In the age of the Foodie, in an era when more information has never before been so promiscuous, there’s every reason to believe that the sophisticated consumer, the gourmet shopper, knows exactly what he’s doing. But Steve Jenkins, who sells specialty cheese at New York’s Fairway Market, thinks otherwise (to put it mildly). “The customer has no idea what he or she wants,” he explained to the Times’ Jeff Gordinier. “The customer is dying to be told what they want.”
Herein lies a Deep Truth for anyone interested in reforming the way humans eat. Vegans cringe when we hear the old canard that humanity must drink milk to get our calcium and beef to stay properly protein-pumped. We know these dietary claims to be not only false, but the result of insidious advertising campaigns (often from government “check-off” programs) asking us if we’ve “got milk” or if we’d heard that beef is “what’s for dinner”? We cringe, in part, because we understand this craven campaign of misinformation to be highly influential in shaping the collective consumer mentality of the tired, poor, and hungry proletariat staggering down the grocery aisle, trying to keep the kids well-nourished in our post-industrial culinary dystopia.
But the Deep Truth is that the power to inscribe meaning to food works just as powerfully with the Ph.D in Food Studies (please tell me there is no such thing) as the supposedly gullible high school dropout. Gordinier’s article is more interesing than it at first appears. In a way he’s poking fun at supposedly savvy foodies for being just as clueless about their uppity preferences as the average consumer (and thus just as prone to being manipulated by marketing gimmickery). “Got milk” might work for the average dupe, but for the Whole Foods-type of shopper, according to Jenkins the cheese guy, “Sales are provoked by an intelligent sign.”
Premise established, Gordinier’s piece then predictably succumbs to the cuteness required of so much contemporary food writing (where is A.J. Leibling when we need him?) and revels in the silliness of a bunch of cheese descriptions. One example should be enough. Queijo de Serpa: “It is still made only at night, I am led to believe, as it was when I last visited the cheesemaker, and what I haven’t told you is Serpa’s texture and flavor are like sex. There’s just no other way to describe the effect this cheese has on me. Even though I barely remember sex.”
Haha. I guess. (Why cheese and sex should be favorably compared is beyond me. Even though I barely remember cheese.) The upshot here is that vegan activists cannot completely duck and hide from this cheesy game of manipulation. We might have to dance the marketing dance a bit. Too often we work under the exclusive assumption that if we just make a clear and rational point about the ethical, environmental, or personal health impact of eating animals, the world will wake up and listen and evolve accordingly. But it won’t. There may have to be some trickery involved.
I don’t want to make too much of this manipulation—and I don’t even have an example in mind— but I do want to say that the commercialized nature of the culinary battlefield cannot be ignored. Philosophers are out there scribbling away about the ontological-hermeneutical-heuristical-blahblah about animal ethics and they need to keep doing this. Activists are out there chaining themselves to poles and getting branded to expess solidarity with dairy cows and they should probably stop doing this. We all have our opinions about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to spreading the vegan message. But the Deep Truth is that vegan public relations experts and marketers must be part of the solution. Vegans may have to get a little cheesy.