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Meditation XXXI: On Sustenance

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 4, 2013
pp. 58-74 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0089

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Since there’s only one scene in this story, and it takes place at the McDonald’s out on McGalliard Road in Muncie, Indiana, I’ll first kill a little time discussing food, so that once we get there, we can quickly reconcile ourselves to a straightforward act of charity. Therefore, consider the following an irony-mitigating ramble, rather than an explanatory march, through the thickets of a subject dear to our hearts.

Some say that Alice Waters is responsible for making Berkeley, California, the epicenter of the current gastronomical earthquake, and while there’s exaggeration in that statement, it’s undeniable that California is a focus of food culture, thanks, in part, to Waters—but thanks as well to M. F. K. Fisher and Julia Child and, of course, the wine industry. Much of this focus presumably came into being when Waters (and Fisher) revolted against the saucy complications of French cuisine so pleasantly advocated by Child, in the process transforming Californians into devotees of not only food but also the culture that ripples out from food—magazines, television shows, cookbooks and high-end restaurants—a culture based on the assumption that food preparation takes just as much consciousness and skill as the practice of, say, painting or sculpting or composing music or writing poetry. Once food was granted this status, it was relatively easy to go on to mythologize the artists and glorify their creations, just as in the case of any other art. And, of course, hidden within this process was the assumption that the art of food depends, like any other art, on the connoisseur who is able to make distinctions imperceptible to most of us. For food to become art, then, requires a sort of silent food snobbishness accompanied by a voiced need for food education, because once food is recognized as an art, it only seems natural to add morality as the last and best ingredient.

Some also credit Chez Panisse with the moral seasoning of the current craze, a tang of self-justification derived from the free-speech and antiwar movements as well as from Flower Power, the Grateful Dead, Gay Pride, the commune—all forms of stylistic righteousness that characterized the 1960s and 1970s and that have somehow shifted over the years from preaching how to live to preaching how to eat. Whatever the exact origin, Berkeley’s contribution to food morality goes beyond mere flavoring, for the town is also the home of the Berkeley Bowl and the Edible Schoolyard and Michael Pollen, who teaches at the university and authors such straightforwardly moral tracts as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. You can almost hear the resounding Yes! as the Berkeley population responds to the rhetorical question lucidly posed in Pollen’s books: Isn’t gastronomy even more important in a country fighting an epidemic of obesity, which strikes poor people who eat a vitiated diet of fast food contaminated with high-fructose corn syrup and the other dubious products of a food industry represented by an army of lobbyists and subsidized by the federal government? Yes, oh, yes, indeed!

To be fair, the moral-flavored art of food holds sway in the national as well as the local consciousness. In fact, many if not most Americans would probably agree with the residents of Berkeley that food preparation is an art and food’s consumption a worthy cultivation of taste in the broader sense. There are even foodies, moral foodies, in Indiana. On a recent trip I noticed that my friend the Professor had suddenly become one of them. She’s always liked to eat, but everything intensified when she abandoned her usual fields of Shakespeare and Anglo-Saxon poetry to write a modest little article on The Brothers Karamazov, interpreting the novel in terms of Smerdyakov’s vocation as a cook with an expertise in making soups. Everyone acknowledged that it was a good article, and soon my friend embarked on a long, ambitious book about Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and started calling herself the Professor, not in reference to her employment—teaching English at a local college—but in joking deference to...

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