older genre of food writing carefully avoided this pitfall. The writings of Jim Harrison, Calvin Trillin, and the late A.J. Liebling tend to do something today's foodie-writers rarely do: they celebrate gluttony as gluttony rather than twist it into a pretext for social and environmental justice (much less sound mosaics or television shows). These writers steer clear of the underlying ethical issues of food and agriculture because, given their dogged pursuit of sensual gratification, they're likely aware that it's impossible to be both slave to the palate and mother to the earth. They wear their salivations on their sleeves, tilt back their privileged gullets, and eat high on the hog without apology. Any concerns they might have about the sustainability of their behavior is left for others to ponder. I don't particularly care for their message. But I admire their honesty (and envy their literary skill).

In contrast, today's foodies choose to casually invest their quest for flavor with moral transcendence. They also fail to confront the very real possibility that one simply cannot eat ethically and, at the same time, fetishize taste. To really eat ethically more often than not means to avoid the primacy and exclusivity of taste. It means to forgo foods usually associated with"fine dining"—rich cheeses, meat, luscious desserts, and seafood dished out in fancy restaurants—in exchange for (as Mark Bittman's work quietly reiterates) a humble bowl of beans, greens, and whole grains cooked up at home (with the leftovers eaten all week for lunch). It means, in essence, embracing sacrifice, even asceticism. Any committed vegan will have some sense of what this entails....

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