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Diet for an Obsessed Planet

A few years ago, at the height of the food craze for pork from so-called heritage breeds, a friend who lives in New York City reported going to a restaurant that served pork, and only pork.

It’s one of those places called Porco or Cochon or Oink that takes a slightly ostentatious pride in serving food raised on small family farms, where, a la Portlandia, the chickens and pigs have pet names and extensive resumes, and probably their own Facebook pages, too.

A large table of diners was nearby, and as a suckling pig, its skin bronzed and crackling, was borne to the table, cheers went up. Whipping out their iPhones, the gourmands proceeded to take photos of themselves next to the swine, giving thumbs up as they, grinning like satyrs, posed next to its head.

It was a bizarre performance, right out of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita . I’m a meat eater but the image of this culinary triumphalism made me uneasy, as it did my friend who’d witnessed it. A young pig — organic! farm raised! fed on kitchen scraps! — had been killed so a party in a big city restaurant could treat it as a trophy, no different from mounting a buck’s head on the wall — except, in most cases, the buck’s head has been come by honestly, by someone who went to the trouble of killing it him or herself.

At a restaurant that trumpeted its eat-locally, think-globally bona fides, where trotters, ears, jowls, belly and cheeks were offered in addition to the usual chops and ribs, or what’s called nose-to-tail eating, the culture of Back to the Land, Food for a Small Planet had run up against a culture of lavish, even gluttonish consumption.

The term “foodie,” no favorite of mine, has become synonymous with a fussy self-indulgence. Menus speak — I kid you not — of “immature emu eggs” lovingly swaddled in a bed of exotic greens. Did the restaurateurs mean an egg from a bird not yet a year old? (In chicken terms, a pullet.) Or did they mean an emu that wasn’t, er, mature?

People are no longer content to gaze on their food with appreciation; now they devour it on film, or the digital equivalent. They send photos of their food to other people taking photos of their food, as if they were taking pictures of the Roman Coliseum or the Eiffel Tower.

One of the goals of the food movement of the past decade has been to reestablish the links between the sources of food, the way in which the food was grown or raised and the people who would eventually eat it. While this has happened, it’s also led to extraordinary smugness. Eating food grown or raised within a 100-mile radius of a metropolitan area seems to have become a personal virtue, a mark of moral superiority. You’re judged, not kindly, on what you eat and how you eat.

God forbid you should pop into Burger King for a Whopper or eat Cheetos. How many times have you heard someone bridle at the idea of eating at a fast food chain with the disclaimer, “I would never let my kids eat at ... Fill in the Blank.”

Yet the same people who pass by a bag of Lay’s potato chips (and I include myself here) will pay $3 or $4 for a bag of kale or root vegetable chips that boasts of containing a recommended daily allowance of vegetables. It may be organic, but it’s still junk food. A potato chip by any other name is still a chip, caloric and deep-fried, even if it is in canola oil.

Like everything else in a country in which the gulf widens between the very rich and everybody else, a segment of the new food culture has become about class.

In the Gilded Age, in an unapologetic display of the excesses of success, the Robber Barons enjoyed nine-course banquets where champagne flowed from fountains and women dressed as nymphs bore in platters piled high with succulent fruits. They dined on pheasant under glass and Baked Alaska and Sole Amandine and Charlotte Russes, the staples of the very wealthy.

Now, in a new Gilded Age, diners salivate over food that is harvested from rich, organic loam in a bucolic valley by apple-cheeked farmers. But, in cities like New York or Boston, eating farm food often requires the salary of a hedge fund manager. And it’s not just about the food, it’s about the narrative around it.

It reminds me of the strips in Peanuts, in which Linus talks about his pumpkin patch. “Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. ... I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”

It’s true that a steady diet of Big Macs won’t do anything good for your health, but the kinds of food carefully produced by small farmers is often prohibitively expensive for people with modest or small incomes. The government does offer assistance so that people on fixed incomes can shop at farmers’ markets or buy more fresh produce, which helps, but it’s still not enough to offset the inequities.

It’s laudable that there is a new awareness of the costs of large-scale industrial farming, from environmental damage to working conditions to animal welfare to human health.

I applaud the rise of farming by a younger generation that, in an echo of the 1970s Back to the Land movement, has moved to rural areas to restore or maintain farm land. These are the concrete benefits of a renewed emphasis on the virtues of food that isn’t processed in factories. The world needs idealists.

But elevating your (organic, pasture-raised, free-range) diet to the level of a fetish doesn’t do much in the end for people who can’t always afford all this home-grown goodness.

Food is first about sustenance, and then pleasure. It would be joyless to insist we all wear sackcloth and ashes, and forswear the sensual appetites, of which food is one. But the food movement is in danger — if it hasn’t jumped the shark already — of turning into just another way to ruthlessly distinguish yourself by class.

The refrain might be, not “Let them eat cake,” but let them eat Pied du Porc Pané , a dish at one New York restaurant that, according to the website Eater.com, is a “collagen-rich … masterpiece … served on top of a dollop of Dijon mustard, a bed of lentils, and an herb salad.”

That would be pig’s feet to you and me.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.