Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ranting About Locavore/Organic/Eco Sanctimony

This essay, originally published some years ago, sparked negative response from readers who found it bizarrely aggressive and angry. I've added a postscript explaining.

This morning "Up With Chris Hayes" had chef Tom Colicchio on. Hayes played a hilarious parody clip where sanctimonious diners grill their waiter about the organic and local credentials of the chicken - and of the chicken's feed - until, finally, to everyone's delight, the waiter brings out the fowl's resume, explaining that its name was Colin, and....

After that, Chris asks Colicchio a reasonable question:
"At one level, there's a critique of the current industrial food system that says "we have this huge directory of farms, subsidies, lots of cheap calories, corn gets in everything because we're subsidizing corn, etc." And the reaction is to create something that's more local-farm-to-table. But that can sometimes feel fetishistic. So what is the middle path in-between knowing the name of your chicken...and eating nothing but canned goods and sugary sodas?"
Hayes goes on to mock this "bourgeois hipster obsession", but that's only half right. The style may be hipster, but the impulse itself is pure bourgeois. Since the dawn of humanity, the very root of classism has been the visceral feeling that those beneath us on the social ladder are filthy. It sounds archaic, I know, but don't be sure such thinking doesn't remain lodged in our collective DNA. It plays into this phenomenon, albeit stealthily.

Have you ever observed shoppers at Whole Foods? With their natural fiber carrying bags and their exorbitant wild-caught arctic char and their glossy Yoga Journals and their Priuses, they're living a certain lifestyle, and they are Well. Really really Well. The wellness is high. And they're marketed to, fervidly, along that line. If the messaging was completely explicit, the tagline would be "Whole Foods: Flattering Your Smug Wellness".

It's a type. To recall a bygone vulgarism, their shit don't stink. Remember the Food Emporium jingle? The evil genius who wrote it completely understood this mindset. See how skillfully he gets inside the narcissism and patronization of it all:
"Someone made a store just for me
Someone's got my kind of quality
Someone got the message that people like things better
Even when they're shopping for
The simple things."

Here it is, in fact:

As I explained in my screed about Panera, I don't deny that therein lies an uncomfortable resemblance to my chowhound shtick. Yeah, I'm a picky mo-fo myself, obviously, when it comes to food. But this is a very different sort of pickiness. It's all about self-image.

Whole Foods shoppers imagine themselves as glowing with vitality. That's how the company's marketing attempts to mirror them, and I assume they know their customers. And it's by no means irrelevant that these shoppers are paying through the nose for the Whole Foods vitality experience. But the sanctimonious, eco-conscious, mega-well people wandering around Whole Foods with their environmentally green hued injection-molded plastic baskets appear to be as fat and distracted and grim and messed up and sickly as anyone else. And the deeper reality, never explicitly called out, is that they're all rich.

The experience of pursuing a premium level of wellness and a premium level of eco-consciousness and a premium level of sanctimony is available only to premium people. Poor people are lucky to eat at all. You know...the filthy poor people who eat the sort of shit which a glowing-with-vitality and expensively self-actualized Whole Foods shopper would never touch in a million years.

Same for restaurants catering to fervid locavores. Don't believe for a second it's not just yet another trendy way to indulge rich people in their desperate urge for a sense of elevation. Money, in and of itself, ought to bring an elevated sensation, but doesn't. It's just green paper. So many wealthy people desperately try to consume their way to that sensation. But when it comes to nutrition, it's a fool's errand. We spend our lives soaking in toxins and impurities. That stuff's everywhere, it can't be avoided, and it's absurd to assume you're rising above in any meaningful way via the purchase of eco/organic/local/free-trade wares marketed to flatter your self-image of wholesome purity.

Consider: while the government has no way to track each soybean or spinach leaf, they do know the quantity grown and the quantity purchased, and the inconvenient truth is that way more organic food is sold than is grown. Get it? If you believe you're being told the true story of your food much of the time, I've got some pink-sludge horsemeat hamburger to sell you. And even legitimately "organic" foods aren't what you think. Organic standards were diluted and corrupted years ago. Believe me, your free range chicken is not a healthy chicken. Unless you're prepared to walk the walk and go "back to the land", you're mostly just up-paying for a false sense of confidence and superiority.

So, sorry, sanctimonious wellness strivers. Your bubble is illusory. You will more than likely get cancer, anyway. You're not shielded. You're not elite. You overpay for smug delusion.

But you know what? I myself buy organic when I can (especially with concentrated foods like juices and butters). And I try to buy local when I can. And I even shop at Whole Foods sometimes (for sale-priced produce and a few brands I can't find elsewhere, e.g. Taste Nirvana coconut water). But there's a difference: I don't do so with a prissy sense of elevation. I don't drink the (organic, fair-trade) Kool-Aid. Chris Hayes asked about a middle path, and, for me, that involves stripping away the sanctimony, obsession, and delusion.

I don't delude myself about a bubble of purity and wellness - about transcending the squalor of plebeian existence. I just eat as healthily as I can afford to. That's it! When I eat organic and local, I accept the reality that I'm paying up a steep curve of declining results for the luxury of perhaps doing a scant notch better for myself. All with the wry understanding that I'll likely be run over by a bus on the way home.

Above all, be real. You can't be squeaky clean. You're neither virtuous nor pure. Purchasing fair trade coffee doesn't right your myriad eco wrongs, and organic cotton fiber clothing will not elevate you. And neither will a conventional hamburger and fries nor a slice of corporate white bread defile you. You come pre-defiled, and to imagine otherwise is to be an entitled, rich, narcissistic ninny.

No matter what, chemicals will keep pouring into you (breathe much?). A bowlful of Rice Krispies with milk from Stupid Farms in Ohio won't make the slightest diff. But, if you can, sure, by all means, do your best. Favor the organic; favor the local, favor fresh in-season (lowercase) whole foods. Just don't make it a religion, be grateful you can afford the capricious luxury - recognizing that's all it really is - and every once in a while send a check to help support those who'd be deliriously grateful for a box of Oreos. Because actual hunger is where the real problem lies, and where our money can do the most good.

If you think I'm ranting with more anger than is appropriate, then you may not be considering the full breadth of my argument. I'm not over-clucking my tongue at a silly food trend, or acidly judging people for patronizing a retail chain I happen to dislike. What I'm describing is something larger: a creepy pattern in the food world of pandering to the ugliest sort of classism. What's worse, a great many people fall for it.

Classism was, until fairly recently, quite open and acceptable. But nowadays that sort of thing has become taboo, and deeply repressed. So consumers, unaware subliminal buttons are being pushed, fail to notice that messages apparently speaking to their desire for sparkly, spiritual, well-scrubbed shiny good health actually appeal to darker sensibilities, e.g. a sense of sanctimonious superiority to one's social inferiors - those dirty, unwashed, impure souls down the ladder.

We have no idea this is happening because it's all so repressed (political correctness is a dangerous thing; I'd rather have folks warmly calling me "jewboy" than live in a society nervously feigning color-blindness). So I feel obliged to yell a bit to shake folks out of the trance.

For most of human history, people down the social ladder from us were perceived to eat filthy disgusting things. These days, millionaires swoon over tacos and dumplings, but the same prejudice has taken on new forms....all of them walled up in our dark mental recesses. And there's nothing marketers like better than an opportunity to engage a walled-up impulse.


Muscle_Burst said...

I got the 2nd video to work, the Food Emporium one. I couldn't get the first video though. Only seven seconds long about the middle ground. Then, the next video plays about NRA and gun control.

The trick in my opinion is to eat raw vegan, or to eat the right food groups. A Dole banana that is sprayed a whole lot is still better for you than a local, organic, free-range slab of meat. Not to mention a whole lot cheaper.

Jay Verkuilen said...

That Food Emporium commercial is a great example. It even has an egregious "gear shift" modulation at the end of the jingle.

Jim Leff said...

Yep, but don't blame the composer. He's doing a great job at tonally matching the saccharine, sanctimonious narcissism of the ad campaign!

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