Ideologies of Food: A Reply to Webb

Ideologies of Food: A Reply to Webb August 4, 2011

At six this morning, I was butchering three large catfish—one of them well over twenty pounds. I filled a small cooler with fillets. We ate catfish for dinner last night and we will eat catfish again (and again). Tonight, and for lunch tomorrow.

Catching fish—especially big ones—is thrilling. Cleaning them isn’t. I recall my adolescent, nausea-filled regret the Sunday evening when I shot nine rabbits—a personal record—and had to clean them all, each one stinking with delicate summer fur sticking to me and my knife. I don’t hunt rabbits anymore.

Back to the catfish: Unlike other fish, catfish bleed thick, red blood that clots and sticks to your hands, and it is very hard to kill them mercifully: until rigor mortis sets in it’s hard to tell if they’re dead or not. There is very little romance in cleaning a fish, especially a whole mess of them.

Catch-and-release is the luxury for those who fish for pure, indulgent sport: it carries the reward of the catch and the minimal responsibility of a safe release. Fishing for food is very different: sure, you get the rush of the catch, but you also face the responsibility and labor of harvesting, storing, and cooking. The reward comes full circle in the end as food. If you cook well: good food.

To put it crudely: I find the pretensions of catch-and-release fishing ass backwards and self-deluded. As expensive and delicate as your tackle may be and as sophisticated and barbless your sensibilities, at the end of the day, catch-and-release exploits fish as objects for cheap (albeit often extremely expensive) pleasure, void of the responsibilities—and gore—of food-making.

Catch-and-release is quintessentially liberal: the bloodless violence that conceals the disenchanting objectification of secular individualism within a pious creed of tolerance, mutual respect, and compromise. The liberal man is a predator like the fly-fishing snob who only photographs his pristine catch: they both insult their prey by refusing to eat it outright, and in doing so consume more voraciously than ever, by living out the delusion that they are not predators at all, or at least the good predators.

Those who hunt and fish for food, especially because they need the food, see and experience something about the tragic beauty of nature that the self-righteous, liberal “sportsman” is blind to.

I am not trying to imply that one ought to fish or hunt or even eat meat. What I am saying is this: those who hunt and fish for “sport,” without the responsibility of food-making, are wrong to moralize or act uppity. And, of course, those who make food from their prey should do so with a sense of solemnity and respect for the life they take and blood they spill.

This view I hold explains some part of why I am in concert with the spirit of a recent article by my colleague and dear friend, Stephen Webb: Against the Gourmands: In Praise of Fast Food as a Form of Fasting, in the issue on food and flourishing in The Other Journal. Webb has been involved with the topic of food and theology for some time. A more careful look at his thoughts can be found in his books, Good Eating and God and Dogs.

Webb and I disagree about politics and this article is no exception. We are worlds apart. We also disagree about a great many other things in this article. For one, Webb’s puts his tortured sense of conservatism on grand display: a so-called conservatism that is thoroughly liberal, progressive even. A conservative, one would think, would be skeptical of change and certainly drastic changes to the ways we eat. Wendell Berry is deeply conservative in this way. Webb is not.

No, Webb declares himself to be “a supporter of free markets and an optimist (for the most part) about technology.” This leads him to wax optimistic about corporate food production to the futuristic extreme of “in vitro” and “cultured” meat products. It seems like so-called conservatives these days don’t care about conserving much except the free market, which is not a conservative thing at all: it is as free and liberal as can be, willy-nilly even.

Webb’s tortured conservatism aside, his biggest mistake is to try to speak of food without recourse to the phenomenological experience of food and eating. (Babette’s Feast and fried catfish both immediately come to mind.) And what about the body? Surely we are not cars that run on fuel, surely our bodies are not combustion engines. For Webb, there is little difference. He invokes platitude after platitude about this thing called “food” to the point of making the laughable claim that, since the only non-utilitarian meal is the Eucharist, we might as well eat McDonald’s the rest of the time.

All these objections (and more) aside, Webb’s article does insert an important, irreverent tone, a dissonant note, amidst the trendy, sanctimonious discourse on food. When Webb critiques William Cavanaugh, Michael Pollan, and their ilk, I disagree with his formal analysis (that basically amount to some cheap shilling for capitalism) but firmly believe that, sometimes despite himself, Webb awakens the dark, cynical irony embedded in the ways we think about—and practice—eating, fishing, and the rest. (Ironically, the jolt Webb’s article provides is not unlike the way Pollan’s body of work has affected so many others, including Cavanaugh.)

By the way: Webb eventually defeats his own argument for capitalism and vindicates Cavanaugh’s objections against it. Webb shows how the market coops everything, including the socially conscious, fair trade, free range, all natural, no preservatives, community garden types. Even Michael Pollan. This is precisely what is wrong with capitalism, and there is no way to fix it.

Socialism will never do, only a departure from modernity itself, a second enlightenment, an Age of Re-Enchantment will work and the Church has the resources and the imagination to begin. To detach the influence of sin within the domain of free markets, as Webb suggests, will certainly not do either. (The other Eucharistic and theological commentary in the article appear promising but only describe Eucharist as the exception to all other food, redeeming fast food from social taboo.)

As I see it, the deeper point goes back where I began: there is a liberal ideology of consumption that hates to acknowledge itself as a predator. There is a deep-seated self-hatred and deception lurking in and around the righteousness of fair trade coffee shops, fly fishing boutiques, and organic food specialty stores.

Webb, in his unapologetically capitalist spirit, tell us what the more pious, in vogue types surely won’t admit, but believe all the same: there is no catch-and-release in real life. There will always be tragedy and blood—even at Holy Communion.

A bloodless, sterilized world of secularism, individualism, and nation-states, born from the liberal womb of modernity is a toxic, disenchanting ideology that hides its absent core: nihilism.

Almost time to go fishing.

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  • Stephen H. Webb

    I’m not sure what article you were reading, Sam. Maybe you spent too much time fishing. 1. Of course capitalism co-opts everything: I made that very point. I argued that the attempt to escape capitalism through the slow food movement would only result in a rearrangement of market forces, not their obliteration. Foodies are consumers! Very good consumers! That was one of the main points of my article.2. I certainly do not describe the Eucharist as “the exception to all other food.” Absolutely not. I describe it as the essence of all food. Big difference there. The Eucharist is what food essential is; it is the telos of all food. And it is simple, frugal, almost bare fuel, but at the same time personal, full of life, and utterly sustaining. 3. Babette’s Feast is one of the most overrated movies of all time, and a favorite of lefty academics, who fall for its manichaean dualism of food-for-pleasure vs. food-for-fuel. It is so heavy handed that when I watched it the first time I was annoyed, but the second time I found it to be simply ridiculous. I almost added some criticism of it to my article, but it was already too long, so thanks for bringing it up.4. You go much further than me in attributing self-hatred to the fair trade consumers. Egad! I’m not Freudian enough to do that.Self-delusion, yes, but self-hatred is unmerited. 5. Your ending is rhetorically good but empty: the Lord’s Supper is a non-violent sacrifice, non-bloody too in the sense that the wine has become Christ’s blood, so that there is no SHEDDING of blood. You end by saying that all eating is tragic; now that is a capitalist cop-out. Since eating is tragic, I’ll just keep killing animals…yeah yeah, Christian vegetarians have heard that one before.

    • A few replies, Webb.

      1. I think I could have been much clearer about how I constructed my point on capitalism. Let me try again: I think you’re quite right to show how Cavanaugh cannot transcend capitalism through slow food or whathaveyou. However, I think this only bolsters the larger suspicions of capitalism that one finds in Cavanaugh and others like him. In effect you show, more than Cavanaugh, the nefarious appetite of capitalism—the difference we have is simply how we think about role of the Church facing that appetite.

      2. “There is only one meal we should not miss, and there is only one meal that is perfect in every way, so much so that you leave not wanting anything more, and that is the meal that gives us a foretaste of the kingdom yet to come. In comparison, every other meal is just fuel, no matter how good it tastes.” You wrote that, not me. You’re right here, that you do describe the Eucharist as the essence, but your point cashes out in the comparison you make, which makes it the exception that legitimates fast food, i.e. food-as-fuel.

      3. Babette’s Feast is a movie loved by may Catholics of all stripes. You’re the exception here. Why so defensive?

      4. Self-hatred, as I am using it, is something akin to ressentiment, which Max Scheler brilliantly shows to be a form of self-hatred.

      5. The “blood” is not only the cup of the Supper, it is also the water and blood flowing from the side of the Savior. I don’t know how you get blood without shedding it (i.e. bleeding) in some way or another, Jesus is the new Lamb, the Lamb who was slain, this is what makes his flesh and blood the new passover. C’mon, you know all this.

      Let me add one last critique, since your reception of my review was a bit cranky:

      Your article says next to nothing about fasting. False advertising.

      Cheers,

      Sam

  • Stephen H. Webb

    I’m not sure what article you were reading, Sam. Maybe you spent too much time fishing. 1. Of course capitalism co-opts everything: I made that very point. I argued that the attempt to escape capitalism through the slow food movement would only result in a rearrangement of market forces, not their obliteration. Foodies are consumers! Very good consumers! That was one of the main points of my article.2. I certainly do not describe the Eucharist as “the exception to all other food.” Absolutely not. I describe it as the essence of all food. Big difference there. The Eucharist is what food essential is; it is the telos of all food. And it is simple, frugal, almost bare fuel, but at the same time personal, full of life, and utterly sustaining. 3. Babette’s Feast is one of the most overrated movies of all time, and a favorite of lefty academics, who fall for its manichaean dualism of food-for-pleasure vs. food-for-fuel. It is so heavy handed that when I watched it the first time I was annoyed, but the second time I found it to be simply ridiculous. I almost added some criticism of it to my article, but it was already too long, so thanks for bringing it up.4. You go much further than me in attributing self-hatred to the fair trade consumers. Egad! I’m not Freudian enough to do that.Self-delusion, yes, but self-hatred is unmerited. 5. Your ending is rhetorically good but empty: the Lord’s Supper is a non-violent sacrifice, non-bloody too in the sense that the wine has become Christ’s blood, so that there is no SHEDDING of blood. You end by saying that all eating is tragic; now that is a capitalist cop-out. Since eating is tragic, I’ll just keep killing animals…yeah yeah, Christian vegetarians have heard that one before.

    • A few replies, Webb.

      1. I think I could have been much clearer about how I constructed my point on capitalism. Let me try again: I think you’re quite right to show how Cavanaugh cannot transcend capitalism through slow food or whathaveyou. However, I think this only bolsters the larger suspicions of capitalism that one finds in Cavanaugh and others like him. In effect you show, more than Cavanaugh, the nefarious appetite of capitalism—the difference we have is simply how we think about role of the Church facing that appetite.

      2. “There is only one meal we should not miss, and there is only one meal that is perfect in every way, so much so that you leave not wanting anything more, and that is the meal that gives us a foretaste of the kingdom yet to come. In comparison, every other meal is just fuel, no matter how good it tastes.” You wrote that, not me. You’re right here, that you do describe the Eucharist as the essence, but your point cashes out in the comparison you make, which makes it the exception that legitimates fast food, i.e. food-as-fuel.

      3. Babette’s Feast is a movie loved by may Catholics of all stripes. You’re the exception here. Why so defensive?

      4. Self-hatred, as I am using it, is something akin to ressentiment, which Max Scheler brilliantly shows to be a form of self-hatred.

      5. The “blood” is not only the cup of the Supper, it is also the water and blood flowing from the side of the Savior. I don’t know how you get blood without shedding it (i.e. bleeding) in some way or another, Jesus is the new Lamb, the Lamb who was slain, this is what makes his flesh and blood the new passover. C’mon, you know all this.

      Let me add one last critique, since your reception of my review was a bit cranky:

      Your article says next to nothing about fasting. False advertising.

      Cheers,

      Sam

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  • brettsalkeld

    If MacDonald’s is the only place we ever eat, we’ll never understand the Eucharist.

    The decline of the family meal has had much more impact on the much bemoaned contemporary Eucharistic piety (or lack thereof) than anything any progressive theologian ever said about transignification.

    In For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann has a beautiful reflection on food and eucharist.

    I cannot recommend too highly that people go read it here:
    http://books.google.ca/books/about/For_the_life_of_the_world.html?id=gF3Orr5FW2MC

    Do yourself a favor and read the first chapter. After that, no one will have to entreat you to read the second.

  • brettsalkeld

    If MacDonald’s is the only place we ever eat, we’ll never understand the Eucharist.

    The decline of the family meal has had much more impact on the much bemoaned contemporary Eucharistic piety (or lack thereof) than anything any progressive theologian ever said about transignification.

    In For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann has a beautiful reflection on food and eucharist.

    I cannot recommend too highly that people go read it here:
    http://books.google.ca/books/about/For_the_life_of_the_world.html?id=gF3Orr5FW2MC

    Do yourself a favor and read the first chapter. After that, no one will have to entreat you to read the second.

  • Melody

    Ever hear of the Gralloch prayer? This is one version of it:
    “O Lord, bless the blood and the flesh of this the creature that You gave me.
    Created by Your hand as You created man,
    Life given for life.
    That me and mine may eat with thanks for the gift,
    That me and mine may give thanks for Your own sacrifice of blood and flesh,
    Life given for life.”
    It is said to have Celtic/Norse origins; the Native Americans also have versions of it.

  • Melody

    Ever hear of the Gralloch prayer? This is one version of it:
    “O Lord, bless the blood and the flesh of this the creature that You gave me.
    Created by Your hand as You created man,
    Life given for life.
    That me and mine may eat with thanks for the gift,
    That me and mine may give thanks for Your own sacrifice of blood and flesh,
    Life given for life.”
    It is said to have Celtic/Norse origins; the Native Americans also have versions of it.

  • Topherdone

    I’m not sure if you’re still checking this thread, but just a quick question. Fishing has always had an appeal for me (I fish rarely, and even more rarely catch anything), but it has always made me a bit uncomfortable. Specifically, the way fish just seem to die slowly by suffocation. The people I know who fish don’t really pay much attention to it, but it always bothered me (I don’t eat much seafood, or any other meat for that matter).

    Which is a roundabout way of asking, are there any specific techniques you use to cut down on the suffering of fish? I’m sure I’m a bit of a wimp in that respect, but watching fish gasp for breath has always been somewhat troublesome. At least with land animals, the kill is quick. Anyway, thanks for a response if you’re still checking in on the thread.

    • Topherdone,

      Thanks for this important and practical question. It begins, I think, in understanding the different species of fish and their differing levels of resilience. Catfish, for instance can live out of water for very long time and are not averse warm water temperatures and alike. Alligator gar are even more hardy, but trout are quite different. And so on. Then there is the question of hooking. Small hooks are easily swallowed and can get embedded in the insides of fish, so if you use a small hook, you need to set the hook at the beginning of the strike and do so with purpose and skill. Surgical forceps are also a plus. Furthermore, the question of live well or stringers is important. I find that fish baskets or stringers with separate hook clips work best—but one has to worry about turtles, snakes, and raccoons. Live wells with a good, functioning aerator are fine too. All of this allows for the dignity of your prey to be respected and stored til cleaning time, I think. When it comes to cleaning, decapitation is quick work or gutting too. I have also stored my fish, right out of the water, on ice in a cooler when I have to transport them to a site for cleaning. Any hunter, however, has surely seen the same type of behavior of a dying animal. I think the risks and liabilities in both are similar—only in fishing you are much closer to the whole thing from beginning to end. My grandfather used to shoot alligator gar in the head with a .22, but this was for protection before trying to land the often over five foot long animals.

      I hope this helps, thanks.

      Sam

      • Topherdone

        Thanks for the reply. It definitely helps. As you might suspect, my concern is with treating animals with respect and dignity, even when consuming them, while eliminating any needless suffering on their part. Your techniques seem to do that.

        So thanks again.

  • Topherdone

    I’m not sure if you’re still checking this thread, but just a quick question. Fishing has always had an appeal for me (I fish rarely, and even more rarely catch anything), but it has always made me a bit uncomfortable. Specifically, the way fish just seem to die slowly by suffocation. The people I know who fish don’t really pay much attention to it, but it always bothered me (I don’t eat much seafood, or any other meat for that matter).

    Which is a roundabout way of asking, are there any specific techniques you use to cut down on the suffering of fish? I’m sure I’m a bit of a wimp in that respect, but watching fish gasp for breath has always been somewhat troublesome. At least with land animals, the kill is quick. Anyway, thanks for a response if you’re still checking in on the thread.

    • Topherdone,

      Thanks for this important and practical question. It begins, I think, in understanding the different species of fish and their differing levels of resilience. Catfish, for instance can live out of water for very long time and are not averse warm water temperatures and alike. Alligator gar are even more hardy, but trout are quite different. And so on. Then there is the question of hooking. Small hooks are easily swallowed and can get embedded in the insides of fish, so if you use a small hook, you need to set the hook at the beginning of the strike and do so with purpose and skill. Surgical forceps are also a plus. Furthermore, the question of live well or stringers is important. I find that fish baskets or stringers with separate hook clips work best—but one has to worry about turtles, snakes, and raccoons. Live wells with a good, functioning aerator are fine too. All of this allows for the dignity of your prey to be respected and stored til cleaning time, I think. When it comes to cleaning, decapitation is quick work or gutting too. I have also stored my fish, right out of the water, on ice in a cooler when I have to transport them to a site for cleaning. Any hunter, however, has surely seen the same type of behavior of a dying animal. I think the risks and liabilities in both are similar—only in fishing you are much closer to the whole thing from beginning to end. My grandfather used to shoot alligator gar in the head with a .22, but this was for protection before trying to land the often over five foot long animals.

      I hope this helps, thanks.

      Sam

      • Topherdone

        Thanks for the reply. It definitely helps. As you might suspect, my concern is with treating animals with respect and dignity, even when consuming them, while eliminating any needless suffering on their part. Your techniques seem to do that.

        So thanks again.