In a Starving World, Is Eating Well Unethical? – The New York Times


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A meditation on the true cost of dining when nearly one-third of the planet lacks regular access to food.
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MIDAS IS IN the kitchen. A tomahawk steak gleams, leafed in 24-karat gold, with only the long handle of the bone left bare. When pierced with a knife, the gilded slab reveals itself to be actual meat, mottled pink and swaddled in fat. Steam rises, as from a fresh kill. Such a steak — a signature of the Turkish chef Nusret Gokce, better known as Salt Bae — appears in a video that went viral last November, in which Gokce himself delivers the golden calf to the table of General To Lam, the Vietnamese minister of public security, at Nusr-Et steakhouse in London. The chef slices and slaps the cuts of meat so they tumble like dominoes, then stabs one with the tip of his knife and reaches it across the table toward his high-ranking guest. The general opens his mouth and accepts the bite as if it were his due.
The video was posted to Gokce’s TikTok account and then quickly deleted, but that didn’t stop copies of it from making the social media rounds in Vietnam. According to receipts from other diners’ meals at Nusr-Et that circulated online, a golden tomahawk cost between 850 and 1,450 pounds at the time, roughly $1,155 to $1,975, significantly more than Lam’s official salary, which is reportedly around $675 a month, and Vietnam’s average per capita monthly income of about $180. There was a hint of possible corruption: Who paid for this meal, and where did the money come from? But some found it offensive on principle — to see a Communist Party official, a champion of the proletariat, dine so opulently. Others noted the irony in this triumphal display of materialism coming on the heels of Lam’s pilgrimage to the grave of Karl Marx, the revolutionary philosopher “on whose theories the Vietnamese people overthrew systems of oppression ruled by colonialists and imperialists,” as trumpeted by a government press release.
The critique seems fair. A public servant should be held to a higher standard than an average person, and the issue of corruption is particularly concerning in a country known to curtail dissent. (In fact, dissent is the purview of this particular minister, and shortly after the golden steak incident, police in Danang interrogated a noodle seller who posted a video of himself imitating the operatic gestures of Salt Bae.) But is the crime here — if there is a crime, in an ethical if not a legal sense — mere hypocrisy? Is it only acceptable for those who unrepentantly embrace capitalism to drop a few thousand dollars on a single meal, so long as they don’t pretend to care about the gap between rich and poor?
IN THE FALL of 1975, as New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, in a year of austerity measures including mass government layoffs and radical cuts in social and public safety services, The New York Times published a front-page story about a dinner for two that cost $4,000, more than $20,000 in today’s money. This was not breaking news or an exposé and indictment of leadership gone awry but a lighthearted piece by the newspaper’s food editor, Craig Claiborne, about a night at an haute Paris restaurant spent sampling 31 courses (lobster, foie gras, pheasant, truffles) and nine wines.
Notably, Claiborne did not spend his own money, or not much of it: He had won a free dinner of any price, funded by American Express, at a charity auction, with a bid of $300 (about $1,500 in today’s money). Only then did he set about finding the most expensive meal he could. You might call him a canny consumer, getting the biggest bang for his buck, but the readers who flooded The Times with angry letters thought otherwise. “Disgusting,” one pronounced. “Smugly decadent,” wrote another. “Wanton.” “Wasteful.” “A sick joke.” “Grossly wrong.” Even the Vatican was reported to have weighed in: “Scandalous.” To which Claiborne replied that he was sorry they felt that way, but would they have minded quite so much if he’d won a Mercedes-Benz instead?
True, no one goes to the barricades just for want of a Mercedes-Benz. (Although transit fare hikes in New York that same year did prompt protests: Passengers wrapped chains around subway gates so everyone could ride for free.) Under the prevailing doctrine of capitalism, most of us accept that we don’t all have access to the same things; some people drive sleek roadsters, some rattletraps, while others make do with bikes or walk. We are taught not to denounce luxury goods but to covet them, on the theory that if we work hard enough, we, too, might someday get behind the wheel of that AMG One.
At the same time, we support mobility as a social good, and so our taxes fund public transportation, however inefficient. One could argue that food is the same: Some feast on ortolans — songbirds drowned in Armagnac and eaten whole with all their tiny crunching bones — while others must content themselves with gruel. The government steps in as needed, providing assistance in the form of food stamps, pantries and soup kitchens, each with its own rules and limitations.
Except that food is of a different order. It’s a necessity, and recognized as such in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 25, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food.” Humanity made it to the end of the 19th century without gas-powered automobiles and, as of 2015, while 88 percent of American households owned a car, in China, the world’s second-biggest economy, only 17 percent could say the same. Not having a car is a hindrance; not having food can be fatal, in the short or long term. Lack of it impairs cognitive development in children. Access to only inexpensive processed food, low in nutrients, has been shown to contribute to chronic disease.
According to United Nations estimates, in 2020, 2.37 billion people, close to a third of the world’s population, experienced periods of going without food or were unable to consistently access nutrients, and 22 percent of all children under the age of 5 exhibited stunted growth. To think of food as just another product, then, whose price is set by the market, buoyed by the whims of demand, not need, is to accept that some people will go without, and will sicken or starve. To permit it.
SO THERE IS a crime: People are starving or undernourished. But we still have not established a correlation between one person’s indulgence and another’s suffering. The Times restaurant critic Pete Wells has noted “a small pit of shame in my gut” when he eats exorbitantly expensive meals. It feels wrong to spend freely on something so ephemeral as a fancy dinner while others languish in hunger, but is it? And if so, why, beyond a sense of common decency and solidarity with those less fortunate?
Claiborne, in responding to his readers’ fury, resisted the premise of their condemnation. “I would like to ask those who were not amused if they seriously believe that as a result of that evening I have deprived one human being of one mouthful of food,” he wrote. “If the meal had not occurred, would one more mouth have been fed, one more body been nourished?” His defense, essentially, was that his was at worst a victimless crime. He stole from no one; his profligacy did not deepen the miseries of others.
One could quibble with this. “The connoisseur cannot be both knowledgeable and innocent,” the American philosopher Carolyn Korsmeyer writes in her 2012 essay “Ethical Gourmandism.” She suggests that we are implicated morally in how the food we eat is produced, since “one cannot cultivate a taste for foie gras without cultivating a taste for fatty liver of a force-fed goose.” We might extend this to the experience of dining out itself, including the role of high-end restaurants in gentrification; the industry’s track record of exploiting labor through wage theft and abuse; and the fetishizing of ingredients that were once staples for ordinary people, who now can no longer afford to eat them as a regular part of their diet, as with lobster in New England and caviar from species of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea that are now among the world’s most endangered. As the British food writer Ruby Tandoh puts it in a 2018 essay, “Who has the freedom to eat for pleasure, and who does not?” The more of the world that becomes a playground for the superrich, the more the poor are pushed to the margins and the more difficult their lives become.
Still, it’s a bit of a deflection to put the onus on the individual to solve, through abstinence from particular pleasures, what is, in fact, a systemic problem. To be within a system is, to some extent, to be complicit in it, but choosing not to patronize a high-end restaurant won’t necessarily improve anyone’s life, unless you donate that money to charity. Which, of course, from a utilitarian perspective, is exactly what you should do: Take the money you would’ve spent on foie gras and distribute it in a way that maximizes the number of people who benefit.
Then again, from a religious perspective, it would be better to sell everything you own and give the proceeds to the poor. But we are speaking here not of saints, just ordinary people trying to be good. Is it a sin to eat a little caviar now and then? What is the debt we owe others when we eat?
EATING IS INTRINSICALLY selfish. We eat to keep ourselves alive. And we often eat other living creatures, taking the lives of those we deem lesser (animals) in order to further our own. As the American bioethicist Leon R. Kass points out in “The Hungry Soul” (1994), eating is a transitive verb: “To be eating is necessarily to be eating something.” That something ceases to be itself when we define it as food, and again when, once eaten, it is subsumed inside us and becomes us.
This is what makes eating so powerful as a metaphor. We see what we do to others, and so fear our own devouring, of becoming food for worms, as the saying goes, upon death. Such a fate is made endurable by certain cosmologies that insist our true selves are unbound by materiality — that we have souls that persist beyond the rude consumption of flesh. Fasting is a form of purification in a religious context, but it can be also seen as a refusal to be part of the system.
Then there is the crime beyond all crimes: cannibalism. To reduce humans to food is “not to recognize them as fully human, as the kind of beings that by definition cannot be reduced to anything like that,” the Finnish philosophy scholar Sami Pihlström has written. And yet we are always “eating” each other in a metaphorical sense, treating some of our fellow humans as just a means to an end, the invisible labor that puts goods on the shelves of our stores and food on our tables. “The ogre loved his children; he ate the children of others,” the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre writes in “The Life of the Spider” (1912). “The dignity of labor, the joy of life, maternal affection, the terrors of death: All these do not count, in others; the main point is that the morsel be tender and savory.” Even worse, Pihlström suggests, is that we know our victims are like us, yet we “eat” them just the same.
WAIT — HAVE I reasoned myself into a corner? Does this mean we can’t eat anything at all, or at least not without guilt? So much of morality is about legislating pleasure, either because it distracts you from what really matters or because it harms others. The harm in the case of the lavish meal is still unclear. When we decry the price of the golden steak, are we trying to shame diners into atoning by giving an equivalent sum to the poor? (At the opposite end of the debate, there are those who criticize people on public assistance for occasionally using food stamps to buy crab legs or birthday cakes, as if only the rich deserved such delights.) Is outrage a genuine weapon, an attempt to disrupt and correct the system, or is the best we can hope for a little more consciousness of the world’s ills and gratitude for one’s own privilege and dumb luck, as when parents exhort children to clean their plates because people elsewhere in the world are starving? Is it all performative?
To take another angle, the perhaps undesirable truth is that food should be expensive, or at least more expensive than it is, given the toll agriculture takes on the environment and the labor required for planting and harvesting. Typically, a third of restaurant revenue goes toward ingredients and another third toward paying workers what should be at least a living wage. There is also the question of the value of truly exceptional food, testament to the mastery or ingenuity of a chef — is that not worthy of reward?
It might be harder to justify the $200 French fries made of potatoes doused with Dom Pérignon, crisped in goose fat and showered with gold dust and black truffles, which might have been invented just to catch the attention of Guinness World Records (as it did), or the $10,000 pizza, advertised as “the most expensive in the world,” topped with lobster tails and three types of caviar and served in the privacy of your own home with pairings of Rémy Martin and Krug. But maybe this excess should just make us laugh. For the real problem with the gilded steak is that edible gold has no flavor. It’s pure ornament, and a cheap ingredient at that, around $2 a sheet. We condemn, but could as easily mock, the wealthy diners dazzled by shiny things — who think that just because the price is high, they’re getting something special.
Forgo the truffles entirely and you may save no one but yourself. Why not just work for a world where everyone has enough to eat, while taking pleasure in what’s on your table, whether high or low? And let yourself indulge in the occasional decadent bite, for tomorrow: the worms.
Digital tech: Lori Cannava. Photo assistant: Karl Leitz. Prop stylist’s assistant: Rochelle Voyles
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