You Are What You Don’t Eat - Noah Rothman, Commentary Magazine (2022)

Kooks Burritos—a food truck that served patrons in Portland, Oregon—was a smashing success. Its proprietors became local celebrities. In one interview with a Portland journalist, the truck’s owners, Kali Wilgus and Liz Connelly, confessed that they had the idea for their little food truck following a trip to Mexico. There, they fell in love with the cuisine, asked local chefs to share their recipes and techniques, and brought them back to the Pacific Northwest. Soon enough, the phenomenon’s origin story became a subject of outrage. The two women were accused by the city’s identity-obsessed press of being “white cooks bragging about stealing recipes from Mexico.”

In 2017, the Portland Mercury placed their names on an ignoble list of “white-owned appropriative restaurants.” Exclaimed the Mercury: “Because of Portland’s underlying racism, the people who rightly owned these traditions and cultures that exist are already treated poorly.” Wilgus and Connelly were accused of “erasing and exploiting their already marginalized identities for the purpose of profit and praise.” Kooks’s online reviews went south and business dried up. The truck was soon forced to fold—not because the food these two women made was bad, but because it was good.

In 2018, Abe Conlon won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region for his work at Fat Rice. The restaurant had been a local favorite since it opened its doors in 2012. In 2015, it was proclaimed by Chicago magazine “the most universally beloved restaurant in Chicago.” It specialized in cuisine from the Chinese autonomous region of Macau. Situated across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong, Macau was a Portuguese colony from 1783 until 1976.

In the summer of 2020, the restaurant’s proprietors sought to convey their support for the anti-police protests that had erupted across the country with some Instagram activism. So the restaurant posted a few anodyne images of protests and a message: “We remain dedicated to our values, we oppose all forms of racism, and we stand with those fighting for justice and equality in our communities in Chicago and across the world.” A former employee savaged the restaurant for what he deemed its insufficient gesture of support for racial justice. “You’re not going to say #BlackLivesMatter, even though you take from Black culture ALL the time?” he wrote.

With that, the dam burst. A handful of former restaurant employees took to social media to allege that Conlon was abusive and his business practices were racist. The New York Times described the chef as the “restaurant-business archetype: a tantrum-prone chef who rules by fear and bullying,” and said the outrage that was consuming his business showed a “growing intolerance for a type of verbal mistreatment that has long been accepted as routine in the industry.” These are two explicit admissions that what Conlon was accused of was, in essence, standard chef practice. Perhaps they are standard in a way that should not be tolerated. But they are standard, nonetheless.

And none of this mattered much anyway. After all, it wasn’t the claim that Conlon was a prima donna that did him in; it was the allegation of “cultural appropriation.”

“They don’t give any cultural context to the origins of their ingredients,” wrote the former employee, who was outraged over Fat Rice’s failure to name-check “BlackLivesMatter.” “They hike up the prices and sell it back to people of color.” Conlon apologized for his abusive conduct and for failing to accurately represent the culture his cuisine was supposed to reflect. But no one was looking for an apology; a sacrifice was wanted.

This social-media uprising, layered on top of 2020’s pandemic-related restrictions on commerce, proved too much to bear, and Fat Rice closed its doors forever. In an interview with Eater, the disgruntled employee who started it all took a victory lap: “I’m not surprised that he is not reopening Fat Rice,” he said of Conlon. “I don’t think people would have allowed him to. I know I wouldn’t have.”

In Toronto, Canada, the athletic-apparel store Permission tried to set itself apart from the competition by offering its clients access to a chic “broth bar” while they shopped. In partnership with Ripe Nutrition, the store sold “superfood bone broth” along with other “wellness” products. Some enterprising agitators soon noticed that the shop’s proprietor was white, and there was something unseemly about a white woman profiting off the sale of “bone broth” and “turtle pho.”

“Also sexualizing ‘jerk’ sauce and pho hot sauce and making ‘superfood dumplings’ for profit?” Toronto Star columnist Evy Kwong contemptuously wrote of this “white-owned” business. “Y’all, I’m sick.” We can agree that sexualized jerk sauce does not sound at all appetizing. But transforming it and the revenue from its sale into a racial contretemps was innovative.

The “cultures they are taking from literally fight daily for legitimacy,” Kwong added. Her outrage caught the local press’s attention, and emulators soon began to mimic her aggravation on social media. Permission eventually agreed that its partnership with a purveyor of soups contributed to the pain endured by those of Asian descent. “We acknowledge the hurt this has caused and apologize sincerely,” the apparel store’s owner confessed in a statement. “Our pop-up was not in line with community values or our company ethos, and we have decided to part ways, effective immediately.” Customers will have to be satisfied with bottled water from now on as they browse for athleisure wear.

These episodes and others like them are revealing of some shared principles on the activist left. Inclusivity and cultural sensitivity, yes. But also, a level of judiciousness sufficient to establish boundaries for oneself and others. Those boundaries are designed to put you in your place and preserve social constancy as a result. And while this principle is ostensibly informed by the wisdom that comes with cultural competence, its practice is often accompanied by extravagant displays of self-denial.

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What is it that the progressive left gets out of gratuitous demonstrations of their own capacity for self-deprivation? What satisfaction does any practitioner of a demanding doctrine derive from the rejection of baser temptations? In denying our own desires, we undertake a journey with a far-off goal, which should end—if it ever ends—in a fuller understanding of ourselves and our neighbors. By ignoring our own hungers, we can focus instead on our external conditions and maybe make some improvements. By abstaining from earthly pleasures, we practice restraint, good judgment, and discretion. This is the heart of Puritanism. And it’s worth noting that the term “Puritan” itself was originally intended to be insulting.

When it first emerged in England in the mid-16th century, it was used to lampoon an emerging religious zealotry. A new form of fanatically reverent Protestantism was on the rise. Its members didn’t just hold themselves to unusually exacting standards—they held you to them, too.

It’s hard to blame the Renaissance-era English who rolled their eyes at these strange new fundamentalists. The moral offenses they campaigned against ranged from drunkenness to theater, from merry dancing to the celebration of Christmas. The Puritans were, to say the least, exhausting.

As Michael Winship has observed, that which invited “idleness, gambling, drinking, and ‘wandering up and down from town to town’” was a cause of great concern among these devout Protestants. “They needed to demonstrate their faith by unceasing obedience to God’s stern and demanding law.” That obedience often manifested in public displays of self-imposed discomfort.

“Fasting, a great ritualized drama of alienation and reconciliation with God,” found its way into Puritanism’s 16th-century instruction manuals, Winship recounts. So, too, did humiliating exhibitions of “physical abasement.” Swearing off earthly pleasures reinforced what Winship called “a deep sense of sinfulness and unworthiness” among the faithful. “For whom the Lord loveth,” reads Hebrews 12:6, a passage favored by puritanical thought leaders, “he chasteneth.”

God saves those who suffer for their faith. And few suffered quite like 17th-century Congregationalist minister Jeremiah Burroughs.

Burroughs was practically obsessed with unity. The well-known preacher dedicated his life to mending the bonds of religious kinship across Britain’s fractious Protestant denominations. He proposed to achieve that through both spiritual exercise and politics, which he practiced as a member of the Westminster Assembly. Burroughs’s prolific writings provide us with a window into the thought process of a figure who believed it was his mission to unite the faith.

One of his better-known works, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, gives us some idea of what Burroughs believed would reunite quarreling puritanical factions: their own nauseating disgust with themselves. Burroughs reminds his reader that self-denial and a sense of helplessness before God’s awesome might are the pathway to salvation. The acceptance of Christ’s teachings demands nothing less than abject supplication. A handful of the maxims to which the aspiring must submit gives you some idea of the exacting nature of Burroughs’s theology:

“I am nothing, and I deserve nothing.”

“I can do nothing.”

“I am so vile that I cannot of myself receive any good.”

“I am not only an empty vessel but a corrupt and unclean vessel.”

And: “If we perish, we will be no loss.”

This was not an uplifting read.

By wallowing in contempt for his own desires, though, Burroughs taught his congregants to find fulfillment in deprivation. “No-one ever denied himself as much as Jesus Christ did,” Burroughs recalled. “And the nearer we come to learning to deny ourselves as Christ did, the more contented shall we be, and by knowing much of our own vileness, we shall learn to justify God.”

Burroughs’s sentiments crystalized a strain of puritanical thought that captured the imaginations of his co-religionists long after his untimely death in 1646. As one of America’s most prolific Puritan philosophers, Cotton Mather, said: “By loathing of himself continually, and Being very sensible of his loathsome Circumstances, a Christian does what is very pleasing to God.”

Harsh as it is, submitting to this sort of merciless self-flagellation has its merits. Through abnegation, we might make ourselves aware of the needs of others that are going unmet. Through abstinence, we learn satisfaction with and gratitude for that with which we have already been blessed. Through self-restraint, we can take some small measure of God’s plight. After all, as Burroughs wrote, “he has to deal with a most wretched creature”—namely, you.

What Burroughs describes is an extreme version of an otherwise valuable code of conduct. Circumspection, the skilled management of scarce resources, and governing one’s appetites with discipline—these are prudent life skills. Prudence is something we expect from all functioning adults. In practice, the sort of discretion we demand from society’s contributing members often involves self-denial—or, in the parlance of modern psychoanalytical discourse, delayed gratification.

Quite unlike their hedonistic predecessors on the left, today’s New Puritans are enthusiastic practitioners of self-denial. But we’re not talking about something as quaint as the Marshmallow Test. The denials of the self toward which the modern progressive activist is inclined are not dissimilar from those that tested the faith of the 17th century’s Protestant reformers.

For modern progressive activists, what you should be revulsed by are the cravings and desires that arise from deep within the subconscious mind. Those visceral appetites of the body and the mechanical response they produce when satisfied are unbridled by reason. These pleasures generate involuntary reactions. The uncurbed sigh of contentment you exhale after a sinfully epicurean meal. The uninhibited laugh that bursts from your gut after a ribald joke. Your body betrays you when you succumb to these temptations.

Prudence requires that your every action be carefully curated to maximize virtue. Nowadays, that starts with what you eat.

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In late 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that humanity had only about a dozen years left to stave off a runaway greenhouse effect that could raise global temperatures by as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius. “There is increasing agreement that overall emissions from food systems could be reduced by targeting the demand for meat and other livestock products,” the report read, so the solution to the problem would be to reduce the amount of meat consumed in the West by as much as 30 percent.

Nonsense! Thirty percent is for cowards and quislings, a study led by Oxford researcher Marco Springmann and published in the journal Nature concluded the following month. Real crusaders for the new nutritional paradigm know that only cajoling most of the planet into giving up at least 90 percent of their meat-based diet will avert catastrophe.

Ideally, the globe would trade 75 percent of its beef, 90 percent of its pork, and at least half the eggs it consumes on a regular basis for beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and seeds. The restrictions on relatively well-off Westerners should be even more onerous. The industrialized world must all but eliminate beef and reduce milk consumption if the human species is to survive.

By the time these studies and their draconian recommendations were published, a consensus around the need to curtail the developed world’s protein intake had already become accepted dogma on the left. “Our changing climate is already making it more difficult to produce food,” Barack Obama declared shortly after leaving office. He noted that the obstacles before reformers were numerous and went beyond policymaking. “Because a lot of people don’t just eat for health,” Obama observed, “we eat because it tastes good, too.” We’re left to wonder whether that’s a dispassionate statement of fact or an articulation of the problem nutritional reformers face.

If the environmentalist argument against eating meat doesn’t move you, what about your health? “Consuming lots of meat is also making people in the United States and other affluent nations unwell,” New York Times journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis claimed, citing research published in the Lancet. And your wellness is not yours alone anymore. Given our increasingly collectivized conception of health care, your individual choices contribute to the overall risk pool. Your personal consumption habits are, therefore, a problem for us all.

“We are facing a growing epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases, and a climate change crisis, both of which are linked to high meat consumption,” Harvard University’s Nutrition Department chair Frank Hu insisted. Any “blanket recommendation that adults should continue their red meat consumption habits is highly irresponsible.”

A scratch at the surface of the facially compelling scientific arguments against eating meat soon exposes the philosophical and moral arguments at the movement’s heart.

“We cannot go about our lives as if they were only ours,” wrote We Are the Weather author Jonathan Safran Foer, who talked about his personal struggle against meat’s temptations in almost revelatory terms. “I ate meat a number of times,” he confessed. Worse, it “brought me comfort.” Foer ached over his misdeed. “How could I argue for radical change, how could I raise my children as vegetarians, while eating meat for comfort?” he asked. “Confronting my hypocrisy has reminded me how difficult it is to even try to live my values.”

“Rational morality tugs at us with the slenderest of threads, while meat pulls with the thick-twined chords of culture, tradition, pleasure, the flow of the crowd, and physical yearning,” the journalist Nathanael Johnson wrote, “and it pulls at us three times a day.” He noted that the ethicist Paul Thompson recommends popularizing veganism “the way religious traditions treat virtues.” Echoing Jeremiah Burroughs, Johnson concedes that “Jesus-level self-sacrifice” might be out of reach to us mere mortals. But that doesn’t give us license to stop trying.

In 2021, New York Times opinion writer Frank Bruni sampled a variety of “fermentation-derived proteins made from microorganisms” marketed by an alternative-meat company. He was apparently wowed by the reasonable facsimiles on which he dined. Bruni reported “ample flavor and appeal” in fungus repurposed as meatballs, sausage patties, and chocolate mousse. “Eating them,” he wrote, “I felt I was doing good without sacrificing all that much.” The sacrifice of organic protein, he confesses, is measurable. But it is outweighed by the feeling of “doing good.”

“Consider a steak,” the academics Jan Dutkiewicz and Gabriel N. Rosenberg pondered in the New Republic. “With the aroma, the texture, and the savory juices coating your tongue, you will be absorbed. This is what it feels like to eat a perfect steak,” they admit. Moreover, “it feels good.” And that’s bad.

These researchers forecast a future in which animal protein is artificially grown in a lab, which will present consumers with a stark moral choice. “By uncoupling the pleasure of meat from suffering and death, cellular agriculture will force us to be more precise about the nature of the pleasures we crave,” they contend. “Consumers need only opt for cellular meat over conventional meat: a choice between a moral right and a moral wrong that are otherwise indistinguishable. It is also an answer to the intransigence and passive cruelty of the everyday meat consumer.”

Thus, meat consumption is revealed to us as sin. It is an affront to the Eden in which we were conceived. It is a callous pleasure that makes you into a burden your family and neighbors must bear. It is a display of wanton cruelty toward animals, especially when there are alternatives. This is the language of morality.

What’s more, it might all be wildly overblown. A Virginia Tech study published in early 2021 determined that the sudden disappearance of all dairy cattle from the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a staggeringly small 0.7 percent, all while dramatically reducing the available supply of essential nutrients for human beings. Indeed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that all greenhouse gases from meat and dairy production account for just 4 percent of domestic emissions. If every man, woman, and child in America turned vegan tomorrow, estimates suggest, the United States would produce just 3 percent fewer emissions than it does at present.

Most global emissions are generated by burning fossil fuels, not the production and consumption of biomass. While livestock’s global contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is not negligible, much of it is produced by livestock cultivators in the developing world. It’s one thing to berate relatively well-off Westerners for their standard of living. It’s quite another to lecture a herd owner in the developing world that his pathway out of subsistence living is killing the planet.

And what of those concerns about your health? In late 2019, researchers published a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine evaluating the claim that red-meat consumption results in elevated risk of heart disease and cancer. Their research examined 61 past studies involving over 4 million participants, and they concluded that reduced red-meat intake had little effect on your relative health risks, much less that someone else’s diet will show up in your increased health-insurance premiums. “The certainty of evidence for these risk reductions was low to very low,” Bradley Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, observed.

Most advocates of a meat-free diet concede that not everyone will be enticed by the prospect of living on legumes alone. The more reasonable among them admit that animal protein is a dietary staple that cannot easily be replaced by vegetable matter. But they have a solution that they are eager to impose on you: Eat more bugs.

There is nothing objectionable about adding (well-prepared) insects to the Western diet. Two billion people regularly consume creepy crawlies, and a minimally adventurous palate should at least be able to conceptualize appetizing insect cuisine. Yet, proponents of this sort of thing seem constitutionally incapable of arguing in favor of a bug-heavy diet that you might actually like. Enjoyment seems to be beside the point. The point is, always and forever, the satisfaction you will get from the sense that you are contributing to a perceived social good.

“It is hoped that arguments such as the high nutritional value of insects and their low environmental impact, low-risk nature (from a disease standpoint) and palatability may contribute to a shift in perception,” read a 2014 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report. That hope springs eternal.

“We should be eating bugs to save the world,” the entomologist Phil Torres told the Atlantic that same year. His arguments are familiar: Bug farming uses less land. It produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Bugs are better for you, though 100 grams of insects provides about half as much protein as the same amount of chicken, so you’ll have to eat a ton of bugs. Finally, it’s an exciting change of pace! Only in passing does Torres contend that they “taste good,” though he qualified this aside by noting that you may occasionally “get a cricket leg in your tooth.”

A 2015 report in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Angles journal made many of these arguments with a bit more scholarly flair. Eating insects is an “experience,” and experiences are nice. Westerners are terribly prejudiced against insect consumption, to their indelible shame. Additives in many of the food products you eat already contain insect derivatives or are a by-product of insect life (e.g., honey). And, of course, a bug-based diet is more sustainable than livestock production and, thus, represents “the last great hope to save the planet.” Only once was the word “taste” mentioned—and then, only to describe hexapods as “yummy,” leaving it at that.

The almost fanatical way advocates for bug consumption discuss the issue ensures that taste is only an afterthought.

A 2016 interview with a roundtable of academics and experts hosted by PBS NewsHour journalist Lisa Desjardins is a case in point. The nearly hour-long discussion with professors, nonprofit directors, and insect-based food producers touched only briefly on palatability, and Desjardins’s panelists seemed entirely unprepared to discuss flavor at any length.

“Quickly,” the PBS host asked of Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism professor Michael Pollan, “what do insects taste like?” Pollan confessed to having eaten a few crickets before without elaborating on the subject. He had also once consumed a single ant in a four-star Mexican restaurant, which was “very lemony.” Beyond that, “I have a feeling there’s great variety in how insects taste.” Later, Desjardins admitted that she had once consumed a raw cicada and found “there wasn’t much taste to it.”

At no point did the experts and journalists assembled consider the possibility that being unappetizing could be a bigger obstacle to the widespread adoption of insect consumption than, say, thoughtless Western bigotries or our addiction to resource consumption. That happens a lot.

“Apart from the quick energy boost and healthier lifestyle, eating insects could also provide an economically sensible and sustainable way of life,” London’s Natural History Museum insists. Also, you’re “saving the world.”

“An overpopulated world is going to struggle to find enough protein unless people are willing to open their minds, and stomachs, to a much broader notion of food,” professor of meat science Louwrens Hoffman told the BBC’s Science Focus magazine. The invocation of overpopulation—a theory promulgated in 1968 by Paul Ehrlich, which has consistently proven inaccurate but has nevertheless justified almost every eugenicist abuse of the human species that has occurred since the end of the Second World War—is a clue that what you’re about to hear is not science.

Nevertheless, Professor Hoffman forged ahead: “There needs to be a better understanding of the difference between animal feed and human food, and a global reappraisal of what can constitute healthy, nutritional, and safe food for all.”

If that doesn’t sell you, the BBC averred, “eating insects could help us save the planet.”

Even your dog should be eating bugs. “Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change,” Mic contributor Susan Shain insisted. Already, we’re off the rails. Still, she persevered: According to a 2017 study by University of California, Los Angeles, professor of environment and sustainability Gregory S. Okin, America’s 163 million cats and dogs consume an inordinate amount of the world’s meat supply and are, therefore, responsible for generating 64 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

“So, what’s an eco-conscious pet owner to do?” Shain asks. Well, PETA recommends feeding these carnivorous animals a vegan diet. While that would be eco-friendly, it has the unfortunate side effect of slowly torturing your pet until it dies an excruciating death. If that sounds unappealing, you can give your pet bug-based foods. It’s markedly more expensive than the animal by-products that traditionally go into pet-food production, and your dog or cat is unlikely to derive the same satisfaction from cricket protein. But it is “nutritious and bioavailable.”

Most of all, “feeding your dog bugs” helps “save the planet.”

“I think it started as chicken little, thinking the sky is falling, if we don’t all go vegetarian tomorrow, the world will end,” the culinary expert, chef, and television personality Andrew Zimmern told me. “The more reasoned approach with a more, I think, credible argument is for changing what is available to eat and why.”

Zimmern is far from hostile to the arguments in favor of reducing the volume of energy-intensive foods on the market that might also be unhealthy in excessive quantities, such as meats and sugars. What’s more, he sees a role that governments can play in promoting healthier lifestyles. But Zimmern cautions against the dangers of “the community collective,” the “movement from progressive to utopian” conceptions about the optimal relationship between individuals, their governments, and the food they consume to survive.

The conspicuous removal of taste from the equation reveals the social-desirability biases informing the entomophagy movement. If feeling like you’re “saving the world” was the only benefit you derived from eating a medium-rare filet mignon steak basted in butter and thyme, you’d see fewer filets on Western menus.

For the New Puritans, a smug sense of self-satisfaction is the most delicious dish of all.

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Part of what makes dining an enjoyable experience are the educational opportunities afforded the adventurous eater. An ideologue might call the learning experiences savored by those with expansive palates “the work,” but steeping yourself in the cultural, geographic, and historical heritage that contributes to unique cuisines is no burden.

There is joy in partaking of authentic, unadulterated, native cuisines. There is joy in the consumption of amalgamated plates that combine the best of many worlds—what is still sometimes called “fusion cuisine.”

There is joy in the artistry of a genius Michelin-awarded chef whose gastronomic mastery cannot be easily classified, just as there is joy in the simple but fulfilling fare produced by street vendors.

Cooking is an art, and the enjoyment you find in it is subjective. The only wrong way to judge a plate is to believe your assessment of it is objective and that all other interpretations are the flawed product of an uncultivated mind.

Somewhere along the way, the New Puritan has become obsessed with, well, purity. A certain class of activist treats creativity, composition, and synthesis in cuisine as if they’re an act of sabotage. Today, within certain circles, the distinction between cultural fusion and “cultural appropriation” has blurred beyond the point of recognition.

Food magazines such as Epicurious and Bon Appétit—the latter a publication whose commitment to woke progressivism is so total that it has taken to calling the cuisine native to the Philippines “Filipinx” and confessed that its failure to condemn American sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran somehow “inadvertently delegitimized Iranian saffron”—recently committed themselves to “archive repair.” It’s as Orwellian as it sounds. These publications are rewriting their own histories.

“The language that we use to talk about food has evolved so much from, sure, the 1960s but also the 1990s, and I think it is our duty as journalists, as people who work in food media, to make sure that we are reflecting that appropriately,” said Bon Appétit executive editor, Sonia Chopra.

That mission is a work in progress, and progress cannot come soon enough for the activist class. In late 2020, one Twitter user stumbled across a recipe for the traditional Jewish cookie hamantaschen in an unadulterated section of Bon Appétit’s archives. The offense becomes clear from the headline: “How to Make Hamantaschen Actually Good.”

The recipe violated traditional kosher dietary guidelines. The magazine’s editors scrubbed it and apologized for their cultural insensitivities. But being “good” isn’t something to which Jewish bakers are wholly allergic.

“One hundred years ago, the crunchiness and lack of taste was a source of pride for some Jews,” the Takeout’s Aimee Levitt observed. “Nowadays, kosher bakers, armed with regulated ingredients and ovens that hold temperature, have written reliable recipes. (Others of us who don’t keep kosher just throw our hands up and say, the hell with it, I’m using butter. Or cream cheese.)”

Being “good” isn’t everything, but neither is it something to be ashamed of. And the existence of alternative preparations for a particular culture’s favorites does not detract from that culture. It adds to it by expanding the number of people who wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to those dishes. Culture is not a zero-sum game.

“Authenticity” has, however, become an inviolable standard among anti-appropriation activists, to the detriment of talented chefs and those who would delight in their work.

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurant, Lucky Cat, was savaged for marketing itself as an “authentic Asian Eating House,” even though its head chef was not, in fact, Asian. Cleverly, Ramsay put his critics on the defensive by noting that his restaurants “do not discriminate based on gender, race, or beliefs and we don’t expect anyone else to,” no matter how much anti-appropriation activists would appreciate it.

It’s probably no surprise that something as quintessentially American as apple pie is also tarnished in the New Puritan’s imagination. The Guardian’s Raj Patel informs us that this comforting dessert is a moral atrocity. The recipe is “a variant on an English pumpkin pie recipe,” thereby rendering the dessert both appropriative and sullied by the legacy of English colonialism. It is a symbol of “domesticity,” harkening back to America’s maltreatment of women with every tasty bite. It is a ruthless emblem of capitalist exploitation: Sugarcane is a by-product of the exploitation of black Caribbean laborers, and apples owe their origins to the Spanish colonists who brought this Central Asian fruit to North America in their quest to pilfer the continent’s bounty. Every morsel is a sinful reminder of your place on the wrong side of the struggle for “food justice.”

Yogurt, too, is off-limits. “Using a transnational and comparative cultural studies approach, this essay investigates how yogurt, perceived as a strange and foreign food in the early to mid-twentieth-century United States, became localized through intersectional processes of feminization and de-exoticization,” reads what I promise you is the very real abstract of a 2016 study published in the academic journal Gastronomica. The author, University of Notre Dame professor Perin Gürel, alleges that yogurt’s “connections to the Middle East” have led to Orientalist abuses of the product in the West.

Cultural appropriation in food is everywhere. Nutrition blogger Shana McCann noted that it can be found in “restaurants with a white [person as] front of house” or in “Asian-inspired” menu items. It is apparent when white bloggers post their “healthy soul food recipes,” or in what critics of a particular ethnic background decide to label “refined” or “elevated” and what they don’t. In general, it is a theory that substitutes context, taste, and personal experience with race essentialism.

Not all scandalous episodes of alleged appropriation in the food world result in career-ending controversies. Most attacks like those above are intended as brushback pitches. It’s a power play reserved almost exclusively for the successful.

Despite his Caucasian upbringing in Oklahoma, New York City–based chef Rick Bayless became one of America’s most famous preparers of and experts on Mexican food. The successful restaurateur was even tapped by President Barack Obama in 2010 to cater a state dinner for Mexican president Felipe Calderón. His background has also landed him in hot water. “Just Google ‘Rick Bayless’ and ‘appropriation’ and you’ll get plenty to feast on,” NPR advised its readers. “Trust us.”

“I know that there have been a number of people out there that criticized me only—only—because of my race,” Bayless said in his defense. “Because I’m white, I can’t do anything with Mexican food. But we have to stop and say, ‘Oh wait, is that plain racism then?’” For some self-appointed culture police, the very act of defending himself from accusations of racial bigotry was itself evidence of bigotry. For others, it was simply “whiny.”

At least Bayless has had the strength and support structure to persevere through it all. Andy Ricker did not.

Ricker was an award-winning chef and bestselling cookbook author by the time he founded the popular Thai restaurant chain Pok Pok. He studied Thai cuisine for 13 years, lived and worked in Southeast Asia for much of his adult life, and had become a recognized expert in his field. But Ricker is also white. For some, that’s what mattered most.

In 2020, Ricker’s restaurant group shut its doors permanently. In a statement, he blamed the pressures of the pandemic for the decision, but not entirely. “The ability to focus on the raison d’être of Pok became more and more impossible,” he said. “And it became more and more about logistics and putting out fires, less and less about hospitality and vision.” In an interview with Mel magazine, Ricker confessed that he would be taking his talents back to Thailand if only to escape the exhaustion of culinary politics in the United States.

“I knew before I opened the restaurant back in 2005 that what I was doing was potentially blasphemous,” he confessed. “The best route for this would be to make the food as I learned it, try to do the best job I could, present it as it should be, and not take any credit for the recipe in any way. Or say I’ve discovered this shit.” And just as he predicted, the mob did come for him.

“Some of the people who are really, really vocal with [criticism], you know, I’ve been alive and cooking this food since before they were born,” Ricker said with disdain. He, too, is sympathetic toward the ideals of a movement that so drained him of enthusiasm for his life’s work. But his ordeal appears to have shaken some of that conviction.

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Ultimately, the logic of this ideological approach to reforming how Americans produce and consume food gives way to an unavoidable conclusion: Progress is the problem.

The Guardian’s Damian Carrington summarized the matter succinctly: “The global food system is the biggest driver of destruction of the natural world,” he wrote. A “vicious cycle” of “cheap food,” which creates more competition, generates incentives to export food around the world and contributes to environmental degradation.

A February 2021 New York Times profile of “activists working to remake the food system” echoed some of these sentiments. “In the blunt equation of capitalist production,” Times contributor Ligaya Mishan wrote, we “treat food as a commodity rather than a necessity,” which “is to accept that there will always be people who can’t afford it and must go hungry.” That would be a moral atrocity if it were true. Fortunately, it is not.

Following the global triumph of capitalism as a theory of human social organization after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (hidebound holdouts in Cuba and North Korea notwithstanding), undernourishment declined worldwide from 19 to 11 percent, according to the World Bank. That happy condition coincided with the emergence of roughly 1 billion people from the depths of extreme poverty (defined as surviving on less than $1.25 per day) over approximately the same time frame. This is attributable to the establishment in 1991 of the first real global marketplace since it collapsed in 1914 with the onset of World War I.

The capitalist enterprise has contributed to the development of heartier, disease-resistant produce and cereal grains benefiting almost every region of the globe. In the United States, production of cereal grains, soybeans, corn, and other aggregate crops has steadily increased while the price has declined.

That trend—increased yields and reduced costs—is apparent all over the world. The exception to this rule is sub-Saharan Africa, where, as National Geographic reported in 2020, the “use of [genetically modified] crops is less common.”

“Since attitudes toward GM crops tend to correlate with education levels and access to information about the technology, there is a concern that sub-Saharan African farmers may be hesitant to adopt GM crops,” the report continued. Not coincidentally, progress toward a hunger-free planet has not reached this region, where crop yields have failed to keep pace with the rest of the world, and child malnutrition remains persistently high.

Global inequalities are less a concern for the activists profiled in the Times than their chief focus: the “late-empire hedonism” apparent in Americans’ love of food.

“It’s no coincidence that as Americans have grown ever more estranged from the sources of their food and the largely unseen labor required to produce it, food itself has become a national obsession,” the Times profile continued, “from televised cooking shows and the deification of chefs to Instagram #foodporn.” Mishan laments how the modern “food movement” has rallied the public toward progressive activism with appeals to a “vaguely feel-good mantra” rather than calls to arms. But some activists are trying to fix that through, of all things, the selective application of racial discrimination.

For example, “a food stall where white customers are charged $30 for a plate of food that costs Black customers only $12, to reflect the disparity in median income between white and Black households in New Orleans, or a church hall where the gentrification-themed dinner menu lists a half chicken for $50,000—again for white diners only, with Black diners eating for free.”

The activists’ goal, Mishan notes, is to promote a broader understanding of racial disparities in various underexamined areas of American society. That’s a laudable objective, but it is being pursued in the most unproductive way imaginable. This sort of activism’s practical (and likely desired) effect is to remove the possibility that you might forget even briefly the torment of existence.

As it happens, there is a broad marketplace for that kind of torture. For all progressive activists’ hostility toward capitalism’s animal spirits, they’re not above exploiting that economic opportunity. Enter the organization Race 2 Dinner.

“Our mission is simple,” the organization asserts, “reveal the naked truth about RACISM in America and UNLEASH YOUR POWER as white women to dismantle it.” How does this group propose to do that? Simple: by convincing wealthy white patrons to fork over upwards of $2,500 for the privilege of being lectured over dinner about their unconscious racism.

“If you did this in a conference room, they’d leave,” Race 2 Dinner co-founder Saira Rao told the Guardian. “But wealthy white women have been taught never to leave the dinner table.” Presumably, Rao’s casual ethnic stereotyping is the enlightened sort.

As the Guardian notes, the patrons for this sort of thing are unlikely to be those who would most benefit from the experience. They are mostly “well-read and well-meaning” Democratic-voting women, some of whom have spouses of a different race or even adopted black children. Nevertheless, most don’t need much prompting to “confess” their racial biases, acknowledge “wrongdoing,” and be “willing to change.”

“Before attending a dinner or seminar, there is required reading,” NBC’s Today observed. The ice is usually broken by the conversation leaders, who bring up “a familiar topic,” only to subject it to critical race theory–flavored dismemberment until it gives up its racist past. Take yoga, for instance.

“[The dinner] starts off, Saira says something about yoga and how yoga is cultural appropriation and yoga owners here in the U.S. do not hire black and brown Indian women to teach,” Regina Jackson, the organization’s other co-founder, recalled of one especially productive soiree. In this way, the dinner party’s attendees are guided toward a recognition of how they are “complicit in a system that hurts Black and brown people.” Bon appétit!

The spirit of Jeremiah Burroughs is alive and well in the activism we see on display among the puritanical left. Only by understanding your own flawed and sinful nature can you learn to appreciate a gratuitous level of self-denial. The pleasures and comforts of eating good food around a table surrounded by friends might be gratifying, but not nearly as much as the spiritual rapture found in ruining that experience.

What do progressive activists get out of all this? Of course, the personal satisfaction derived from the practice of self-discipline, but also the sense that they’re contributing not just to their own salvation but to the redemption of the entire world.

This article was adapted from Noah Rothman’s new book, The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun (Broadside Books).

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You Are What You Don’t Eat - Noah Rothman, Commentary Magazine (1)

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