We Are What We . . .

ME: So, how did you enjoy the evening, mother?
MOTHER: I don’t know – your friends are kind of strange. All they want to talk about is food.
ME: That’s because if we talked politics we wouldn’t stay friends.

I read B. R. Meyers’ anti-foodie screed with a bit of discomfort. I am, after all, someone vain enough about his cooking to have posted annual menus of an eight-course dinner party I throw every Hanukkah.

On the other hand, I’m someone with an inherent suspicion of maven-hood, and the “foodie” is really a species of maven.

And on yet a third hand, I’m someone who has struggled (more correctly, who has lost the struggle) with the Jewish dietary laws, yet another angle on food-obsession that Meyers kind of breezes past in his rather Christian take on the whole food business.

So what does food mean to me?

* * *

To take my third perspective first: Nahmanides and Maimonides, two medieval rabbinical giants, disagreed on the essence of the dietary laws.

Nahmanides argued that there is an obscure spiritual meaning behind the dietary laws. The foods and food mixtures that are prohibited are, in some way, fundamentally displeasing to the Almighty – they are inherently impure. If one wishes to approach the divine, one should not only refuse to partake of these foods, but one should actively cultivate a disgust for them, as one would for any sinful act – to train one’s appetites so one desires the pure and abhors the impure, and thus bring one’s kavanah – one’s intentions or spiritual orientation – into line with one’s actions, infusing those actions with a truly God-oriented spirit.

Maimonides, on the other hand, argued that the dietary laws were the paradigm case of laws that you obey for the sake of obedience, that have rational basis at all – obedience is an act of pure faith. The meaning of the act is simply the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of obedience to the divine word – and, as such, the merit of the act is in proportion to the greatness of the sacrifice. So, since there is nothing inherently wrong with a B.L.T. or a fried oyster po-boy or a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, and one is merely sacrificing these delights in order to demonstrate one’s devotion to God, not only is there no reason to cultivate a disgust for these forbidden foods, but in fact cultivating such a disgust reduces the value of the act of obedience, for where is the glory in rejecting that which one finds disgusting? Rather, one should cultivate a desire for the forbidden, precisely so that one may earn more merit in the eyes of heaven for abstaining for the heaven’s sake.

There are shades of Euthyphro in this dispute. Is pork by nature impure, and therefore God forbids it, or is it impure only because God forbids it, and not because of anything to do with its own qualities. And, as with Plato’s dialogue, I don’t think there’s any actual resolution. There is something about the categories of “pure” and “impure” – on one level obviously arbitrary, and yet admitting to that arbitrariness dissolves the categories, and so one searches for something inherent to justify the categorization, knowing that, if one could be found, this would also, in a sense, dissolve the categories – “impure” would no longer be a spiritual category at all, since any material basis could in principle be extirpated.

And I can attest to having personally experienced both sides of the debate within my own psyche. I did not grow up adhering to the dietary laws at all, adopted them, bit by bit, in my adulthood, and then, much more recently, essentially abandoned them outside of the home. There were times when I felt intense desire for particular foods – and not necessarily when they were before me – and clung to the sense that I was earning merit by abstaining to compensate for the experience I was not having. But there were other times when I had internalized the system sufficiently to feel a genuine disgust for the idea of transgressing – particularly when I came face-to-face with the limits of my observance, and recognized the absurdity of the lines I had drawn. (I never limited myself to kosher establishments, for example, but I knew that if I ordered eggs over easy in a diner they would be fried on the same griddle as the bacon, and that knowledge didn’t just trouble me – there was a period when it actually made my gorge rise.)

Food rules have power. They are a way of delineating and enforcing ethnic and class boundaries. They are also a way of establishing dominance – or establishing a sphere of autonomy – in social situations. Meyers is appalled that the foodies he reviews look down their noses at guests who refuse to eat certain foods as being exceptionally rude, arguing that the host is the one with the responsibility to be hospitable, not the guest. But surely he’s aware that we live in an age of exceptional sensitivity on this point, with a proliferation of dietary requirements on the part of guests that can drive hosts to distraction. But what is the reason for this proliferation? To some extent, it’s based on genuine advances in medical knowledge; to some extent, it’s based on medical fads. But to some extent, I think, it is precisely about establishing that zone of personal autonomy onto which social pressures cannot impinge. Do most vegetarians really think they are going to change the world one person at a time? Or are they, more likely, saying: I am defining myself by this act. I make the rules that govern my life, starting with one of the most basic acts of all: what I eat.

I lost my own battle with the Jewish dietary laws in Iceland, of all places. I was with my wife and son, on vacation, and we were in a restaurant that served puffin and whale. And my son asked: could I try puffin? And in a moment, I had to decide. Would I say, “no, you may not, even though this is likely going to be your only opportunity, because God doesn’t want you to”? Or would I say, “sure – if you’re curious, give it a try, and if God has a problem with that it’ll be on my head.”

I chose the latter, chose the liberal virtues of curiosity and openness to experience over the conservative virtues of fidelity and restraint. But, as I understood at the time I said it, that wasn’t the end. “One little time you pull out a thread, and where has it led? Where has it led?” It led to an awakening to the way in which my food rules were, indeed, about power, and not about either Maimonides’ or Nahmanides’ approaches to the divine. I wasn’t glorying in the sacrifice I was making – in the absence of any concrete reward, I resented it. And I wasn’t living a blissful and harmonious pure life – I was acting like a tyrant towards my own family to try to shore up my own sense of self. Well, I decided that that sense of self needed firmer foundations.

I haven’t thrown over the rules entirely. We keep a kosher home. On Passover, we observe outside the home as well. But with exceptions that large, they aren’t really rules that define the self – they are rules that define membership in a community, awareness of and respect for a tradition to which we are no longer truly faithful adherents. But so be it.

* * *

Meyers doesn’t talk much about the “food rules” people, because he’s busy taking on the “food mavens.” But mavens have always been with us, and I find it very difficult to care that foodie-ism happens to be a socially-acceptable mavenhood of our age, or what that happens to mean. Think about the music mavens you know. Is there really any difference between the food maven who knows precisely where the best o-toro in New York is to be found, and the opera maniac who wouldn’t dream of listening to a less-than-sublime recording of Maria Callas singing Norma? Does that fact that music is a “real” art (in Meyers’ opinion) make the music maven any less insufferable than the chow hound?

I think it takes the foodies down a sufficient peg simply to point out that this is what they are: mavens. Maniacs who take an interest in a particular experience or branch of knowledge to an extreme, without actually necessarily becoming masters themselves. It’s worth underlining this difference. Anthony Bourdain, one of Meyers’ prime targets, is not famous for being one of the truly great chefs of our age. He’s famous for being one of the most popular food writers – for being, really, little more than an afficionado. I have read very little of Bourdain’s writing, I’ll admit, and one reason I had little interest in him is that he didn’t seem terribly interested in cooking so much as he had interest in showing off how awesome he was for knowing so much about food.

But cooking is a great deal of fun. Learning how a particular culinary trick is done, and then doing it, and then figuring out how to do it more efficiently and/or more idiosyncratically – that’s a great deal of fun. And it’s got virtually nothing to do with what the foodies typically write about. It’s craft, not mavenhood.

And cooking is a wonderful craft because it is really easy to share. Most people enjoy eating. Even if they don’t care about how to cook, and especially if they aren’t mavens – so long as they have a basic appreciation of the difference between good food and bad food, you can cook for them and they will show you appreciation. And you will be gratified.

Meyers, in his scathing attack on the foodies, comes off as something of a latter-day puritan. We shouldn’t care about food – we should be above that, focused on things that really matter, like our souls. It doesn’t matter what we put in our mouths – what matters is what comes out of them. But I don’t trust puritanism. Perhaps that’s the residue of my struggle with kashrut, but I think it runs deeper – at my most frum, I appreciated Jewish legalism precisely because it left you free to say: I’m going to see how far I can get within the rules. Can I make a delicious parve chocolate mousse, using egg whites and olive oil instead of cream. I can!

No, I think I don’t trust puritanism because I recognize the reverse snobbery involved. One can get into just as furious a competition over who lives more “simply” as one can over who is the bigger maven. But at least the mavens might be driving their particular chosen field – whether it’s food or music or hang gliding or whatever – forward, to greater achievement. What the puritans most often get to claim is sheer accumulation of wealth – disdain for the pleasures of life leaves lots of time and energy for working and piling up money. Which is all well and good – but I rather doubt Meyers wants to make his stand against Anthony Bourdain armed only with Max Weber.

I choose, in the end, to stand with the impassioned amateurs. I’m not a foodie. I’m not an anti-foodie. I just like to cook, and, for that matter, I like to eat. So sue me.