Picture yourself-- OK, I'm picturing myself, but I'd like to think that other people think these things as well-- walking down the streets of Paris, on a perfect June day. You see the cafes, the roofs of the grand boulevards. And then you see a McDonald's, and a braying American couple walking out, and you think “fucking Americans,” whether with contempt if you're not an American, or shame if you are.
Or you're at the grocery store, and you see an overweight woman in cheap clothes buying a bag of Doritos, wearing worn-out sweatpants, with two screaming children, and you think what white trash she must be.
Or you see a hippie guy buying organic spelt cookies, and you think how unbelievably oversensitive and snotty he must be.
The point is this, that our moral judgments are, perhaps, at their bluntest when it comes to eating. Food, for most people, other than those (lucky or unlucky, I don't know) few who can simply view it as fuel, isn't just food. And that goes double for my people, who seem to have the weirdest goddamn relationship to the things they eat.
As many chefs, journalists, and others make a point that for so many people in the developed world, food is a way to forget the pains and difficulties and boredom of normal life, the adult version of a security blanket. You don't think about your shit job, your failing relationship, the way your savings account never seems to grow when your mouth is stuffed with junk food, dopamine firing through one's synapses, eyes aglow in a computer screen, an ideal target for the legions of predatory marketers working in the service of the processed food industry.
And when it's not metabolic therapy, it's quite often a stance, implicit or explicit, about your beliefs about health, about what constitutes normal, about your perceived cultural status. It starts from birth-- parents nag their children about “starving kids in Africa,” and grows from there.
There is the health obsession, the belief that food is a sort of medicine. People assume that they can extend their lives by consuming enough green tea or goji berries. They go on restrictive and hermetic diets that divide all food into balms and poisons. They devote themselves to food-oriented approaches to life, whether paleo or raw vegan or gluten-free, that seem to promise deliverance through right eating.
Or there is the attempt to seek culture through food, to travel one's taste buds, to find the most authentic and local cuisine, to source rare items and fuss over their terroir, to chase down new restaurants-- the chef trained at El Bulli! they fly their sashimi in from Tsukiji every day!-- and revel in the sheer refinement and enlightenment of one's tastes.
There are romantics, who look to communal feasts in Italy, to meat curing barns in France, to fishing villages in Japan as an idealistic escape route, to imagine a (patently false) time when all food was simple and homemade and ineffably lovely.
Running opposed, there are the hypermoderns, perhaps best embodied by that Dane Cook of the food world, Guy Fieri, who attempt to revel in processed sugar and saturated fat, claiming that they get it, and that their tastes are that much more "real."
And more recently, in the vein of Michael Pollan, there is the politicization of the menu, the search for ever more sustainable food. A great many vegetarians will demonstrate the evidence for the inefficiency of meat consumption and the environmental and social disasters wreaked by the meat industry. In their wake, anti-vegetarians will denounce these arguments as self-righteous and ill-informed. In the pages of Slate and the Huffington Post, columnist after columnist holds the fork and spoon as tools of revolution on par with the stars and stripes over the Delaware River, the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin.
What ties all of these perspectives together is that they posit one's own hedonism as ideology, and attempt to transform consumer choice into an intellectual position, and attempt to show one's own consumer choices as the most “correct.”
As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in Distinction, the taste positions of the ruling class are overwhelmingly deemed the standard against which all else is measured, thereby giving anything that runs counter, at best, a certain populist appeal. Bourdieu mostly concentrated on film and music, but the argument could readily be extended to food. After all, there's a reason that when we talk about refinement, the word we use is “taste.”
I've been guilty of all of these tendencies myself, and I've been guilty of making all the presumptions I mentioned my introduction, and I've been guilty of eating because it's an act of self-medication-- I daresay most anyone who reads this will have been guilty of all these things as well. I don't want to declaim for or against any of the aforementioned positions-- I have my opinions, but those really aren't relevant to the discussion at hand.
Something so simple as a biological imperative becomes so fraught with complexity and ethical turpitude, and oftentimes the more cogent we try to make our habits and our aesthetic tastes, the more ethically and intellectually ambiguous they become, because now we have a claim to defend.
It's not like we have an option not to do so, because regardless of whether or not we choose to make such explicit decisions, those around us choose to, and view our acts from their positions. Hold your steak knife close, dear reader, lest you be identified as an enemy, and feel the need to defend your honor.