Tuesday, September 1, 2009

food righteousness

so with the increase in my dinners, and the temptation to micro-blogging (yes, i'm looking at you twitter) it has been predictably quiet around these parts. however the temptation to put fonts to computer screen has grown, especially as i have been wrestling with a couple issues. swirling and twirling around my head. i am hoping that by articulating them they will become articulate. i know that sounds a little backward. in the past i think it worked the other way around. one didn't feel the need to send one's thoughts out into the world until the time that they were fully formed, but count among the many that seem to think any damn thing they think is worth sending out into the ether of the internet.

it has been a year now since i started doing my dinners around town. from the beginning i was determined to buy as many local products as i could. inspired in part by reading michael pollan, inspired in part by the zeitgeist, and inspired in part by my desire to somehow appease the silent chorus who might have judged me if i didn't. as the months went by i began to grow into the actual motivation behind what i did. giving money to local farmers and artisans was as much about keeping money in the community, supporting people i had come to know and respect, and recognizing quality as it was about any foodie cred that i might have gained along the way.

but as i became more and more aware of the culture surrounding the locavore movement the more distasteful i found it. and this is the crux of complaint. in so many ways we (humans - all of us) find those things in our life which justify us, which make us feel pure and good, which scrub us clean from indiscretions that stain. and we cling to those things, we point back to them as artifacts of our self-justification. to put it bluntly, it allows one to say, "i may be an asshole, but at least i eat organic, sustainable, local food - what about you."

when i worked at starbucks i realized this tendency as well. i divided the workers into two classes (my temptation to sweeping generalizations has never been more apparent): the law crowd and the grace crowd. the law crowd loved the rules and the regulations. loved pouring the tea and the lemonade to the exact measurement required by starbucks standards, what is more, they even loved the order. in other words, tea first then lemonade. and, if you deviated, they felt nothing but scorn for you. then there was the grace crowd. standards be damned. i know how to make a frappuccinno. a little bit of this and a little bit of that, blend, presto. these folks (if you can't tell, included me) found pleasure in not being tied down by rules, and certainly didn't find their identification in whether or not they followed proper procedure. they found their identity in ignoring procedure. regardless of where i, or my other co-workers, found their identity, it all revealed the temptation toward self-justification. in other words, i was better than that law crowd, those legalists. and of course, they thought they were better than me, the rule breaker.

so, back to the foodie crowd. this tendency, this human tendency has grown even more apparent and obvious as i have moved deeper and deeper into food culture. self-righteousness attached to the purchasing of certain products. self-righteousness attached to the promotion of certain labels. it is ethical to buy local, it is un-ethical to buy anything that requires a boatload of fossil fuel to get it to you. it is ethical to buy hand made, hand crafted items, unethical to buy processed. It is a moral duty to buy organic (an increasingly meaningless term). mind you, it has nothing to do with preference. for instance, “i don't like store bought bologna, i like hand made salami.” it has become moral, “you should not like store bought bologna, and if you do, there is something wrong with you.”

this need to divide and conquer through the power of moral judgment is somehow a deep down hidden thing. it operates in all of us. it certainly does in me. and despite the fact that i recognize it, i am not excused from it, or exempt from it's power.
i suppose what bothers me most about the self-righteousness of food culture is the lack of any moral touchstone. the foundational elements that give rise to moral judgments is sorely lacking. it's almost assumed. it looks like this "of course it's good to buy local". i keep looking for more than that. i am sure that someone, somewhere outlined the proper morality of the locavore philosophy, and perhaps at one time the rudimentary reasons were at the forefront of everyone's mind. but now it has become a dogma, an assumed dogma. with nothing to point back to, nothing really to ground it. the logic is the dogma, and the dogma the logic. the self-referential element of foody moralism bankrupts it, in my opinion. it seems any more the argument is, moral/ethical high ground is preferable because it is both moral/ethical and located on higher ground than where you stand.

having said all that, i still buy local when i can. i buy organic/sustainable when i can. i do so because i think there are ample reasons to purchase these products. i think it is good to support a local economy. i think it is right to give money to hardworking and excellent artisans.

it is when these codes of behavior are universalized that i begin to get creeped out. “because i do this, we should all do this.” by simply posing the question why, you begin to peel back the successive layers of reasoning and justification. what you uncover is not some universal standard but merely personal preference. that may be enough to explain the preference of any one individual but not enough to expand that into judgment of those who don't follow suit.

and I have waited until now to say this, the core of the gospel message is that the whole earth is the lords. The cattle on the hills, the lilies of the field, the seeds bringing forth flower and fruit. For the Christian, every behavior is shot through with ethical significance. When we act in the world we are to bear the image of the creator god. If this does not imbue our actions with the greatest significance I do not know what would. This does not necessarily entail buying local, or even organic products. But it does have something to say about how we treat the planet that was given to us, the earth over which we have been charged with responsibility, and the animals which we tend. As with most things, the gospel, when truly believed, gathers up all things and shows us how we are to live in the world…not blindly grasping at this or that in our vain attempt to justify ourselves, but clearly and directly because we have been justified already.