Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Conservatisms of food*

Food can be male or female; it can also, it seems, be liberal or conservative. On the conservative front, John Schwenkler defends Alice Waters and other real-food advocates from the criticisms of the National Review Online's Julie Gunlock (and I am ignoring comments about her last name and its aptness given the publication).

So today's question: Is a conservative meal the Big Mac of the hard-workin' arugula-shunnin' Real American? Or is it the locally-grown, home-cooked, and sensibly-portioned meal shared by a family at 6PM?

Just as conservatism can go in different and contradictory directions, a variety of approaches to food can rightly be called right-wing. There is the conservatism of anti-elitism (Sarah Palin conservatism), but there's also the conservatism of elitism (Great Books conservatism). Both are and have long since been part of the American right-wing. Moreover, there is pro-business conservatism (pro-Twix conservatism) as well as anti-modernity conservatism (home-ground buckwheat conservatism). So in a sense, there's a place on the right for kale and for corn dogs. So why can't it be left at that?

Schwenkler makes the case for seasonal-local-organic (otherwise known as 'real food') as the true conservative option, and he does have a point. For one thing, embracing the local over the foreign and potentially tainted is an undeniably conservative idea. Plus, home-cooking goes naturally with, if not stay-at-home mothering, then at least having a family to feed - as Rita points out, recipes for one, or even two, are inefficient. But above all, making quality judgments, as in, Thing A is simply better than Thing B, is arguably best-suited to the right.

Gunlock, meanwhile, wrote a somewhat convincing take-down of Alice Waters and her ilk. Her approach could perhaps better be described as no-nonsense than conservative, although as staid conservative grandfathers everywhere have shown, no-nonsense-ness and conservatism go hand in hand. Then again, her assessment of Waters as a hippie and a coastal-elite places her firmly in the conservative camp. If her categorization of good (as in, healthy, tasty, and ethically-produced) food as only for snobs goes overboard, what I do like about Gunlock's piece is this bit: "There are others, in her [Waters's] view, who are making better choices — namely, the Europeans. Waters gushes over the European slow-food movement even as she dismisses American food sensibilities." Where Gunlock goes on to praise American local cuisines, she could just as easily have pointed out that Europeans consume their own share of mass-produced fake foods, diet foods, packaged foods, and so forth, many of which cannot be blamed - not directly, at least - on America. If Alice Waters were just slightly less enamored of France, the case for her movement as conservatism would gain much ground.

So, which philosophy of food gets the conservative stamp of approval? (As though I had such authoritah, but moving on.) My take is, both and neither. And that the impossibility of pinning the real-food movement to a political bent is a good thing. While Schwenkler is correct to point out that conservatives need not reject the movement outright, brushing it off as just more liberal nonsense, it would be a great shame if the movement were to become fully a part of conservatism. If that were to happen, the farm-is-better-than-city, local-is-better-because-we-can't-trust-creepy-ferners, mom-should-stay-home-and-cook potential to the movement would develop, whereas the eat-less-meat-to-save-the-planet aspect would in all likelihood fall by the wayside.

*Consider this a continuation/revision of this post.


PG said...

I thought the organic-food types had been neatly labeled on the right as the "crunchy cons." (Who are very much "eat less meat to save the planet" as well as to embrace a more traditional lifestyle.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Good point. But my sense is that what Schwenkler proposes is a different culinary conservatism than the one labeled 'crunchy con', which is really a subset of conservative environmentalism, rather than staking a claim that the Alice Waters movement is fundamentally conservative.