To peruse any of the tens of thousands of Instagram accounts devoted to food, some of them with nearly a million followers, is a jaunt into the pornographic. The photo captions alone seem straight out of paperback erotica.
‘See this naughty Asian pear get humiliated by sticky globs of caramel-infused pistachio milk while creepy cranberry sorbet watches,’ some of them might as well read.
‘This moist blood orange bundt cake is loaded with drippy pink glaze and grew up without a father.’
On Instagram, like Pornhub, you can sort by fetish. Got a thing for cakes and pies? Stylish editorial displays? Pizza? Seasonal vegetables? There’s a feed for every perversion, even at least one devoted to sprinkles, which is legitimately unsettling.
I’ve long had an aversion to foodies, if not an outright, seething hatred. If a colleague waxed on about the dinner he had of purple yams stuffed with locally raised grass-fed lamb and hazelnut-parsley relish topped off with a melon radish drizzle, I’d scoff and proudly describe my $1.69 Snack Wrap. It was always a big city liberal hypocrite, food-peacocking about their extravagant meals while the poor and downtrodden they professed to care about dined on soda and Hot Cheetos. I also thought it was just plain stupid. Food is fuel, put it in, crap it out.
This isn’t people who simply enjoy a good meal, we all do, or love to cook, or whose appreciation of the culinary has more to do with a love of travel, exploration, and beauty. Rather, a specific rakish cretin that appeared in the 2000s and now numerous enough to constitute a voting block. This is the young graphic designer, the lonely social media manager, the Wall Street Bernie bro perched in the dimly-lit, faux-rustic milieu of a Brooklyn farm-to-table restaurant wearing a filthy, masturbatory jeer as he stares at the menu. ‘Fuck yeah, blanched heirloom Latvian snowpeas,’ he whispers. ‘I just read about those in GQ.’
When I sincerely endeavored this year to learn about Christianity, after leaving the church for atheism as a teenager, the culture of foodyism stood out, not just as annoying, or a sickness of the mind — even when it comes to those lardzillas on shows like My 600-lb Life — but as a kind of spiritual and cultural gangrene.
Let’s start with those lardzillas. In his 1943 book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the Christian rule of chastity. Even nearly 80 years ago, Lewis says chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues, one that turns many off from the faith namely because the sex instinct is so wildly disproportionate to its purpose, reproduction, and that God’s rules around sex are unrealistic.
‘If a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function,’ Lewis writes.
Lewis argues there’s nothing fundamentally natural about the hypersexed attitudes of the 1940s (imagine if he were alive today), reminding readers how sexual mores have changed in his own lifetime and that cultural standards of chastity aren’t universal. A buttoned-up Victorian lady and a completely nude tribeswoman in the South Pacific could be equally chaste — or unchaste — depending on the cultural standards of each.
But to understand how preposterously disproportion our sex instinct has become, Lewis argues we only need to look at mankind’s other most powerful natural urge, eating.
‘Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously,’ he writes.
What’s happened in culture since Lewis’s time only makes his argument more poignant. That comparison today would be impossible. Those who make a lifestyle out of eating enough for ten are everywhere. Social justice circles are dominated by gargantua who tell us their size is natural and their affliction is immune from criticism (much like self-identifying ‘sluts’). Bovine women get on the cover of swimsuit magazines and morbidly obese guys are our lovable funnymen on television.
Lewis brings up the example of strip clubs. You can easily get a large audience together to watch a woman undress on stage.
‘Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theater by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?’ he writes.
The Food Network launched in 1993. Today, there are over 160 cooking shows on television. Eight in ten Americans watch cooking shows, according to Market Watch. This is the mutton chop on stage Lewis found so unimaginable in 1943 but on a galactic level. Whole Foods, which first opened in 1980, and its countless imitators, is less a grocery store than a house of worship. Organic foods are not healthier, nor better for the environment (most commercial pesticides are weaker than coffee), nor are they lifting Third World farmers out of poverty. But that’s not the point, the point is the fantasy and perversion of the animal instinct to eat.
In Lewis’s mutton chop strip tease scenario, most would assume that such a society obsessed with food must be gripped by famine, but if evidence showed everyone was getting enough to eat, then another hypothesis is in order.
‘Everyone knows the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.’
Christianity says there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sexual pleasure. It’s one of the only faiths that celebrates the flesh. Likewise, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying one’s food. ‘There would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips,’ Lewis writes.
In Dante’s Inferno, gluttony is a worse sin than lust but, as Lewis also points out, the sins of the flesh are less bad than the sins of the spirit, those of treachery or wrath. Lewis divides these sins into two categories: Animal and Diabolical. Christians aren’t alone, or the first, to believe indulgence in the vices clouds the self. Western civilization, beginning with the ancient Greeks, was founded on people who didn’t want to be beasts and so they elevated reason.
The Enlightenment’s exultation of reason to explain the entire material world has led us to a place where there is only the material world. Plenty of people now believe we are nothing but our animals selves and therefore see no problem with those indulgences. The greatest sins, those of the spirit, don’t apply because we’ve stopped believing in the spirit.
The next time you catch yourself lusting over an Instagram snapshot of seared Chinese swamp eel tacos with ataulfo mango chutney and bastardized lemon zest, it may not be the case you’re aiding the fall of Western civilization. Rather, that’s already happened. You’re merely basking in the glow of its hickory-smoked embers.