Some time has passed since my last post, and now we must face a poignant milestone together: Randy Cohen’s last column. In this goodbye essay, he gives us a window into his world, summing up a decade’s worth of his adventures reading people’s letters and trying to have thoughts about them.
Over the years, Cohen has been fortunate enough to have thousands of readers request his opinion, then slaver over how great he is. So naturally, he begins by discussing his hate mail. He got a lot of angry letters, but it’s all good: “Ethics is a subject about which honorable people may differ. I was less sanguine about readers who disparaged not my argument but my character or my shoes or my nose, attacks that generally concluded, ‘You should be ashamed.’ I blame the anonymity of e-mail. And underprescribed medication.” I’m not sure you’d have to be off your meds to find Randy Cohen’s face to be objectionable; have you seen the guy? It’s a little tactless to blame him for it, though. If anyone should be ashamed of how Randy Cohen’s face turned out, it’s God! They should take it up with him!
But I’m not here to make puerile digs about people’s looks. Especially when Cohen himself is striving so hard to be fair. “From time to time, readers persuaded me that I was — what’s that ugly word? — wrong. Then I would revisit a column and recant my folly. I first did so when readers powerfully asserted that yes, you could honorably take your own food to the movies, despite a theater’s prohibition.” Why would you even think they couldn’t? “Ye shall not eat of the Raisinets that are in your purse, nor shall ye touch them, lest ye die” is not a serious moral edict. I don’t recall forbidden Jujyfruits being mentioned in the Bible — or in the Q’ran, the Code of Hammurabi, the Dialogues of Plato, Thomas Aquinas’s Commentaries on Aristotle, the Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, Atlas Shrugged, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch, or anywhere else ethical doctrines are to be found. So what’s the deal?
Okay, here’s the deal. “The upright act is to obey the rules; going to the movies is strictly voluntary, and from the theater’s point of view, when you buy a ticket, you accept its strictures. By smuggling in food, you break your agreement and hence behave unethically…. So the temptation to save money is understandable, but it ought to be resisted.” Well, that’s just weak. I mean sure, we’d all like to make up “strictures” and then get other people to tacitly agree to them, but it just doesn’t work that way. If I put a bumper sticker on my car that says “Gas, Grass or Ass, No One Rides for Free,” and I give a friend a ride home, can I demand grass or ass? “Ohh, you tacitly agreed to my strictures, no backing out now.” What about “Licensed Bikini Inspector” t-shirts? If you voluntarily permit a person wearing such a shirt to enter your domicile, must you then honor your agreement to let them inspect your bikini? Of course not! Why should it be any different for multimillion-dollar corporations?
Anyway, Cohen rescinded that opinion, so I guess it’s moot. But a greater theoretical objection looms over his endeavors. “At first I was disconcerted to be asked about religious law or medical ethics, being trained in neither.” Cohen is being too modest; in reality, he has no training in any ethics, not just religious ones. The inevitable “but I came to see…” follows in the next sentence, as Cohen proceeds to explain why such training is irrelevant. The thought of Cohen pacing around his palatial Manhattan apartment, trying to exorcise his doubts, is strangely poignant. It reminds me of Patton Oswald’s monologue about the guy who wrote the script for Death Bed, the Bed that Eats People. “What the fuck am I writing? I’m putting my name on this piece of shit! BRBRBRBRB NO, I will finish this! I will finish what I start!”
Anyway, what was it he realized? “that what readers often sought was not a ruling on what to do — they seemed to know — but an argument for why to do it.” That’s what ethics experts like me, the Pope and Randy Cohen call a “convoluted justification.” They asked you what to do… because they knew what they were going to do, but wanted you to tell them why they were going to do it? Are they from the future? Are you?
Perhaps an example will help. “They sensed that they shouldn’t shoot the dog — but it is a horrible dog: it barks incessantly; it befouls the couch. My task was to provide a reasoned case for treating it with kindness. We should.” Damn, Randy Cohen fans are some straight-up thugs. It took an inspiring essay to convince you not to shoot a dog? That is ice cold. Has Michael Vick been sharing the Sunday Times with his dogfighting buddies? (<<—- Galenes impression!) Dear sociopathic Ethicist readers, here’s why you shouldn’t murder a dog: because it would be insane, and when people find out you did it, they’ll think you are insane. I hope this fulfills your desire for a “reasoned case.”
Cohen says the letters he got “revealed much about power, money, race, class, gender, the mutual obligations and unspoken assumptions that connect us — the very things that public policy so often must deal with.” Sounds great! But we’ll never know what this “much” consists of, because he quickly moves on to the next topic: Randy Cohen’s spiritual journey.
Or lack thereof? “I say with some shame, there has been no such gradual change in my own behavior. Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous.” Again, ice cold. Not even slightly? After ten years? And you were telling other people to be ethical? That’s so uninspiring. That’s like if I saw Dan Savage eating pussy while voting against married gay couples adopting GGG children, while having anal sex without lube. I just feel disillusioned.
Cohen justifies his moral torpor by quoting “my great hero, Samuel Johnson, the person I most quoted in the column: ‘He that in the latter part of his life too strictly inquires what he has done, can very seldom receive from his own heart such an account as will give him satisfaction.'” First of all, Samuel Johnson is a really cliché “personal hero” to have. It’s like naming Rilke as your favorite poet, or The Godfather as your favorite movie, or Frank Lloyd Wright as your favorite architect. If Samuel Johnson is your hero, you might as well have a poster of Klimt’s “The Kiss” hanging on your wall. Anyway, Johnson was a celebrated wit who gave the world such famous aphorisms as “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” and “[second marriage] is the triumph of hope over experience.” Randy Cohen’s legacy will consist of quips like the following: “If you come to the theater with popcorn stuffed inside your shirt, you should not offer any to your neighbors.”
But the man has struggled for that legacy. “Spending my workday thinking about ethics [made] me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing.” Just tell us what you did! He never does. His silence leads me to believe that whatever it was must have been totally heinous. I’m filling in the blanks with the worst things I can think of. He’s probably one of those people who speeds past a traffic jam in an empty exit lane, then tries to merge at the last second. My mental image of him is coming into focus now…. Randy Cohen looks at the Starbuck’s menu for ten minutes, then orders a decaf soy latte with sugar-free caramel. Randy Cohen brings his dog into stores and tells everyone “it’s okay, she’s really friendly.” Randy Cohen sends you a chain e-mail with the subject line “Re: Re: Re: Funny baby videos!!”, and his signature is “Be the Change You Wish to See in the World.” Randy Cohen leaves you a voicemail when a text message would suffice. Randy Cohen sniffs all day instead of just blowing his nose. Randy Cohen wears Crocs. Randy Cohen shows up to parties five minutes early, wears a backpack to crowded rock shows and stands still on the moving walkway. Randy Cohen is everything you’ve ever hated. He’s the worst.
“If you’d like to find out about my next endeavors, please ‘like’ me on Facebook.” Okay! ‘Like’ me back!
But I can’t end with this portrait of heedless immorality. It’s too depressing. Instead, let’s look at a man of conscience, a man who has been tormented by his own failings and scourged by the whip of baneful retribution: Pete Wells. Wells is the editor of the Dining section and author of “Cooking With Dexter,” a series of columns that discuss his family’s foodie lifestyle in heartwarming detail. A loyal reader tipped me off that the feature is ending, so let’s discuss before it’s too late.
Wells’s son Dexter, currently a precocious six-year-old, is the focus of the columns. Dexter, as Wells informs readers repeatedly, “cooks nearly every day,” and is presented as engrossed in such activities as “learning the harmonics of flavor.” Wells isn’t bragging or anything, but “watch him bake: he freestyles like a snowboarder.”
In addition to these eulogiums, the column is crammed with trivia about the Wells’s domestic life. One piece begins “Lately, every chance I get, I have been working whole grains into the meals we serve our sons, Dexter and Elliot.” They have just all kinds of grains over the place. “Grains are fantastic.” Examples include rye flour and quinoa. “If my goal was to transport my sons back to the kitchen of some Nixon-era communally owned radical-feminist vegetarian tea parlor without anybody figuring out that we had left 2010 Brooklyn, then the pancakes were a wild success.” Dude, there were not as many rich white dudes hanging out at 70’s radical feminist parlors as you might think. Nixon-era radical feminists would have kicked your ass and tossed Dexter out the window after you. It would have been magnificent.
Also, “Grains are fantastic.” I like it! It’s like the Park Slope version of “Cocaine is a hell of a drug.”
Another frequent source of material is his family’s shared disdain for fast food. On October 4, 2009, Dexter heard about McDonald’s from his friends, so Pete took him there, but the boy’s palate was too refined to respond to such cacophonous flavors. “McDonald’s is still a place where other people’s children eat. I will try to steer Dexter toward restaurants that use ingredients we keep in our kitchen. When I asked him what he liked best about his dinner at McDonald’s, Dexter answered without hesitation: the orange Hot Wheels racer that came with the Happy Meal.”
Despite all of this steering and hinting, Wells claims to be surprised when Dexter denounces “artificial” food at dinner one night. “My wife and I are not reading the children bedtime stories out of ‘Fast Food Nation.’ Dexter, who is 6, is getting particularly theological about eating. Recently he has made pronouncements on the nutritional merits of school-cafeteria lunch…and on the evils of chain-restaurant French fries. Somewhere on his route from home to school to play dates and back again, he’s picking up secondhand notions about the food supply.”
Has he been hanging out with the guy who wrote “The New Chicken Economy“? Because he probably picked it up from that guy. That guy is you, Pete Wells! In the 2009 piece, Wells laments the bad economy, which has forced his family to descend from what some might call “phenomenally privileged” to what some might call “just really, really privileged.”
“Like most everybody else, we don’t feel as prosperous as we did a year ago. Now we treat our mutual-fund statements like junk mail and let them pile up unopened.” That’s terrible! What’s a mutual fund? Anyway, Wells was facing the slings and arrows of fortune with heroic resolve. Or so he thought. “I was taking it all in stride, gliding through a life of diminished means, until I paid $35 for a chicken. A raw chicken.”
How did such a tragedy befall him? It began, as so many tragedies do, with excessive pride: In this case, pride in his own thriftiness. “Leftovers were on my mind
for the whole damn route when I rummaged through the cooler chest at the farmers’ market on a recent Saturday, looking for a fat, round hen.” Well, we’ve all been there. Guileless, our hero palpates the farmer’s wares until he encounters a bird of the requisite plump roundness. Little does he know that his steps are being guided down a path of error and destruction by the malevolent gods. “If I’d been paying attention, I would have read the sign warning that this farmer expected $7 a pound for his pasture-raised poultry.” Blinded by Nemesis, he stumbles forward. Even when he glimpses the telltale sign, it is too late: Tempted by hubris and the fact that the farmer is “a nice man,” he buys the chicken anyway.
The gods mocked the Wellses cruelly: The $35 roasted chicken didn’t even taste that good. They put the leftovers in the fridge, but were thwarted by the iron laws of fate even in their attempts to make soup, because it was a school night. “We couldn’t quite face the prospect of a long-simmering stockpot on a Tuesday night. We get tired early these days.”
Haunted by his own fateful decisions, Wells indulges in a delirious fantasy about the “rich, life-affirming stock” he could have made, had things only turned out differently…if only…. It seems he had once made stock “from an old laying hen bought from an egg farmer for $10 and a bag of chicken feet that I picked up for $5…. It would have been a lot thriftier, though, if the old laying hen cost $2 and her feet were still attached.” This part is kind of strange. I think that, like his tragic forbear Oedipus, Wells is lamenting that his wife has become withered and aged. An “old laying hen,” she is no longer fit to bear the offspring of his “rich, life-affirming stock.” Also, the chicken would have been a better deal if it had cost a fifth as much? That’s probably true.
Just as Oedipus tore his own eyes out and became a holy wanderer in the wilds of Attica after he discovered his folly, the Wellses also decide to make some changes. “Until recently, whenever we went to the farmers’ market, we would lug home $50 pork roasts and $14 gallons of milk…. I shrugged this off as one of those oddities of New York life, like getting a ticket because your neighbor put out his trash on the wrong day.” How wrong they were! There are none so blind as those who will not see.
“Buying sustainably raised beef and sustainably squeezed milk and sustainably hatched poultry is a way of life that, these days, I just can’t sustain.” Zing! I see what he did there. “Modern-day Samuel Johnson in the house!” That line reminds me of one of these vaguely right-wing political cartoons about how wacky environmentalists are. Like, a guy with a huge nose would be sitting at the kitchen table holding a big piece of paper that says “BILL” on it, and he’s all like, “Sustainable food, sustainable heating, sustainable car, sustainable light bulbs! I can’t sustain this ‘sustainable’ lifestyle!” And outside the window there’s a cloud that says “TAXES,” and there’s a hand reaching through the letterbox into his pocket, and on the arm it says OBAMACARE.
Anyway, just like Oedipus and the beleaguered political cartoon guy (only more so), Wells feels put-upon. The family resorts to a “schizophrenic compromise”: “One week, [my wife will] go cheap, filling the car with good-tasting products of inscrutable provenance at Trader Joe’s. The next week, she’ll load up on organic groceries from Fairway to the tune of $200.” Trader Joe’s?! Why don’t you just go dumpster-diving? Who knows what you’re getting? You could be ingesting sweatshop pumpkin butter! No blood for string cheese!
The Wells palate, of course, can tell the difference. “The milk lacks body and character.”
But Wells isn’t gonna let unprovenanced foodstuffs get him down. That’s why, much as I might complain about him, I have to grudgingly admire the guy. He’s no Randy Cohen. Instead of sitting on his ass, bitching about how ethics is so haaaaaaaaaard, Wells takes matters into his own hands.
Thusly: “One night I made my own chicken meatballs. I ground them myself…and I packed them with window-box chives and tarragon rounded out with supermarket mint and basil…. Right out of the frying pan, they were a hit. The next batch is going into the freezer. For $35, I can make enough to feed the family for a week.” Bad economy be damned! It turns out you can fight fate. Wells’ story is less like a Greek tragedy, and more of a romance… one man’s love affair… with chicken. To each his own. As long as he doesn’t sneak it into the movies.