What is Charlotte Allen arguing?
I’ve been secretly infatuated with American fast food since about the third grade, when I got my first taste of the Great Satan of the slow food movement, colloquially known as McDonalds. At the time, we were stationed in Thessaloniki, and the grand opening of the city’s first American fast food place was a major social occassion (prior to this, the only burger option was a local joint that gleefully misappropriated Snoopy’s likeness for a logo) . For what felt like three hours, I waited patiently behind a gaggle of excited Greeks for a cheeseburger, fries, and a milk shake. And, pace Dreher, Schwenkler and all the rest, it was glorious.
Since then, my palate has become slightly more sophisticated.* But I still have a soft spot for fast food of every variety, from Afghan kebabs to Vietnamese pho. Other than ending torture and elevating the gaffe-tastic Joe Biden to national prominence, I’m quite convinced that Obama’s visit to Ray’s Hellburger in Arlington was the best decision of his political career. In short, I am no locavore (though my parents probably qualify).
So you might think I’d nod approvingly at Charlotte Allen’s broadside against the foodies. And indeed, I’m sympathetic to a lot of what (I think) she’s getting at – people should be able to eat what they want; making goods cheaper has a real impact of our collective quality of life; taxing objectionable foodstuffs is pretty obnoxious, and so on and so forth.
But Allen’s op-ed transcends these commonsensical points in favor of something altogether more bizarre: she seems put-off by the very fact that people out there are interested in good food consumed in an environmentally-friendly manner. Reading this article, you get the sense that the thought of Michael Pollan collecting home-grown vegetables insults Allen’s sense of propriety. For example:
The most zealous of the spend-more crowd, however, are the food intellectuals who salivated, as it were, at a steep rise in the cost of groceries earlier this year, including such basics as milk and eggs. Some people might worry about the effect on recession-hit families of a 17% increase in the price of milk, but not Alice Waters, the food-activist owner of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant, who shudders at the thought of sampling so much as a strawberry that hasn’t been nourished by organic compost and picked that morning at a nearby farm — and thinks everyone else in America should shudder too.
Or take her stunning conclusion:
Those who think that there is something wrong with owning more than two pairs of sneakers or that exquisite fastidiousness about what you put into your mouth equals virtue need to be tele-transported back to, say, the Depression itself, when privation was in earnest and few people had telephones, much less cellphones. Read some 1930s memoirs: Back then, people who couldn’t afford “quality” furniture slept on mattresses on the floor and hammered together makeshift tables out of orange crates. They went barefoot during the summer and sewed their children’s clothes out of (non-organic) flour sacks. That was what “cheap” meant then — not today’s plethora of affordable goods that the social critics would like to take away from us.
I don’t know of any locavores pining for another Great Depression. Most seem more interested in fusing ethical concerns with good cooking. So why is Allen offended by the prospect of culinary excellence? More importantly, why is she so enthusiastic about her own pedestrian tastes (Ikea? Haagen-Das?)? Times past, conservatives (and I think this op-ed is supposed to be a conservative take on food culture) were actually concerned with pursuing excellence in a given field. Surely there is something to be said for a culinary approach that values good food over crass consumerism?
Granted, Allen gets at a serious argument when she criticizes proposals to tax cheap food. But these talking points sound awfully hollow after she gleefully defends corn syrup, one of the most subsidized agricultural products out there. Ignoring government-imposed barriers to local food consumption doesn’t exactly help her credibility, either.
The availability of cheap and plentiful food products at your local Safeway is undoubtedly a good thing. But Allen’s article doesn’t do justice to the serious questions surrounding food policy (subsidies, anyone?). Instead, she’s basically angry that other people’s gastronomical horizons extend beyond the drive-through and wants to reassure herself (loudly) that it’s OK to enjoy the occasional pint of Haagen-Das. But it occurs to me that even if we decide against imposing a particular legislative outcome, we can still make value judgments about the desirability of certain choices. All things being equal, good, locally-grown food is better than another trip to McDonalds, no matter what Charlotte Allen says.
*Read: McDonalds really is awful.