Sky Full of Bacon

McOrtolans, or: Thoughts on B.R. Myers’ Foodie Rant

Ten years ago an unknown guy named B.R. Myers wrote a scathing article about modern literature, the gist of which was, modern writers have gotten so wrapped up in making beautiful sentences full of poetic (but often repetitive or self-contradictory) imagery that they’ve lost their grip on the whole book— on such trivia as story, character, social observation, etc. He went after nearly all the heavyweight names who came to the forefront since the 1980s— E. Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Rick Moody, etc. etc.— as well as the incestuous reviewing-workshopping industrial complex they belong to. And the sarcastic spotlight he threw on their excesses could be devastating:

Like Proulx and so many others today, McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

This may get Hass’s darkly meated heart pumping, but it’s really just bad poetry formatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose. The obscurity of who’s will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author’s mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn’t ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse’s bowels.

Myers, at the time a thoroughly obscure professor in Korea, was attacked by the literary establishment for being a nobody, which kind of proved one of his points. But his manifesto struck a chord, became a book, and he is now a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of a well-received book on North Korea.

What he’s not, however, is a foodie— he’s a vegan. And I think that shows in his attack, a decade later, on foodies, which comes on the heels of a similar foodie shitstorm in The Atlantic a year ago, when Caitlin Flanagan ripped into Alice Waters. Obvious bait as it is (it’s not like Corby Kummer in The Atlantic wasn’t one of the pioneers of exactly this sort of the-best-place-to-get-roasted-hazelnuts-in-Sardinia food porn), let’s take it.

It’s not that many of Myers’ points aren’t true so far as they go— he starts out quoting, and somehow simultaneously agreeing with and disapproving of, Tony Bourdain’s attack on excesses in modern food culture. But on the whole he comes off like one of those mainstream-media liberals like David Weigel put on the conservative beat to parse for readers the difference between thoughtful conservatives and rightwing kooks— but who quickly reveals he doesn’t really believe there is any.

Myers’ distaste for meat-gorging blurs together groups with obvious philosophical differences: the eat-anything gross-outers like Andrew Zimmern, the expense account world travelers like Jeffrey Steingarten, and the earnest sustainable-farming/food-spiritualist types like Michael Pollan. Thus Pollan’s pushing for a better way of raising meat than ugly industrial CAFOs is turned into an elitist gourmand pursuit:

The moral logic in Pollan’s hugely successful book now informs all food writing: 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. This affectation of piety does not keep foodies from vaunting their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals—but only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction.

If you’re trying to recall exactly on what page of The Omnivore’s Dilemma the contradiction of Pollan eating coelacanth or snow leopard appeared, that’s because it didn’t. Myers brings up the damned ortolans-for-Mitterand’s-last-meal story by Michael Paterniti from 15 years ago as if endangered songbirds turned up as the secret ingredient on Iron Chef every week, but of course that tale— whose point was its rare and utter decadence— is about as far as you can get from Pollan talking about eating more green vegetables and less processed corn.  (To be fair, Bourdain brought it up first when he ate ortolans.  That makes two ortolan meals in a mere 15 years in print.  One more and it’s a trend.)  Can he really think foodies haven’t been worrying all this time about how you move better farming practices from a tiny elite subculture to a place in the mainstream marketplace?

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.”

Now? What was a seder for the previous three thousand years if not a meal turned into a religious ritual? Myers simply seems insensible to one of the oldest human urges around eating; it would be like me writing about dance, as incapable as I am of telling one form of running around the stage like third-graders from another.  He mocks the idea that the ritualistic killing of meat could have meaning (“Anthropological research, I should perhaps point out, now indicates that Homo sapiens started out as a paltry prey animal… he could at best look forward to furtive boltings of carrion until the day he became meat himself”), as if scientific reality could unravel a myth as central to so many cultures as the sharing of a large roasted beast, one of the main ways humans define and enforce community. He’s aghast at the idea that butchers could be admired citizens, as if no other humble hands-on pursuit of the pre-industrial village has ever been honored by a society numbed by the modern, industrial way of doing the same thing. Tell it to feminist quilt-makers, buddy.

In the end he sits by himself with his rice bowl, denouncing the ebullient feast at the next table over by pronouncing that the foodie’s “single-mindedness… is always a littleness of soul.”  Which is one way of denying the good time those people are having, I guess.  But to do that he has to reduce all of food writing to one faction, the excess and weird ingredients crowd whom he pictures as solitary grunters at a marble trough:

In Bourdain’s world, diners are as likely to sit solo or at a countertop while chewing their way through “a fucking Everest of shellfish.”

Funny, that’s not how it looks on Bourdain’s TV show, where the exact same meals (Bourdain is very sustainable that way, as any sensible freelance writer should be) are shown as large communal affairs full of people happy to share their culture and cuisine with the gaijin trailed by a TV crew.

I think this piece is unfortunate because if Myers had stuck to the kind of thing he made his name with ten years ago, and not gone off on what is, at bottom, a vegan’s anti-meat rant, there’s a perfectly good case to be made on literary grounds against much of foodieism. He starts to take on the faux-spirituality food crowd, but he seems too repulsed by the whole thing to draw distinctions— there’s a great piece to be written by some post-feminist with the balls to write it about how name-brand women writers like Barbara Kingsolver can respectably take on domestic subjects like food only if they’re cloaked in enough politics of meaning and personal self-fulfillment to not leave you prey to coming off like Debbie Homemaker. He correctly identifies the Hemingwayesque faux-machismo of eating exotic things, too, but doesn’t really delve into it either, because he might have to praise someone like Steven Rinella in The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, for the lack of affectation with which gourmet food leads him into hunting and fishing subcultures.

In short, there’s a great literary critique to be written that might clear a lot of underbrush in our foodie culture. Get started now, The Atlantic will be looking for another one of these soon enough, I suspect.

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