Published March 18, 2009
George F. Will calls Mary Eberstadt “intimidatingly intelligent.” George must be easily intimidated these days, because Mary is one of the nicest (and funniest) people I know.
She’s also our premier analyst of American cultural foibles and follies, with a keen eye for oddities that illuminate just how strange the country’s moral culture has become.
In mid-2008, Mary penned the “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” the best defense of the encyclical written on its 40th anniversary. (If you missed it, you can retrieve it at www.firstthings.com). Now, in Policy Review, she’s written “Is Food the New Sex?”, a brilliant dissection of culinary puritanism and bedroom libertinism that includes the greatest subhead in recent magazine history: “Broccoli, Pornography and Kant.” But don’t let the invocation of the Sage of Koenigsberg put you off your feed, so to speak; the article is quite accessible to those who last encountered The Critique of Pure Reason via Cliff Notes.
Mary Eberstadt’s argument is neatly conveyed by her fictitious, but telling, tale of two women.
Betty is 30-year-old Jennifer’s grandmother. Imagine Betty when she was 30 — in, say, 1958. Betty didn’t think about food a lot. She cooked and served her family lots of red meat, baked cookies and pies using refined sugar, gave the kids whole milk, got many of her vegetables out of tin cans, snuck in the occasional Swanson’s TV Dinner, and imagined that the only critical judgment involved in eating centered on the question, “Does it taste good?”
By contrast, her granddaughter Jennifer has settled opinions about food — lots of settled opinions, which she thinks of as moral judgments engaging serious questions of good and evil. She wouldn’t ingest a bacon cheeseburger if she were starving. Swordfish steaks are forbidden, because swordfish are an endangered species. Frozen foods are for cannibals and Republicans; “organic” is in, refined sugar is out; tinned anything is yuck, because of both the food and the tin can.
On the other hand, if Betty imagined judgments about food to involve relatively trivial questions of taste, she knew that there was an area of domestic life in which grave questions of right and wrong really were involved — and they had to do with sex. Sex outside marriage was bad, period.
Jennifer, despite her moralizing about food and her censoriousness about lardbellies watching the Super Bowl while scarfing down potato chips and California dip, is unprepared to make moral judgments about sex the way Betty was. In fact, Jennifer believes that there are no serious moral judgments involved in sex (of whatever declination) “so long as no one else gets hurt.”
Sex once involved taboos, transmitted by culture and powerfully enforced by society. Food is now taboo-ridden among upscale young people, while life for many American 30-somethings is a sexual free-fire zone. In that zone, moral judgments are not only eliminated but actively proscribed by strong taboos: “Why are you so judgmental?” “Why are you imposing your values on others?” Violate those taboos, and you risk the kind of ostracism once visited upon Hester Prynne.
What’s going on here? Mary Eberstadt suggests that a weird inversion is underway, driven by unfocused but slightly guilty consciences: “The rules being drawn around food receive some force from the fact that people are uncomfortable with how far the sexual revolution has gone — and not knowing what to do about it, they turn for increasing consolation to mining morality out of what they eat.”
When I was a teenager, one of the reasons Americans went to Europe was to eat, it being assumed that American cuisine was inferior. Which it was, in the main. Today, there are very, very few wonderfully edible things that you can’t find in American stores and restaurants. Indeed, one of the signal improvements in American culture over the past two generations is its new respect for food.
But better cooking and a deepened respect for the culinary arts are one thing; misplaced moral judgments are another. If Whole Foods is a culture’s answer to the demise of the Sixth Commandment, that culture is suffering from moral indigestion.
— George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.