Monday, February 25, 2013

First World Luxuries

Chef, food critic and television personality Anthony Bourdain is a devilishly intelligent guy.

Last year on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Maher asked Bourdain, “If you had to choose between average sex and a great meal, which would you choose?” With precision comedic timing, Bourdain winked, “Depends on who’s doin’ the cookin’ and who’s doin’ the fuckin’.”

For all it’s locker room charm, that quote wasn’t as thought provoking as another Bourdain quote that my son, Cal recently shared with me. On Bourdain’s Travel Channel show, “No Reservations,” he was in a third-world country eating meat from an exotic local animal, and when asked about vegetarians back in America, he quipped, “Vegetarianism is a first-world luxury.”

I love a confrontational quote that begs soulful self-examination. And it was delivered with a layer of indictment that’s hard to ignore, as if luxuries are to be apologized for.

I shared the quote (about vegetarians) with a friend who is not only a chef and a vegetarian, but also a fan of Bourdain. Unfortunately, this friend doesn’t really like to be provoked with self-examination. Her momentary silence and tightened body language revealed she was taken aback (and from my experience, vegetarians are prone to being taken aback – that’s how they became vegetarians!), so I took pity and offered a sympathetic comeback: “Quality education is a first world luxury. Sanitary drinking water, sewer systems, a criminal justice system, air traffic control systems and national elections, to randomly name just a few, are all first-world luxuries.” She was soothed and echoed my comments with a sorta, “Yeah, to what you just said.”

But to focus on that alone ignores the complexity of Bourdain’s observation. Those living in the relative ease of the first world have the safety, comfort, and plenty to choose beyond today’s dire necessities. We can say, “Oh, I won’t eat that, because I’ve decided it’s not ethical treatment of animals,” or “it’s not healthy.” But people in the 3rd world often have to eat what they have to eat. They may never get a chance at self-actualizing such decisions because they have more pressing worries: hunger, safety, and weather extremes.

But does that mean we have to apologize or feel guilty because we can choose to eat what we want to eat? I don’t dress or house my family like people in the 3rd world (if you ignore my son, Jack, who chooses to dress that way). As much as I wish the world’s poor had more, I’m not sorry for my circumstances. I’m grateful.

I think Bourdain’s quote was a bit of a cheap shot. And Bourdain does it a lot. He often compares vegetarians to picky eaters who drag everybody else down when traveling and dining with their fussy sensibilities. But when I think of first-world luxuries, I do think of people who have the luxury to fear and disdain that which others less fortunate would kill for.

For instance I know a number of people who refuse to vaccinate their children, convinced that it’s dangerous. The staggering swath of medical history and worldwide child mortality data you have to ignore to become a vaccination-phobe speaks to the isolation of the first-world experience.

Like President Franklin Roosevelt, my aunt Beverly suffered from polio. She spent part of her childhood in an iron lung. You know how modern-day people who refuse to vaccinate their children get away without vaccinating them against polio? Because the rest of us do! Providing a safe cultural pool for their kids to swim in.

Look at countries without widespread vaccinations and you find countries with high infant mortality and a level of childhood misery that is Biblical in its gushing heartache. But in the first world, you can live like all that never happens . . . or isn’t even true. Instead, you take your relative safety from disease for granted and obsess over side issues.

The vaccination-phobes remind me of people I’ve met who are afraid to fly. They talk forever about how airplanes can fall from the sky, but can’t seem to focus when you share travel data that proves hands-down that it’s more dangerous to drive than to fly. They instead tell you stories about airline mechanics who let dangerous planes fly or pilots who drink before they go to work. Share yet more unmistakable data again and they find another obscure objection. They’re focused on the emotional, a place where the rational has no power.

Only in the first world, where there is no longer any polio (thanks to vaccinations) can you get hyper-focused on the minute percentage of kids proven to have a negative reaction to vaccinations. In the 3rd world, people have to spend their time worrying about the far, far, far higher percentage of children who get polio.

In the comfort of the first world: emotions, minus scientific observations can equal reality. Call me a science nerd, but I like to do it the other way around, adding up scientific observation and subtracting emotion.

And I have friends here in central Indiana who insist on commuting in large 4-wheel drive SUVs, “because they’re safer.” We live in just about the flattest place in the world, in a county with not a single gravel road, with some of the safest, best designed highways in the world, but they feel unsafe without all that metal and those gear ratios on their side. They need an urban assault vehicle or they just won’t feel right.

First world luxury indeed! Think India or Cambodia and a scooter with an entire family perched atop it.

Several years ago I went to a vegetarian grilling class with a group of friends. The instructor began by explaining that humans were never meant to be vegetarians, describing in detail the shape of our teeth and what they were made to do – the front teeth made to tear meat apart and the back teeth made to grind it up so we can swallow it. He went on to explain our high protein needs, from the vital part it plays in childhood brain development to ongoing adult needs for protein – something harder get if you don’t live in a first world country. The one vegetarian in our group was, well, taken aback. She didn’t like having her belief’s challenged.

But truth is, I had some sympathy for her. If we’re to look only at science and human history, it’s hard to argue that being peaceful rather than warlike is what we were “meant to be.” And anthropologists tell us time and again that it is not in human nature to be monogamous. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to be peaceful and faithful, nor is human history a reason to dismiss or condescend to people who strive for those ideals.

Don’t we all strive against our natural tendencies to greater or lesser degrees?

What Bourdain was really nibbling at was Maslow’s Need Hierarchy, which we all remember from any psychology class we ever took. People at the bottom of the hierarchy are striving for food, shelter, and safety. Once you have that, you move up the hierarchy and start expecting more, and better. Once you get that you start searching for self-actualization – seeking purpose and meaning in what you do. There is a natural tendency, when we’re at the top of the hierarchy and embarrassed at all the time we spend gazing into our belly-buttons, to think the people scrapping at the bottom are more worthy than us, “more real,” because their needs are more immediate and less petty.

I actually believe that’s true. But I also bet those at the bottom, those in the 3rd world would trade with us in a heartbeat if given the option. It’s good to be reminded that our lives of comfort can make our concerns a little petty. But it’s also good to have the comforts.

So go on vegetarians - disdain meat. Eat your veggies and your grains. I’ll eat those too, and your share of the meat, and won’t feel bad about you or myself no matter what Anthony Bourdain says.

It’s a little like sex vs. the well-cooked meal Bill Maher asked about. You really shouldn’t have to choose between the two. Take them both, recognize that you’re lucky, but don’t apologize.


  1. Great point there Kurt. We covered Maslow's Hierarchy at college recently. Since coming across the "First World Problems" trend online, it makes me realise that a lot of the things I bitch about are things I have the LUXURY to bitch about. But guilt isn't the answer, as you say. A healthy dose of perspective instead can work wonders.

  2. love you you hannah. miss your wit and wisdom . . . and smile