Food Snobbery

"We must never confuse elegance with snobbery." -Yves Saint Laurent

Today I got to thinking about food snobbery. I have written previously about my experience when I met Ruth Reichl. Every time I see her books in the bookstores now I think of that meeting and actually don't really want to read what she has to say. Maybe I shouldn't let it influence me, but it does anyway. Eating is obviously in its lowest form something a person needs to do to survive,and making it into some otherworldly or vaguely sexual thing is weird sometimes. Sometimes it is good to lighten up a little.

A couple years ago we had an artist at the museum where I work who was doing a piece that was supposed to be about food. He spent time with two families in two different neighboring towns with different positions of social class. This artist himself had a background in a disadvantaged socioeconomic position, had worked as a social worker, and he had lived for a long time in various big cities on the east coast. All that time in the Bronx really should have given him a more enlightened perspective. He told us about meeting with the family with the lower socioeconomic position of the two and how they always gave him gifts. He brought out these gifts the family gave him which were often boxes of crackers from the dollar store. He read off all the processed ingredients, chemicals, and food dyes listed on the side of the box and said how he would never buy these. He said he would normally shop at the organic co-op market in town, which is actually very expensive. Something about this really rubbed me the wrong way. It is not like he was saying it would be cheaper for the family to make their own crackers from flour, butter, salt, and water, he was instead saying the artisan organic crackers at the co-op were much preferable. He then went on to list off all the reasons the more expensive crackers are better without mentioning the key thing - that the ones he preferred are way more expensive. He also criticized a bathmat the poorer family bought at the dollar store saying the ones he normally buys from CB2 are a lot more durable (because it is a lot more expensive!). What really made me angry was that these crackers he was criticizing were a gift. It doesn't matter if he would normally buy them or not. People do the best they can with what they have. He also criticized the large grocery store in town and its bright lighting, celebrity tabloids and cheesy cartoons on birthday cakes. He said he much preferred the look of the organic market, and said that he only went into the big grocery store because he thought the family would like a birthday cake from there more. Food shopping is not about aesthetics. It is about nourishment and economics. It's not about having a discerning style. It is about what a family can afford.

If a person eats a certain type of food that also doesn't make them a snob. Arugula is a plant that provides nourishment - it is not a political philosophy. And it doesn't make me a snob for eating a vegetable that has more nutrients than iceberg lettuce. Same with tofu and sushi. I am sure there have been millions of people in the history of Japan who have eaten sushi and never imagined that it would one day in this country be associated with soy-milk lattes, the New York Times and Volvos. I am sure millions of people ate sushi and tofu throughout the history of Asia who weren't particularly well off or snobby about food in any way.

I guess I am just saying we shouldn't judge people who can't afford to buy artisan crackers, and we shouldn't act like there is something poetic about eating your breakfast. I don't think food should be a divisive social issue. Everyone should have access to affordable and healthy food. And for Ruth Reichl to have been pretty rude to me didn't make her a better food critic. Everyone needs to eat. It is the most basic thing. One person's taste buds aren't more magical than another person's, and it doesn't somehow make someone a better person than another because they can afford more expensive food.


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