Category Archives: elitism


I have mixed feelings about this Onion clip. On the one hand, yes, many foodie pursuits are hedonic at best and elitist/wasteful/violent to animals and nature at worst. On the other, I know a lot of foodies for whom these issues are not effete bullshit, but are, to varying degrees, central to their pursuit of satisfaction in the world. To dismiss all gustatory preferences as ‘merely hedonic and therefore morally insignificant’, as I’ve known a lot of people–especially animal advocate friends of mine–to do, is to misconstrue the complex relationship people have with food. (As an aside, I also wonder whether many of the people who make these claims have less developed palates, for any of a number of reasons?)

None of the above is meant to imply that we can’t judge or evaluate the ethics of food choices–of course we can, should, and must. It’s just problematic when we dismiss certain pursuits as morally irrelevant relative to others…this can take is in some unsavory directions.


What counts as a “food dialogue”?

The US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has decided to shift tactics from bunker mode to PR blitz, probably because they know Bittman and others are shifting the discourse, much as other front groups might try to intervene. The resulting Food Dialogues are trying to harness social media and to fight back against Meatless Mondays and other gradualist flexitarian programs. (If ever I’ve seen a sign that things like Meatless Mondays – or even meatless weekdays, for the more committed – are powerful policy tools, this kind of backlash would be it.)

The image above is from a study conducted by the USFRA, and I think this post by Civil Eats does a good job deconstructing it. Especially this: “While I believe the majority of our nation’s ranchers and farmers are respectful stewards of the land with the public’s best interest at heart—they’re working hard to reduce their environmental impact and address pesticide, artificial hormone, and antibiotics overuse—the USFRA clearly is not representing them. Instead, a look at the Alliance affiliates reveals that it is made up of, and funded by, the biggest players in the food industry, including those who profit most from toxic agricultural chemicals, polluting farming and food processing practices, and concerning animal welfare policies. No wonder, then, that that limiting protections from toxic pesticides and pushing back against antibiotic regulation are just two of the current policy priorities of USFRA affiliates.”

This response from La Vida Locavore is slightly more activist, but this passage gets at a core problem here: “Farmers, no matter how they actually farm, say they CARE about the environment and animal welfare. Which adds up to roughly nothing in reality, since the question does not ask what the farmers actually DO on their farms. But the last question is a loaded question.” Since environmental stewardship and good animal treatment are perceived as unmitigated goods by the public at large, only an idiot would say otherwise. Calling the Congo a “democratic republic” comes to mind — everyone wants the cachet of democracy, so they use the keywords and void them of meaning in the process.

All of which is unfortunate, because a real food dialogue would be a wonderful thing. Yes, Pollan et al can be disconnected from the concerns of the average producer and/or consumer, but to turn around and say that Monsanto has the answer? This Habermasian says thanks, but no.

(It should also be a red flag that this ‘dialogue’ is funded mostly by the checkoff programs, a.k.a. the people who try to figure out how put more cheese on pizza. Thanks to the schizophrenic mandate of the USDA, this is a program where following image, from the Onion‘s “World’s Fattest Town Makes, Consumes World’s Largest Mozzarella Stick”, would be right at home.)

Elitism and food

I’m late to this party, but I’ve been on vacation for a few days. Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen are in a tiff, and the NYT’s former food critic Frank Bruni weighs in. Basically, Bourdain says Deen is destroying our health, and Deen says the expensive-ass foie gras eating foodie elitist isn’t one to talk.

I agree with Jane Black that Bourdain is really not one to talk, although he is of course free to do so. (I also agree that “values, priorities, and taste” may dictate more than “access and affordability” when it comes to our food habits) The CSM also has a reasonably balanced take here. Feministe, aggressive and race/class/gender-y as usual, makes some important points. And as usual, Nestle’s analysis about social movement and elitism-speak is spot on.

But the essence of this piece is that people can’t afford to spend more on healthy food, and in most cases I think think that’s just wrong. But it’s still used as a argument killing catch-all, and it will be until we address the shameful rates of food insecurity in this country.

The foodie-elitist conflation goes way back, and there’s been a lot of interesting pieces on politics and elitism recently. But what really bothers me is the unapologetic know-nothingness of a lot of these claims. They’re usually from the right, and they’re often openly anti-science. But the important point is that these kinds of arguments never get much beyond the base of Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement. (below)

This is no surprise, really. These tactics function as discussion stoppers — essentially the rhetorical equivalent of just telling somebody to shut up. I show this graph to my students every semester, in an effort to get them to argue higher up this curve. If it’s easier said than done in my college classroom, I can see we’re going to have trouble parsing Palin’s “real America” in the 24/7 soundbite culture.

Yes, cost matters. And yes, culture matters. But Nestle, quoting Schlosser, is right: “social movements have to begin somewhere and several began with elites but ended up helping the poor and disenfranchised—the civil rights, environmental and women’s movements, for example.” Addressing these issues will require all manner of solutions, from all manner of perspectives. Branching AmeriCorps off into a FoodCorps, for example, is one small and recent step. But it’s a start.