Author Dana Goodyear has spent a lot of time dining with foodies who champion bugs as a meal. And horses. And brains. Whales. Leaves. Weeds. Ash. Hay. Even plain dirt.
Goodyear, a staff writer for The New Yorker, set out to document the outer bounds of the extreme food culture that has taken hold among American foodies. Their quest for ever more exotic, challenging ingredients, she says, is raising fundamental questions about the nature of food itself and the assumptions that underlie what we view as acceptable to eat.
"The food movement is starting to challenge those [assumptions] in a pretty serious way," Goodyear tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "I wanted to see what the basis of the taboos is, and what it looks like when people start to question them."
Her new book, Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters and the Making of a New American Food Culture, documents this transformation of modern food culture.
The book contains a cast of foodie characters, such as Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, whom Goodyear calls the "Pied Piper of the food movement."
"He has made it safe for dudes to be into food," she says.
Gold, formerly with LA Weekly, championed the idea of eating low on the food chain — instead of eating the large predator animals, he argued, we should be eating their prey, or their prey's prey. Gold began promulgating this argument 25 years ago; today, Goodyear says, it is almost commonplace among forward-thinking chefs.
"It means eating the insects and not the creatures that eat the creatures that eat the insects," she explains. "His idea is that the big predators" — the sharks and whales --"all taste the same, and that you really get the full cornucopia that nature has to offer when you go down to the smaller creatures that are at the bottom of the heap" — such as the sea squirts and sea cucumbers now found on high-end menus.
As part of her reporting, Goodyear spent time with many different food subcultures. But one thing that binds these groups together, she says, is the idea that Americans should be eating more broadly than U.S. regulations allow.
"What this movement has to teach us is that we have prejudices about food that are not necessarily well founded, and we can learn things from cultures that have been eating more resourcefully than we have for many generations," she says.
She tried many strange foods for the book, but for her, the strangest was a $90 cup of coffee, brewed from beans collected from the droppings of civets — a small wild cat — in Southeast Asia. The coffee, which she bought from gourmet grocer Dean & Deluca, tasted "wonderful," she says. (Indeed, civet poop coffee, or kopi luwak, is so rare and pricey that scientists have developed a chemical test to tell if you've bought the real thing. But, as we've previously reported, the coffee's high price tag has also encouraged some to cage the cats and force feed them coffee beans.)
Ironically, she notes, the elite diners at the vanguard of the food movement — the ones who can afford to eat at restaurants where the tasting menu is $250 a head — more and more often are paying high prices to eat the foods of poverty.
"What does it mean," muses Goodyear, "that the richest people in the world are starting to eat like the survivors of a catastrophe?"
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Dana Goodyear is a staff writer for The New Yorker and her new book is about, well, it's actually all there in the title. It's called "Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters and the Making of a New American Food Culture." She met and dined with foodies who champion insects as a meal and horse and brains, whales, leaves, weeds, ash, hay, and even just dirt. Dana Goodyear also met food activists like the raw milk groups who say pasteurization is robbing you of essential nutrients.
We talked with her about what she learned on her journey through bugs and brains. But before she told us what she learned, we needed to establish exactly what it was she ate.
DANA GOODYEAR: Can I tell you the strangest thing that I consumed for the book?
MARTIN: Do I want to know?
GOODYEAR: Well, you can - I didn't dwell on it. But you can buy it at Dean & DeLuca. It's a kind of coffee. The cup of coffee that I had was $90.
GOODYEAR: And this coffee is called kopi luwak and the beans are collected from the droppings of a wild civet in Southeast Asia, and cleaned and then brewed. And on Dean & DeLuca's site they say that - they refer to this as a sort of pre-ferment that is happening in the digestive tract of civet.
MARTIN: It's poop coffee, Dana.
GOODYEAR: Pretty much, it's pretty much that.
GOODYEAR: And it actually - it tastes wonderful. I mean I'm...
GOODYEAR: I'm as susceptible as anyone else is to a tasting note and somebody telling me that it tastes like apple pies, saying oh, yeah, that's kind of caramelly. There is sort of like a burnt sugar flavor to that.
GOODYEAR: It interested me because it's such a collision of high and low and taboo. And this avant-garde movement that often involves very elite diners, restaurants - you know, tasting menus, $250 a head, that kind of thing - so often the foods that are being presented in that context are the foods of poverty. And what does it mean that the richest people in the world are starting to eat like survivors of a catastrophe?
MARTIN: A lot of this book is about the psychology of eating and the lines that even some extreme foodies draw when it comes to eating. Did you find that these boundaries are based on anything in particular? Or are they just personal kind of subjective choices?
GOODYEAR: Everybody, I would say - I think I can say this. I think everybody is something of a hypocrite about what they eat. Because people who are very, very thoughtful about 10 different species and why it's not moral to consume them - for various ecological and reasons of the animal's intellectual development - will then say, but, you know, I know pigs are really smart and I know the pork industry is really bad for the environment, but I just love bacon...
GOODYEAR: ...so I give myself a free pass on that one. And the food movement is starting to challenge those in a pretty serious way. And I wanted to see what the basis for the taboos is, and what it looks like when people start to question them.
MARTIN: What connects all the people you talk to for this book, who come from a lot of different worlds?
GOODYEAR: The unifying idea is that Americans should be able to eat more broadly than we are currently allowed to eat based on government regulations. And that connects to the idea that Americans should eat more broadly than most Americans think that we should be able to eat. So it's a sense of urgency around the idea of opening our minds.
MARTIN: How has it changed how you eat? I mean you've got kids, has this process changed what you think about feeding them?
GOODYEAR: It's changed how I talk to them about food. My son is 3 and this may be a developmental thing, or he might have been uniquely sensitive to what I was thinking about but not talking to him about. He started asking me, while I was writing the book in our little evening walk; he would start saying things like, do people eat horses? And...
GOODYEAR: ...I would just look at him, thinking about what I'd been reading and writing that day and find that I had an opportunity to respond, as an enlightened 21st-century citizen of the world, and say, in some places people do. Whereas probably when I was growing up, the answer to that would have been of course not. We ride horses, horses are our friends.
GOODYEAR: And so I think that what this movement has to teach us is that we have prejudices as eaters that are not necessarily well founded. And we can learn things from cultures that have been eating more resourcefully than we have for many generations.
MARTIN: The book is called "Anything That Moves." It is written by Dana Goodyear. She talked to us from our studios at NPR West in Los Angeles.
Thank you so much for talking with us, Dana.
GOODYEAR: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.