What’s right to eat? Class, Distinction, and the Food Movement

As the food policy of the new US administration slowly and not always openly takes shape, and Congress gets ready to discuss the new farm bill, it is inevitable for all those interested in food matters to raise questions about goals, tactics, and priorities. As food directly impacts on the personal lives of voters and their families in terms of daily necessities, physical health and emotional well-being, food could turn into an arena in which common interests are identified and new alliances are forged. However, the values and norms underlying consumers’ choices and preferences are far from being the same across the board.

S. Margot Finn’s new book Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution raises important – and uncomfortable – questions about the motives and dynamics of the so-called Food Movement. Her reflection focuses on what she calls “the ideology of the food revolution, a comprehensive way of thinking about food that’s become the prevailing common sense in America.” This ideology appears to be built around four main axes: “sophistication, thinness, purity, and cosmopolitanism.” In other words, favorite foods tend to be “gourmet,” relatively difficult to acquire and definitely different from mass-produced fare; healthy and conducive to avoidance of obesity; natural and free from any dangerous scientific manipulation, from pesticides and fertilizers to genetic engineering; and authentic, reflecting other cultures and practices that are at the same time appreciated for bringing new flavor to mainstream habits but also considered as available to various degrees of appropriation and exploitation, including “slumming.” For the author, what these four ideals share “is not any logical compatibility but instead their association with a particular demographic – the professional middle class, or even more narrowly, the left-leaning part of it sometimes referred to as the liberal elite.”

Finn explains the apparent success of such an approach to food, which she deconstructs and critiques with passion and glee, in its appeal to Americans “whose income and wealth had begun to stagnate or decline in comparison to the soaring fortunes of the super-rich.” A consequence of the growing inequalities that have become particularly visible after the last financial crisis. As a matter of fact, the author recognizes a similar set of anxieties among food consumers in the Gilded Age, caused by uncertainties about social status and opportunities for upward mobility and a share in the national wealth. Then and now, these worries expressed themselves through preferences for “elegant, virtuous, and exotic” foods, which the author defines as “aspirational eating, a process in which people use their literal tastes – the kinds of foods they eat and the way they use and talk about food – to perform and embody a desirable class identity and distinguish themselves from the masses.”

What Finn appears to be particularly critical of is the not always overt but determinate attempt of the food elites to impose their taste on the masses, promoting and at times trying to impose practices of discernment and self-restraint that not everybody may subscribe to. As a matter of fact, the title of her book’s conclusion is “Confronting the Soft Bigotry of Taste.” These themes have acquired particular relevance since the launch of the Trump campaign, with reciprocal accusations of deplorability and elitism souring the political discourse in the US. Finn also expresses the legitimate concern that the growing centrality of taste in current social and cultural debates may lead to favor personal responses (vote with your dollar!) to issues that instead would require structural solutions and collective political engagement: “The possibility of distinguishing yourself by eating the right things probably predisposes people to believe in particular ways of framing problems that lend themselves to individualistic and consumeristic solutions.”

While it cannot be denied that at times the efforts to change the food systems have recognizable class undertones, we cannot ignore that part of the “masses” may have chosen to work towards greater health, purity, and cultural diversity in what they eat out of their own concerns. Efforts to create community gardens, enhance food access, and improve children’s nutrition are not uniquely the reflection of the elite’s priorities but have been at the forefront of social and political action among groups that have suffered long-lasting disadvantages because of gender, race, and ethnicity. Acknowledging the diversity within the “masses” may be as important as promoting self-awareness and critical reflections among the “elites.”

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