Rebecca Tucker is the author of the forthcoming book A Matter of Taste: A Farmers’ Market Devotee’s Semi-Reluctant Argument for Inviting Scientific Innovation to the Dinner Table, from which this essay is adapted.
In the television series The Good Place, which frames the concepts of heaven and hell – or, more loosely, what happens to you in the afterlife – as, well, a Good Place and a Bad Place, each resident of Earth is assigned a point score based on their deeds while they were alive. The greater the deed, in terms of its virtuosity, the higher its score; the more abhorrent the deed, the more it cuts that score down.
It’s one of many concepts that the show, in its initial presentation, plays for quirkiness and laughs. But, as with the fundamental narrative of The Good Place – which is, like it or not, a deeply thoughtful, nuanced and at times devastatingly incisive criticism of human morality – there’s much more to the idea than immediately meets the eye.
For one thing, the good that we, as individuals, are able to perform isn’t necessarily equal: One person’s “high-ticket items,” good-points-wise, may be entirely unavailable to another person; but how is it then fair that that person would be granted a higher moral status, simply by virtue (no pun intended) of factors beyond his or her control? In the TV series, the character Tahani – a wealthy socialite during her life on Earth – notes that some of her points were contingent on her elevated socioeconomic standing. It’s a lot easier, in other words, to get ahead, in this life and the theoretical next, if you’re already a member of the 1 per cent. Doesn’t seem particularly fair, does it? It reminds me a lot of the way we think about food.
In 2018, the discourse around what we should eat is a lot like the discourse around where the characters in The Good Place should end up: Is it good, or is it bad? In the slightly literal sense, in the context of food, you might think that this means is it nutritious – is it good for me, for my body, for my health? – or the opposite: Will it harm me, physically? Our idea of what constitutes good food is just as deceptively surface-level as The Good Place; in actuality, it’s all about virtue and vice, on a slightly esoteric and often unattainable level.
These two types of good and two types of bad – the healthful and the virtuous goods versus the unhealthy and immoral bads – aren’t mutually exclusive: Often, food that ticks off virtue is also good for our bodies. But in marketing, and in the collective consciousness, it’s become more important to emphasize morality than literal physical wholesomeness; good for you might be the baseline, but virtue is the prevailing top note.
To understand this, we need to go back a few years. In 2006, the writer Michael Pollan released the defining tome of the modern foodie era: The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It sought to answer one (deceptively, beguilingly) simple question: “What should we have for dinner?” The Omnivore’s Dilemma at once defined and catapulted into the zeitgeist the food-borne anxieties that would come to frame the next decade for food activists and concerned diners. In it, the American journalist scrutinizes everything from factory farming to foraging to fast food, with the stated goal of determining the best food to eat. His conclusion, practically, is that the Perfect Meal, as he calls it, is one that is partly foraged, partly hunted and allows him “to eat in full consciousness.” Which is to say that, almost immediately, Mr. Pollan gives up the idea that the “best” food means, purely, the healthiest food. The best food, to him, is the food that allows for a pretty significant helping of righteousness.
Mr. Pollan notes that the question of what to eat, for humans, has historically been almost strictly utilitarian: Evolutionarily, the omnivore’s dilemma – that is, the human’s dilemma – centred on determining first which of a plethora of foods available would not kill us, and second, deciding which of these foods could serve as good sources of the nutrients, vitamins and minerals we required to stay alive. A lot of the time, we figured this out by tasting things, and subconsciously associating biological responses with flavours: The collagen in bone broth might have once helped your body recover from a bad cold, for instance, which explains why you might crave chicken soup the next time you have a flu. (In The Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker calls this “biological wisdom,” although he also explains that we’re not as instinctively wise to the evolutionary benefits of flavour as we used to be, on account of our prolonged exposure to the artificial stuff).
Mr. Pollan addresses some of this, too. “Many anthropologists believe that the reason we evolved such big and intricate brains was precisely to help us deal with the omnivore’s dilemma,” he writes. “Omnivory offers the pleasures of variety … But the surfeit of choice brings with it a lot of stress and leads to a kind of Manichean view of food, a division of nature into The Good Things to Eat, and the Bad.” Mr. Pollan was joined in 2007 in the pursuit of revolutionizing dinnertime by Canadian writers Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, whose The 100-Mile Diet brought to the fore the very virtuous idea of “locavorism”; Barbara Kingsolver and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle followed shortly thereafter and doubled down on the assertion that the best food is the stuff that comes from your own backyard. Mr. Pollan returned in 2008 with In Defense of Food; firebrand New York Times columnist Mark Bittman released Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating that year.
In 2009, the moral quandary of what’s good to eat and what’s not hit the big screen with Food Inc., A documentary co-produced by Eric Schlosser (who, eight years earlier, eviscerated McDonalds and co. with his book Fast Food Nation). The film, based on The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and narrated by Mr. Pollan, was called “literally gut-wrenching” by NPR and “one of the year’s most important films” by The San Francisco Chronicle. Food Inc. was nominated for an Academy Award and succeeded in putting onscreen – and therefore making far more widely accessible and discussed than it was in print – Mr. Pollan’s message that eating right doesn’t just mean eating nutritiously – it means eating morally. (Not coincidentally, that NPR review described Mr. Pollan and Mr. Schlosser as “embodiments of conscience.”)