The pleasure principle

Cruelty-free gourmet
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Gourmet is a word that almost visibly oozes pretentiousness, but if we are to believe the writer B.R. Myers, it also carries an implication of moral obtuseness. Myers is the contrarian whose 2001 Atlantic piece "A Reader's Manifesto" pointed out that many of our most lauded writers are in fact bad writers and frauds; he is, in other words, a bold debunker of received wisdom, and his current piece, "Hard to Swallow" (in the September 2007 Atlantic), takes a demolitionist's view of our epoch's uncritical celebration of gastronomy. While I dislike and shun the word gourmet, interestingly, Myers reserves his sharpest animus for the related term gourmand. He might have a point.

Nonetheless, however much one might enjoy the spectacle of an erudite Roundhead's upsetting the Cavaliers' banquet table and sweeping their ill-gotten foie gras onto the floor, one has no desire to be a Roundhead. According to Myers, "no reformer ever gave a damn about fine dining" — an eloquently phrased truism that might or might not be true but certainly reveals Myers to be puritanical about food, hostile to taking pleasure in eating, and not necessarily someone you hope shows up at your next dinner party or even rides with you on the elevator.

Is there no habitable country between the frozen wasteland of virtue and the sweaty jungle of debauchery? Can Roundheads and Cavaliers never shake hands and make peace and sit down to a banquet — a banquet without lobster boiled alive, perhaps, or other morally problematic foods, but a banquet nonetheless, replete with dishes everyone can enjoy and is capable of enjoying?

The world, after all, abounds in culinary treats that can be had without mistreating animals, or suspending or distorting or denying our empathy for those animals. If human beings have a transcendent quality, it is our ability to feel what another creature feels, to stand in someone else's shoes: there but for the grace of God go I. We are indeed diminished, morally and emotionally, when we decline to see that other sentient creatures are in some sense our kin, and that their suffering is not so very different from our own. But we are diminished, too, when we dismiss the pleasures of the senses, the arts of living on this sensuous earth. Life is lived best when lived in the round.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

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