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
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
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
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
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.
Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and
Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.