Cosmopolitan Foodies and Local Food

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If you happen to travel to major cities around the world and enjoy exploring the food scene, looking for what’s new, up and coming, or already trendy, you are very likely to realize that although you are in wildly different locations, restaurant, bars, and food stores may come across as eerily familiar. You may not speak the language, but you’d know how to navigate menus and wine lists. The flow of service would feel reassuring, as both customers and staff would move in ways that reflect your habits at home. You may also recognize the aesthetic and the sensory experiences of the places where you may find yourself buying or consuming food: a preference for natural materials, the use of repurposed elements, an overall bohemian look that is actually well curated. You’d be comfortably making your way through the trappings of the “global Brooklyn”, where a recurring element would probably be the emphasis on local, fresh, farm to table, organic, seasonal, artisanal, and traditional ingredients. Of course, the ingredients themselves would change: it may be San Marzano tomatoes in Naples, homemade nalewki in Warsaw, craft beer in Boston, or Monsooned Malabar coffee in Bangalore. Nevertheless, wherever they are, consumers appreciating such specialties and willing to pay a premium for them are likely to share ethos, modes of appreciation, and expectations.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until recently, “foodies” and food lovers in general would express their refinement, connoisseurship, and desire for distinction through forms of cosmopolitanism that focused on the consumption of “exotic” foods: French haute cuisine, Japanese sushi, Italian risotto. Other forms of cosmopolitanism are emerging that instead hinge on the valorization of the local. As a reaction to globalization, the global middle classes are creating a new sense of place where individuals and communities move beyond geography to create different perceptions and experiences of locality. Through transnational networks, media, and travel, communities are created that share aspirations, experiences, and worldviews around food.

Wherever they are, discriminating consumers want to know the stories about who produced what they eat and the places where it comes from, expressing global, educated, and class-inflected resistance to mass-production and homogenization built on ideas of tradition and authenticity. Such attitudes are widely shared around the world among “foodies” that partake in a common language, homologous categories of taste, as well as an ambivalent, often conflicted disdain for those same local and traditional foods when they are produced, prepared, and consumed according to older paradigms that carry connotations of poverty, ignorance, and backwardness. To be appreciated by cosmopolitan foodies, those specialties need to be “elevated,” shrouded in an aura of relative exclusivity, made relevant in terms of cultural capital through the trappings of expertise, and experienced in environments and among peers who share the same outlook on food and its socio-cultural relevance.

Discriminating urban consumers may enjoy local and traditional specialties in the very place of production, but in that case producers need to have a good command of the language, the aesthetic characteristics, and the discursive categories upheld by cosmopolitan foodies. It helps that in many cases food professionals such as producers and chefs have the same background and enjoy the same social status as their customers. Urban professionals at times opt to leave their careers to start food-related business: it is not infrequent that lawyers turned cheesemakers and journalists dedicate themselves to the cultivation of esoteric varieties of potatoes.

Working class farmers, brewers, and trout smokers often experience difficulties in grafting themselves onto the foodie circulation of local and traditional foods, as profitable as they may be, because they lack the cultural capital and the vocabulary necessary to properly convey the uniqueness and quality of their products in ways that are legible and appreciated by cosmopolitan consumers. Nonetheless, they can be discovered by experts and intermediaries - distributors, gourmet shop owners, and journalists - that have recourse to their expertise and their authority to validate the work of the artisans and to guarantee for the quality of their products. Fairly often, farmers and producers are quite quick at picking up cues from their customers and their mentors, acquiring the necessary language and practices to appeal to cosmopolitan foodies. Even when produced and consumed in the countryside - provided that the setting is right and conforms to the foodie expectations - local and traditional foods actually move into the urban circulation of ideas, values, and expectations that connects more easily with other faraway cities than with the nearby countryside.

Although these approaches are still limited to a relatively small segment of consumers, their visibility and prestige thanks to media exposure are already starting to engender a trickle-down effect. What will its effect be on food systems, as large companies take advantage of these trends to sell more products? How is the new ethos appropriated by marketers? These are questions that may require more attention in the near future, if any positive change is to come from the new local-centered foodie cosmopolitanism.

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