C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters that there are two types of gluttony: one of much, and one of little. Modern versions of gluttony amongst sophisticated people, he argued, are often characterized by close attention to diet and an insistence on less of one thing or another—even when it puts other people at an inconvenience. Such a person is wholly enslaved to sensuality, but doesn’t realize it because “the quantities involved are small.” (Or local/artisan/organic?) Yet “what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?”
Considering Artisan Coffee and Wonder Bread
This week, I’ve read a defense of bad coffee, and a defense of white bread—alongside a story about artisan wheat and another about artisan apples. The latter stories tell me all that I’m missing by indulging in big Costco loaves or grocery bags of granny smiths; the former tell me that it’s okay to love those mainstreamed, instant-pleasure sorts of things you pick up at big box stores or diners: “the big, red jars of Folgers, the yellow Chock-full-o-Nuts, the sky blue cans of Maxwell House,” or the bread “engineered and designed to look like a streamlined wonder, like an edible piece of modern art.”
Funny—New York Times reporter Ferris Jabr says of that same bread, “America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health.” He speaks of the glory of wheat grown in bygone days:
From the 18th century to the early 19th century, wheat was grown mainly near the coasts. During this time, immigrants and American emissaries introduced numerous varieties — Mediterranean, Purple Straw, Java, China, Pacific Bluestem — which breeders tinkered with, adapting them to various soils. All that preindustrial wheat was a living library of flavors: vanilla, honeysuckle, black pepper. Agricultural journals of the time noted the idiosyncrasies of wheat kernels — whether they were red and bearded, velvety or ‘‘plump, round, of a coffeelike form’’ — and distinguished wheats that produced ‘‘excellent’’ and ‘‘well-flavored’’ bread from those that yielded ‘‘inferior’’ loaves.
Sounds like a wine connoisseur—not someone tasting a kernel of wheat. Yet the same attention to details of taste, color, texture are displayed in this New York Timesarticle about artisan apples: “the best-flavored heirloom apples,” writes author David Karp, “offer an added dimension of intensity and complexity akin to that of fine wines.” He writes that “many consumers are fed up with mass-marketed fruit chosen mainly for looks and shelf life. Their current quest is to restore the flavor and eating quality, despite the compromises required by large-scale production.”
But one wonders whether eventually, our quest for artisan apples or wheats may reach the point Keith Pandolfi describes in his bad-coffee defense—whether we’ll reach peak artisan, and develop a sort of nostalgia for the old cheap versions we used to get:
Maybe it all started a few months ago when I found myself paying $18 for a pound of what turned out to be so-so coffee beans from a new roaster in my neighborhood. It was one of those moments when I could actually imagine my cranky diner-coffee-swilling Irish grandfather rising from the grave and saying, “You know what, kid? You’re an idiot.”
It’s more than just money, though. I’m as tired of waiting 15 minutes for my morning caffeine fix as I am waiting the same amount of time for my whiskey, cardamom, and pimento bitters cocktail at my local bar. I am tired of pour-overs and French presses, Chemexes and Aeropresses. “How would you like that brewed?” is a question I never want to hear again.
… Cheap coffee is one of America’s most unsung comfort foods. It’s as warming and familiar as a homemade lasagna or a 6-hour stew. It tastes of midnight diners and Tom Waits songs; ice cream and cigarettes with a dash of Swiss Miss. It makes me remember the best cup of coffee I ever had. Even though there was never just one best cup: there were hundreds.
Alongside Pandolfi, I have to admit that I really don’t mind buying a granny smith or a fuji (though red delicious are too mealy to be enjoyable). They’re both tart, crunchy, and taste great with either a block of aged cheddar or a couple tablespoons of peanut butter. That’s all I need. Not to say I won’t go to an apple orchard and go crazy over all the gorgeous heirloom varieties, bringing home several to try. But I don’t feel dogmatic about it.
And that’s what Pandolfi—and many others I talk to—seem to be responding to: a growing sense of dogma or religious devotion surrounding our food industry. They sense that one’s food choices can prompt a bevy of applause or disdain: some may cheer loudly as you go buy that Egg McMuffin, but others will shoot you a look of disgust as they munch on their artisan croissants—or perhaps sip their local, freshly-pressed green juices. That the disdain often goes both ways: you’re just as likely to get eye rolls if you put kombucha and kale in your shopping cart.
There’s an increasing “fixation on the virtue of food” amongst Americans, Claudia McNeilly writes for Broadly, one that can have very dangerous consequences. I’ve touched on it in blogpostsaboutfood in the past—but McNeilly explores one of its furthest, and most dangerous, manifestations: orthorexia. A sort of eating disorder only recently identified by the medical community, this attitude is characterized by an obsession with “virtuous” (aka healthy) food, and a refusal to eat anything outside those specific boundaries.
I know about this from firsthand experience. There was definitely a time in college when I struggled with obsession over the healthy. It’s easy, when you begin to develop legalistic attitudes toward food, to gradually shrink your idea of what’s permissible. To slowly go from occasionally avoiding meats or dairy products, perhaps enjoying Meatless Monday and saving sugar for weekends, to refusing to eat anything fried, sugary, or fatty… to then thinking that all meat, dairy, gluten, and egg products are bad for you… to then eating a plate of raw fruits and vegetables without salad dressing, because you’re afraid of the calories.
When food becomes an end in and of itself, it becomes destructive.
Not everyone obsesses over healthy food in an orthorexic fashion—but there are other food obsessions that can dominate our lives. We can become fixated on the artisan, the local, the organic, the fair trade. We can refuse to drink or eat anything from McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts. We can choose to only buy groceries from Whole Foods, or refuse to eat our grandmother’s casserole because it’s got Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup in it.
But at this point, food ceases being food, and becomes religion. Our world has developed an ethics of dietary consumption that worships the self, the idealized body. Whether our diet of choice consists of juicing, raw food, paleo dieting, vegan eating—or eating at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut every night—modern styles of eating tend to resemble religious codes more than they do a set of gastronomic guidelines.
I was talking to my younger brother, a barista at a local indie coffee shop, about the bad coffee story. He summed up his views on the subject thus: “It’s good to be capable of having a bad cup, or good cup. You never know who might be brewing your coffee. The key is to appreciate the art, and be content with the crap.”
Seemed like wise words to me. Hopefully, with time, we will learn that all food is to be appreciated, in moderation—whether it be heirloom apples or Folgers coffee.