In Defense of Alice Waters

Friends and readers have been inquiring whether, given my previous praise for what I’ve called Alice Waters’s “culinary conservatism” (on which see more from Alan here and here), I’d have anything to say about Julie Gunlock’s criticisms of her project in the virtual pages of National Review Online. To be perfectly honest I’d much prefer just to let this one slide, but I’m pretty sure that bloggy ethics rule that out … so here goes.

Let’s begin with a story. I am, as it happens, presently working through some issues in ethical theory with a group of Berkeley undergraduates, and as is not at all uncommon in these sorts of circumstances I seem to be the only person in the room who thinks that value claims are more than an expression of Humean sentiments. “Murder is wrong”, say I. “But not always!” comes the reply. “Perhaps”, I grant, “but sometimes it is wrong, which just goes to show that rightness and wrongness are parts of the objective world.” “But how do you know?” comes the utterly predictable response. “For what would you say to someone who disagreed with you?”

At this point my tendency is to get rather agitated and ask them what they would say to someone who disagreed with them on whether the available fossil evidence proves that there once were dinosaurs, and this tends at the very least to throw them for a loop. But in the present context that’s neither here nor there: the immediate relevance of exchanges like this one lies in the disturbing extent to which subjectivism has corroded the foundations of our public discourse; hence “I think” or “To me” precedes nearly every sentence, senses of have taken the place of the real things, nonsensical talk of subjectivity waits lurking around every dialectical corner, and so on. But now compare my Berkeley undergraduates to Ms. Gunlock:

The truth is, organic food is an expensive luxury item, something bought by those who have the resources. Those who can afford it and want it should have it (my emphasis – JS), but organic food is not a panacea for the world’s ills.

Suppose we grant Gunlock the point about expense and luxury – though I’ll return to that in a moment. But why not just: Those who can afford it should have it? How exactly does “want” matter? (Are there cases in which people shouldn’t have what they want?) Is it really that impossible to wrap one’s mind around the idea that, just as there might be genuine relationships of superiority and inferiority among ways of life or novels or works of art or music, so the same might hold for what we eat? Can it be true that the very same movement that gives us the classicism of the New Criterion and George Will’s case against blue jeans is unable to recognize that our meals might also be part of what constitutes our lives as noble or, as the case may be, not? The “purpose of food”, writes Gunlock, “is nourishment” – but of course while that may be true enough for dogs and cats and horses, it’s no more true in our case than it is that the purpose of sex is procreation, the purpose of architecture providing shelter, or the purpose of music passing the time. Would the world really end if we allowed considerations other than wants and the almighty dollar to impact our choices about what we bring to our table?

And as to that almighty dollar: Gunlock quotes Waters as acknowledging the increased cost of local and organic food, though adding that “people [will] simply have to make the choice between expensive grapes and Nike tennis shoes”. Not good enough!, objects Gunlock:

What [Waters] fails to appreciate is that some people can’t buy those tennis shoes either.

Really? You think so? I mean, is this supposed to be news? No doubt Waters, squishy liberal that she is, is at least a bit sensitive to the fact that not everyone can afford to eat well; that doesn’t rule out, however, the possibility that those who can eat well, should, and that if you’re lucky enough to face the choice between grass-fed beef and cable TV it’s probably the latter that ought to go. As in any other case, figuring out what’s right demands attention to particular circumstances rather than universal rules; but given Gunlock’s rhetoric, it hardly seems “condescending” to say that matters pertaining to what the Slow Foodies like to call gastronomy often gets pretty short shrift in such deliberations.

Does eating well mean always eating organic? No, it doesn’t – and I’m quite confident that Waters wouldn’t dispute this. Nor does it mean always buying locally, always buying seasonally, always knowing your producers, and so on. But perhaps more than anything else, what eating well demands is cooking well, and then eating what you’ve cooked around a table and as a family: hence if there’s anyone who should be criticizing Waters’s case for buying fresh ingredients (lots of trips to the store!) and doing such things as cooking your own beans (takes hours!), it should be those parents who, unlike Gunlock, don’t or can’t manage to stay at home. But once again, making the case for the noble or virtuous nature of a certain way of life doesn’t mean making that life binding on everyone; Waters knows fully well that not all families manage to have a stay-at-home parent, and that those families with two working parents will have to cut corners when it comes to meals. This doesn’t, however, preclude her thinking that whenever it is possible, cooking should be given its due.

Look, though: I’ve joined in on criticizing Waters before, and the Slow Food people pretty much cut off contact with me after a pretty caustic column that I wrote for Culture11 about the genuinely out of touch and – dare I say it? – elitist elements of San Francisco’s “Slow Food Nation” extravaganza. It’s one thing, though, to raise criticisms of the way a message is being delivered, and quite another to use those criticisms as a tool for clumsily bludgeoning that message’s content. Grunlock of all people should be sensitive to the need to choose one’s words carefully … and NR, for that matter, shouldn’t lose sight of the possibility that attention to taste and respect for the wisdom of the past might have something to teach us about how we ought to eat.

(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth.)