Ask Tim: It’s Hard to Swallow B.R. Myers’ “Hard to Swallow”
This week’s question comes from City Paper contributing writer Arthur Delaney of the District, who wants to know:
“I'm dying to know what Tim thinks of this article in the current Atlantic magazine, slamming ‘the gourmet's ongoing failure to think in moral terms.’”
This may be the most difficult question ever submitted to a food critic—particularly because Delaney’s link to The Atlantic offered only a few teasing paragraphs of B.R. Myers’ broadside against food writers and their questionable morals. I searched all over the place, from downtown D.C. to Silver Spring, to find a copy of the magazine that included Myers’ essay, titled “Hard to Swallow.” I finally had to convince former CP staff writer Dave Jamieson to cough up his copy, and it cost me a lunch.
I wish I could say my efforts were worth it. While I think Myers’ premise is important to consider—that gourmands accept all sorts of animal cruelty to satisfy their pampered palates—I found Myers’ essay to be fatuous and full of misleading characterizations. The piece is mostly a take down of two authors, Julie Powell and Michael Pollan, both of whom Myers repeatedly describes as “food writers.”
First of all, Pollan is not a food writer. I’m a food writer. Ruth Reichl is a food writer. Jeffrey Steingarten is a food writer. (Just for the record: I can only wish I were in the same league as Reichl and Steingarten.) Michael Pollan occasionally writes about food, among other subjects. Second, B.R. Myers’ moral concerns seem limited exclusively to animals, because he certainly doesn’t care about how he abuses Pollan’s and Powell’s copy. Should that not be an ethical consideration for a writer?
Myers waves a crooked old disapproving finger at Powell’s account of killing a live lobster (from Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously) by claiming it “is a prime example of food writers’ hostility to the very language of moral values.” That wasn’t how I recalled Powell’s account, which I found both hilarious and harrowing, an honest depiction of one person’s conflicted feelings over killing a crustacean. I checked Powell’s blog to see if she had read Myers’ essay. Here’s what Powell wrote in response:
Finally, someone gets me!
Seriously, though, I actually do feel like his point is fairly dubious. He seems to think that I'm all about mocking people's sensitivity to the lobster killing, but that isn't the case at all. On the contrary, my lobster chapter was all about the real hesitancy I had to boil the lobster, which I was doing at [Julia Child’s] explicit behest. Yes, I make with the funny. But I laugh at all manner of offensive shit—the lobsters are just getting the same treatment I give everybody else. Better, even; can you imagine the heights of crassness I'd have reached if I'd been writing about boiling Karl Rove?
Myers’ case against Pollan is even more absurdly reductionist. Myers mischaracterizes The Omnivore’s Dilemma so frequently that I won’t bore you with the details, save for the essayist’s final summation of Pollan’s justifications for eating meat:
“Pollan thinks that taking a hard look at human nature is more a matter of leaning over the museum rail at the caveman exhibit. Seeing only the painted mammoth on the horizon, so to speak, he derives the rightness of meat eating from the fact that humans are physically suited to it, they enjoy it, and they have engaged in it until modern times without feeling much ‘ethnical heartburn.’”
Did Myers and I read the same book? It’s next to impossible to encapsulate Pollan’s deep thinking on the subject to something blog-worthy, but suffice to say that Pollan looks at the macro-view of ecosystems vs. the micro-view of rights for individual animals. Two excerpts from The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
From page 323 in the hardback: “Predation is deeply woven into the fabric of nature, and that fabric would quickly unravel if it somehow ended, if humans somehow managed ‘to do something about it.’ From the point of view of the individual prey animal predation is a horror, but from the point of view of the group—and of its gene pool—it is indispensable.” (Pollan applies a similar logic to domesticated farm animals: He believes that human “predation” can benefit them as a species, particularly if we could move away from intensive farming systems. As he writes: “The surest way to achieve the extinction of the species would be to grant chickens a right to life”—page 322.)
From page 325: “Morality is an artifact of human culture devised to help humans negotiate human social relations. It’s very good at that. But just as we recognize that nature doesn’t provide a very good guide for human social conduct, isn’t it anthropocentric of us to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for what should happen in nature? Is the individual the crucial moral entity in nature as we’ve decided it should be in human society? We simply may require a different set of ethics to guide our dealings with the natural world….”
After reading Myers’ essay (twice) and comparing it to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I have to say that I prefer Pollan’s earnest hand-wringing about meat eating over Myers’ pious, self-righteous scorn. I feel like Pollan came about his views honestly and fairly. I have no idea how Myers developed his. But, then again, maybe you shouldn’t trust anything I have to say on the subject, Arthur. After all, consider what the great animal rights activist Peter Singer once wrote:
“No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering.”
I take that to mean you can’t trust any meat-eater to have an unbiased position on this subject. He’s probably right.