the refined palate

In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost precision.

Italo Calvino

Food glorious food.  Is it getting gloriouser?  Surely our palettes are refining.  It used to be our parents and grandparents scrounged what was available and then boiled it to an inch of its life; and when the jet age came along tinned their meats and put their cheese in squeeze tubes and powdered their drinks; and with the advent of fast food drove to highway restaurants and ate their burgers and drank their shakes sitting in sedan cars.

But we all got fat and there are no nutrients in those foods and so now slow food, and farm to table, and seasonal eating is upon us and servers in pubs and restaurants wear long white aprons and memorize complex menus which they recite to us full of words like truffle, shallot, saute, cous cous, porcini, demiglaze, cognac, tenderloin, swordfish, and seitan.  In cafes, we used to order coffee, now we order Iced Single Venti Mocha, No Whip.  We live in the age of organics and iron chefs – food is a competition now? – and craft beers.

So are we really refining or are we merely becoming, in our selfishness and wealth, obsessive over our food choices and habits?  In his article about our food culture The Moral Crusade Against Foodies, B. R. Myers says that we are, and that food obsession is the classic definition of what it means to be a glutton.

Gluttony is one of the deadlies and generally and conveniently we currently believe that gluttony means over eating and that it’s an easy sin to spot:  fat people.  But the moral definition of the sin, that gluttony is a preoccupation with food, makes the glutton harder to spy:  foodies are everywhere and many of them are thin.  Myers’ is a difficult and insidious definition.

I see a pattern.  We are caught vacillating between two cultural extremes:  food as function and food as obsession.  Function makes us tin, process, ship across oceans and engage in agribusiness.    Obsession makes us elevate chefs to superstar status and turn how we eat into a sort of sick competition.

There is a middle ground between the extremes that may be reoccupied if we care to.  The definition of it is wide open for suggestions, and to be fair, many people are already doing it.  Chemical free, local, free range, fair trade.

I like the idea of the southern Italian mama cooking centuries old meals in her marble kitchen.  Eggplant parmigiana.  I see an army of them slowly and triumphally usurping the role of arbiter of our food culture from the obsessive super chefs and foodies.  Mamas know taste and craft and ultimately family happiness, where foodies are preoccupied with perfection and technique and self gratification.  Let the mamas have their say.

I also like the south Indian thali, or business man’s lunch, served on a banana leaf and including rice, puri, sambar, cabbage and curd, all you can eat.  And of course tacos, beans and rice, dim sum and falafel.  Simple food well made served in clean well lit dining rooms.

Here are excerpts from Myers’ take down of the foodie, including biggies like Pollan:

The book Gluttony (2003), one of a series on the seven deadly sins, was naturally assigned to a foodie writer, namely Francine Prose, who writes for the gourmet magazine Saveur. Not surprisingly, she regards gluttony primarily as a problem of overeating to the point of obesity; it is “the only sin … whose effects are visible, written on the body.” In fact the Catholic Church’s criticism has always been directed against an inordinate preoccupation with food—against foodie-ism, in other words—which we encounter as often among thin people as among fat ones.


 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. This has much to do with the fact that the nation’s media tend to leave the national food discourse to the foodies in their ranks.


Unfortunately, the foodie fringe enjoys enough media access to make daily claims for its sophistication and virtue, for the suitability of its lifestyle as a model for the world. We should not let it get away with those claims. Whether gluttony is a deadly sin is of course for the religious to decide, and I hope they go easy on the foodies; they’re not all bad. They are certainly single-minded, however, and single-mindedness—even in less obviously selfish forms—is always a littleness of soul.

The Moral Crusade Against Foodies, B. R. Myers


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