Monday, February 7, 2011

Broccoli Morality.

When I was a kid, we'd have broccoli for dinner, and my mom would boil it to death with no seasonings (my mom is the worst cook), and I hated it. The answer I got when I complained?

"Of course it tastes bad. It's good for you."

It's a pervasive message in our society, one that goes way beyond dinner: virtue is the opposite of pleasure. Sexual morality is the restriction of sexual pleasure; healthy living is uncomfortable; honest work is grueling; polite living is self-suppressing. If it feels good, it must be illegal, immoral, or fattening.

Obviously, this is not 100% wrong; "if it feels good, do it" can get you in all kinds of trouble. Sometimes grownups just gotta do things that aren't fun. But taken too far, broccoli morality sends some very wrong messages:

"Morality is about avoiding excess pleasure."
Giving up pleasure may be a side effect of making good decisions, but it is never the goal. The mere fact that something feels good doesn't make it wrong. This is a big hitch sometimes in sexual morality--"you're having [nonstandard] sex just because it feels good!" Damn skippy I am.

"Your natural desires are evil."
It's not much of a leap from this to "so yeah, you're evil," and that's just horrible and untrue. It's also not much of a basis for self-improvement. Is it really worth putting that much work into an evil and greedy soul? But worst of all, it makes evil the default--doing wrong is just a slip back into your natural state, instead of something you chose.

"You can never be happy."
If your natural desires are for evil, but you have an obligation to be good, then it follows you're going to spend your whole life in a state of frustration, choking down soggy broccoli until you die. Awesome. Like the last one, this makes evil way more tempting than it needs to be. And it's just not true.

"When you grow up, you're going to have to spend most of your time working and go without most of the things you want" is a half-truth.

The whole truth is "When you grow up, you're going to have to spend most of your time working and go without most of the things you want, but you're also going to have fantastic orgasms and nights you stay up til 5 AM just laughing and books you completely lose yourself in and hugs that seem like they make the whole world right. And you should never, ever feel one bit of guilt about loving those good parts."

Also, when you grow up, you'll discover that there's such a thing as bacon-wrapped broccoli.


  1. "If it feels good, it must be illegal, immoral, or fattening."

    Or if it doesn't, it causes cancer in rats.

    Also, to broaden the last half-truth, spending your time working doesn't necessarily mean you're not also having fun.

  2. You don't even have to wrap it in bacon to make it taste good. Steamed, with lemon juice on it is fine.

    (Not to say you shouldn't put bacon on it.)

  3. Is there such an excess of simple joy in the world that people can run around depriving people of their harmless, consensual forms of it, because it's weird or different or wrong?

    Also: if you feel the need to deprive yourself to feel like a good person, Doctors Without Borders is accepting donations. Eat some chocolate or have the sex you want, and give them some money out of your entertainment budget (or for extreme cases all of your entertainment budget). Problem solved.

  4. Gawd help me, I even like broccoli when it's just microwaved with cheap margarine and dusted with lemon pepper.

    It's just not that hard to make the things that need doing be a bit more acceptable.

  5. You know, if you go past "lightly steaming" most veggies, a lot of their vitamins denature and have much less nutritional value than the raw version. So it wasn't really that good for you anyway.

  6. See, this is why I adore Nigella Lawson: Her motto is "if it tastes good, eat it", but she doesn't actually endorse mindless gluttony and grazing on bottomless bags of processed crap either. It's downright epicurean: The responsible hedonist eschews those pleasures which cause harm to self/others.

    And she's stacked like a plate of iHop pancakes. Mmm-mmm, good ... Dammit, now I'm horny AND hungry.


  7. Boiled broccoli is the worst. My condolences to your younger self.

    When it comes to broccoli, or any vegetable really, steam is your ever-stalwart ally. You put that stuff in a saucepan with a glass lid and a steam basket and watch the fresh veggies start to glow...

  8. :) Also, hoisin sauce on the's like magic!

  9. Don't forget the corollary; if it makes you feel bad, it must be virtuous. You're entitled to be a jerk if you don't have fun. And so on.

  10. Well said...and underlines one of many reasons I rejected the organized religion I was raised in. If there is a god, I don't think he wants us to be feeling miserable all the time in this life all for the hope of some afterlife.

    And yeah, some parts of being a responsible adult suck but some others are just plain awesome!

    *I adore broccoli and many other depised veggies (e.g., Brussel sprouts) but then I didn't like them till I learned how to cook them MY way...there's an allegory there, I'm sure ;)

  11. My ex-girlfriend had somehow gotten the impression that jobs aren't fun. Not that any job is all fun all the time, but she was always vaguely resentful that she had to work at all (no, she was not specifically raised to believe that someone ought to take care of her). This pevented her from taking any joy in her work and at the same time prevented her from looking for work that might make her happy: after all, if work itself is the problem, no job will make her happy.

    The way I see it, there are two linked errors underlying broccoli morality:
    1) If something is fun, it's not good for you/necessary for life. It's true that if you have to do something, you have to do it whether it's fun or not, and I understand why a lot of people don't think about fun things in terms of being necessary even if they are, but sometimes it's taken beyond that.
    2) If something is not good/necessary, it's bad. There's something to this in the realm of food: pretty much everything you eat will presumably affect your body (which isn't the same thing as health), and the overall effect wll be either positive or negative, so any food that isn't good for you can be described as bad for you (albeit sometimes immeasurably so). But that's imprecise when applied to food and plain wrong when applied to pretty much anything else. Including sex.

  12. One stem, lightly steamed, with mushrooms and green onions, wrapped in a slice of pancetta (repeat until you run out of stuff, or your baking trays are all full, or whenever). Bake for 15 minutes at 375 F (until crisp).

    It's won many a convert.

  13. Holly, found your blog, have been reading it all morning, & totally loving it.
    Love this post, too! I think the general "broccoli morality" you speak of can also be attributed to the current culture of violence, rape and death where destruction, rather than pleasure or joy, is glorified.
    When humanity as a whole can sacralize pleasure, joy, love and creation over death, I think the broccoli morality will be less pervasive because more people will innately feel it doesn't make any logical sense! (Not to mention, it's just not as FUN.)
    And of course, "humanity as a whole," starts with each individual. What a fun opportunity!!

  14. And who says your work can't be fun either?