In B. R. Myers’ recent Atlantic article ‘The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,’ Gabrielle Hamilton – and her tough, vivid memoir – come in for a beating for belonging to the Anthony Bourdain school of macho food writing: ‘it’s quite something to go bare-handed up an animal’s ass… Its viscera came out with an easy tug; a small palmful of livery, bloody jewels that I tossed out into the yard.’ Driven by a passionate defense of animal rights, flavored with Catholic guilt and vegetarian revulsion, Myers eviscerates the foodie, that particular modern version of the gourmand of years past. He argues that for all the Michael Pollan sanctimony about looking an animal you’re going to eat right in the eye as a kind of atonement, this is just glorified gluttony – a deadly sin, if we hadn’t all forgotten? Furthermore, despite the hype about locavore sustainability as a social good, foodie-ism remains a marker of elite social status: “It has always been crucial to the gourmet’s pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford.” Foodies have the money and leisure to turn a bodily need into a sensual desire, and then, often, to write about it, for a community of like-minded, like-walleted readers.
At the other end of the moralizing spectrum, however, Eric Schlosser, author of the 2000 exposé Fast Food Nation, recently argued in the Washington Post that the elitist tag is a bait and switch. Dismissing those who pay a premium for organic-this and local-that as effete, arugula-munching liberals obscures the fact that the real elites are, as always, the billionaires: in this case, the owners of the massive agribusiness conglomerates that dominate America’s food production. The sinful elites are those currently pushing through a bill in Iowa to ban photographs of industrial farming operations, not Michelle Obama and her vegetable garden, or the diners at Brooklyn farm-to-table restaurants. The latter might be easier to satirize, but our moral outrage should be directed at those who keep fresh, healthy food out of the hands of the poor and poison the landscape while they’re at it.
In this fraught argument over the proper way to understand, appreciate, and write about food, the foodie memoir has a peculiar status. On the one hand, it participates in larger debates over food by advocating a particular way of eating – usually slowly, thoughtfully, with family and friends, using local ingredients, and if possible while watching the sunset over a Tuscan hillside. There are variations on this theme, and the occasional admission of a guilty pleasure in something mass-produced, but nobody has yet gotten rich writing My Life in Twinkies. On the other hand, the foodie memoir is necessarily personal – what is more intimate than a rumbling stomach, or tastebuds dancing in response to a perfect mouthful? The British food columnist Nigel Slater’s excellent Toast, for instance, is subtitled The Story of a Boy’s Hunger. How is that hunger, and its sating, to be shared? Foodie memoirs have long taken their cue from the lyrical Francophile M.F.K. Fisher, and tend to combine elements of the elegiac and the therapeutic. Often the writer is trying to recapture and recreate an idyllic, delicious childhood kitchen (Ruth Reichl), and sometimes to escape an upbringing of frozen dinners (Nigel Slater.) Healing journeys abound (Julie Powell) and more often than not there is some revelatory time spent absorbing the food and life lessons of different cultures, most often France or Italy, where the foodie memoir merges with the travelogue (Eat, Pray, Love.)
Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter combines plenty of these tropes on its journey from mythical childhood kitchen to thriving restaurant (she owns and runs Prune, in Manhattan’s East Village.)