When Food and Wine magazine emblazoned a hamburger on its cover in 2004, casual readers might have concluded that food snobbism was dead. Snooty foodies, however, are alive and influential, and eating habits remain an important indicator of social status, write Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann, sociologists at the University of Toronto. The difference is that 50 years ago familiarity with a single culinary tradition—French—identified diners as belonging to the elite. Today, knowledge of ethnic and regional cuisines is as important as the ability to pronounce au jus correctly was two generations ago.
The expansion of the high-status food repertoire exemplifies a cultural trend called omnivorousness—eating, or trying, everything—in sociology-speak. The same thing has happened in music. Where it once might have been enough to recognize classical composers, today the status-savvy need an ability to banter about bluegrass pickers and Cuban singers.
As Americans publicly disdain snobbism and embrace meritocracy, the “democratic ideology” of omnivorousness fuels the notion that arbitrary standards of culinary distinction based on a “single, elite French notion of culture are unacceptable.” The cuisine of other cultures and classes now gets its due, according to Johnston and Baumann. But anything still does not go. Although a taste for pecorino, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk, marks the palate of a sophisticate, Velveeta, the easy-melting “cheese product,” remains verboten. What is the standard?
Based on their study of 102 articles in four leading gourmet magazines in 2004, the authors conclude that food writers judge cuisines by citing authenticity. They legitimize dishes by locating them in Lucknow, India, or Siglufjördur, Iceland, and by stressing their simplicity, their nonindustrial production, and their organic origin. They also connect high-status food to personalities, famous chefs, or well-known families in the food business—although the writers quite consistently leave unnamed the cooks they discover in quaint huts or roadside stands in the developing world. Historical tradition is also important, such as noting that the ancestors of the roasted whole goats in Monterrey, Mexico, have grazed nearby since the 1700s. Exoticism is conveyed by unusualness and rarity. A cheese called Flixer, for example, is eulogized as a “nutty number made only from the milk of 12 very talented Swiss ewes.”
The omnivorousness trend makes lowbrow food worthy of highbrow interest, but only certain lowbrow fare. Many of the authentic foods that are exalted under the new “democratic” standard of food writers are extremely expensive and difficult to acquire in the mainstream commercial supermarkets and restaurants most Americans patronize, Johnston and Baumann note. Democracy ends at the checkout line.
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The Source: "Democracy versus Distinction: A Study of Omnivorousness in Gourmet Food Writing" by Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann, The American Journal of Sociology, July 2007.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Angelo DeSantis