Virtue Degeneracy

Last summer, in a burst of enthusiasm for pious, healthy living, I got into the habit of making and consuming this rather elaborate salad, using only the freshest farmer’s market produce, on a regular basis.

I named it the mansion salad as a joke, and proudly shared the recipe and my prep routine on Twitter. It’s not often that I feel like I’m modeling behaviors good enough to virtue signal to my fellow premium mediocrities.

The self-congratulation was hard-earned. I’d prep batches of ingredients every Sunday, and eat this several times a week for lunch. Except for the pickled olives, I turned up my nose at grocery store ingredients. Only crisp, fresh farmer’s market lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers would do. The prep took time, but both the taste and the feeling of virtue felt worthwhile. This, I felt, was what it meant to live well. I kept this up for months.

The mansion salad sparked joy. It wasn’t just instagrammable, it tasted good.

Fast forward to this year.

While I’ve held on to the healthy habit, it has degenerated into a grim goblin-mode parody of last summer’s mansion-salad routine.

Behold the slum salad: eating handfuls of greens straight out of a grocery store bagged salad mix.

The salad is often wilted and on its last legs by the time I finish a bag. Sometimes I have to pick out the good leaves, since a few might even be rotting.

I usually eat a few handfuls, follow it up a few cherry tomatoes, wash it down with a protein shake, and award myself my healthy living points for the day. If there happen to be cucumber or carrot in the fridge, I just chomp on those too (unpeeled, unchopped, but I haven’t sunk to unwashed yet). No lemon dressing. No olives. No home-pickled jalapenos, no baked tofu. Not even salt and pepper. The noble avocado has retreated to breakfast where it originally lived (my health fortress).

No cleanup.

The whole experience is exceptionally mediocre. Tastes worse than the mansion salad, is less hearty and satisfying, and delivers zero sense of virtuous accomplishment. This is pure path of least-resistance instrumental healthfulness.

The slum salad does not spark joy. It is not instagrammable. And while it does not actually taste bad, it is definitely not tasty.

The mansion salad beats the slum salad on basically every dimension except two.

First, though the mansion salad is cheap (about $2 for what would be a $13 salad at a chain like Sweetgreens) this is even cheaper (about $1 I’d guess). But the additional savings isn’t significant enough to matter.

It’s the second advantage that wipes out all the other advantages of the mansion salad: it is a hundred times easier to sustain as a habit. The elimination of all prep and cleanup works wonders. I could keep this up through wars and zombie apocalypses so long as grocery supply chains were intact. Chop off zombie head with goblin axe, chomp grimly on expired bag salad stolen from desolate grocery store, retreat to lair.

I’ve taken to calling myself a salad degen, by analogy to defi degen (the term of art in crypto world for degenerate investors grinding out an income through tedious, joyless yield farming). I’m in a state of salad degeneracy. A Gollum eating preciousss wilting salad out of a bag. It’s like ramen degeneracy among ambitious young people building startups, except for middle-aged people trying to delay shutdown.

It’s a weird kind of slummy-virtuous feeling. There’s a sense of accomplishment, as in ”at least I avoided the mansion salad being replaced by junk food!”

Not that I don’t eat junk food, but that’s a separate dietary line item that was present last year too. The point is, the salad line item didn’t get cut and replaced by worse calories, despite the deep motivational recession.

I’m looking around to identify other potential states of virtue degeneracy available to occupy. For example, I’m typing out this post one-fingered on an iPad on the couch while rewatching Thor, because I’m feeling too lazy to sit up with a laptop. A degen blog post is better than no blog post.

If its worth doing, its worth doing well is a big lie from the virtue-industrial complex.

Degenerate virtues are still virtuous. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing in degenerate goblin-mode form.

The times of high-energy virtue will return, and I will eat mansion salads again some day. But now I know I can get through a winter of salad degeneracy too.

It’s not how high you can fly during good times that defines you, but how low you sink during bad times. 😇

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Great post, but I think you may be slightly off on your iPad one-finger typing as being degenerate, instead I think it means you have something worth saying at the reduced speed, c.f. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Dominique_Bauby

    Your 1-fingered typing is more like the inscriptions on wax tablets or hieroglyphics on papyrus: the content may prove mundane centuries later, but you can’t deny there wasn’t no effort.

    The degenerate version would be using Siri to dictate a stream of verbiage into your iPad with only minimal corrections, as I’m Doug now.

  2. Greens from a plastic bag? Find the jumbo size. Once finished with contents, place over head and secure around neck with duct tape, electrical cord, or other fastener and end it.

    • Bachelor Salad
      One head of iceberg lettuce
      One bottle of some dressing
      Eat over the sink
      Practical

  3. Colette Wanless-Sobel says

    “Slum salad.”

    Bravo!

  4. Olives in a salad? What next, pickled onions?

  5. As a fellow bag salad eater, special salad containers can keep it fresh for a week+. For example: https://www.amazon.com/OXO-Grips-GreenSaver-Produce-Keeper/dp/B00TO8X0BA

    • Engineered degeneracy lasts in my experience.

      Actually I think the vast majority of my life has been engineering degen habits until they’re Soylent levels of “definitely will keep me alive forever, but definitely still bullshit”.

  6. Just the motivation I need to do my worst, but still get it done.

  7. No matter the level of degeneracy or elegance, the ingredients for your salad still likely come from hundreds to thousands of miles away.

    Which could be seen as kind of a sort of maybe a priblem?

  8. Ravi Daithankar says

    I don’t know if this was intentional, but this is Buddhism 101 right here. The Four Noble Truths arranged around a salad routine. Well done, even if that wasn’t fully intentional!

    Trying to make healthy eating interesting, or putting any kind of non-utilitarian spin on it is usually a gateway to some kind of degeneracy. If you’re lucky, it will be a calm, sustainable, sorta healthy degeneracy. Because the only sustainable way to eat healthy is to suck all interestingness and joy (along with all the work and thought) out of the affair and look at that food as pure utility. Slum salad FTW!

  9. I’ve always seen a thread of Chesterton in your work who famously said: a thing worth doing is worth doing badly. He also wrote the excellent defense of lying in bed

  10. Of all the many things I’ve read today this made me stop the tasks I was doing in parallel and I’m still thinking about it enough to write a comment. Bravo!

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