Getting Cheesy

» January 26th, 2013

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.



8 Responses to Getting Cheesy

  1. Jennifer Greene says:

    James, I agree. That’s why I recently read Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath.

    It was reviewed Nov. 2010 over at Vegan Outreach. Matt & Anne provide a summary here:

    The lessons of Switch are useful for animal advocates, as we try to figure out how to “motivate the elephant” (to use one of the metaphors from the book).

    One advantage of reading the whole book? I think the case studies help the reader remember the lessons, and see how to apply them in a range of settings. (The Vegan Outreach summary applies the lessons too, but mainly in the very specific context of leafleting.)

    So I encourage advocates who recognize the need to “dance the marketing dance” to read the VO summary, then go read the book.

  2. Rebecca Stucki says:

    I agree too – we need good advertising. On another note – cheese and sex – ewww! Just…ewww!

  3. KathyKale says:

    Hasn’t PETA known this for a long time? example, The Sexy Vegan Campaigns (which is all true of course ; ) ), and also playing up the “beautiful & powerful” vegans: movie stars, musicians, models, sport stars, CEO’s, politicians, pretty much all of the rich and famous…Isn’t that the “cheesy” way to appeal to the universal desire to be attractive, smart, and successful? And if so, why do we berate them so much for it?

  4. John T. Maher says:

    So food, it seems, becomes differentiated and fetishized in niche markets as objects d’ virtue which inscribe social meaning to the character of the consumer by transforming what would otherwise be a mere commodified purchase into the perceived connoisseur (itself the title of a foodie magazine which the ex used to write). Again the social hieroglyph where the conditions of production are divorced from the cheese at the point of sale via the rhetoric of “cuteness” and hints of sexual awareness. Nothing new there.

    A.J. Liebling was married to one of my favorite authors, Jean Stafford, who is under read in HAS despite her genius.

    I would like to add that as a profoundly religious nation, America has always maintained a strong faith in Cheeses no matter what arguments godless vegans present!

    • Nadine says:

      John – your final paragraph made me burst into laughter. In Canada, we have a religious order of poutine, bacon and maple syrup. I have been called a heretic on several occasions for admonishing these “foods”.

  5. CQ says:

    A few hours before you wrote “Getting Cheesy,” James, I happened to notice this piece about why we’re addicted to cheese under the “Most Popular Pages” column of Robert Grillo’s website:

  6. Mary Finelli says:

    Queijo de Serpa: “There’s just no other way to describe the effect this cheese has on me. Even though I barely remember sex.”

    James McWilliams: “Haha. I guess. (Why cheese and sex should be favorably compared is beyond me. Even though I barely remember cheese.)”

    Had to laugh out loud at that!!

  7. Bea Elliott says:

    The biggest (not so clever) turn-off to cheese has got to be the image of the alien-type ingredient that is unweaned calf-stomachs – AKA rennet:

    I dare anyone to even think of sex after seeing it! :/

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