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Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution

“Gender, race, and class compose the holy trinity of feminist studies, or so we used to joke,” wrote Eileen Boris in 2013 in the Journal of Women’s History. “However,” she continued, “Class remains evoked and assumed rather than explicated, often folded into other identities and processes, and rarely addressed as the central concern.”

Food studies scholars are reliably quick to draw upon Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the formation of taste and status in the structuring of social hierarchy (and inequality), but an exciting new book gives social class the spotlight, demonstrating how it explains today’s foodie mania.

In Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution, published in April 2017 by Rutgers University Press, S. Margot Finn asserts that “the ideals of the food revolution gained traction due to class anxiety” (15). With a satisfying clarity, Finn distills the ideology of the food revolution into four ideals:

  1. Sophistication / gourmet food 
  2. Thinness / healthy food + dieting for weight loss
  3. Purity / natural-and-organic food 
  4. Cosmopolitanism / “ethnic” food 

She argues that “the unifying characteristic of the food revolution’s otherwise incompatible ideals is their association with the elite” (36), and how they compose a discourse of “aspirational eating.”

Bringing an important historical foundation and point of comparison to questions about today’s foodie culture, Finn begins with an analysis of these four ideals in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era—the time period from 1880 to 1920, when these ideals first emerged and reached social salience. According to Finn, these ideals began to decline around 1930 and atrophied over the course of the twentieth century to such an extent that they seemed wholly novel when all four re-emerged in the 1980s.

Finn boldly asserts:

“The shifts in mainstream food culture parallel these shifts in inequality. During periods of greater income inequality, the middle class relies more on symbolic distinction of taste to distance themselves from the lower class. When the middle class as a whole is doing well materially and the upper class isn’t claiming as much of the nation’s wealth, the cultural politics of taste shift” (76).

For example, the foodways of the 1930s and 1940s shifted to idealize “simplicity, frugality, reliability, and familiarity,” while foods considered “gourmet, diet, natural, or foreign” were “increasingly viewed with suspicion and disdain” (79).

To support her claim that these undulating food views are based on class anxiety, Finn dissects and works to debunk alternative explanations for today’s food revolution:

  • “the myth of the discerning palate:” that gourmet food tastes better, when in fact taste education has significant limits and “there is no such thing as objective taste”
  • “the uncertain and elusive health benefits of thinness:” that thinness is meritocratic, when in fact dieting hardly ever results in lasting weight loss and fat people live longer than thin people
  • “the fallacies in the local and organic orthodoxy:” that natural foods are better for the environment, when in fact neither local nor organic food may be any more sustainable, and ethical animal products may not be any more beneficial
  • “the misguided pursuit of authenticity and exoticism:” that authentic food is real, when in fact it Others people and cuisines.

Next, Finn explores how the four ideals of the food revolution circulate (often in ambivalent and contradictory ways) in media representations of food. Studying the texts as well as their audience reception, Finn examines notions of meritocracy, snobbery, and the ascetic trifecta of sacrifice, pleasure, and virtue. Among her media texts, she explores the films Ratatouille and Sideways, the reality TV show The Biggest Loser, a polemic Slow Food USA campaign, the Salon article, “Hipsters on Food Stamps,” and this well-known Grey Poupon commercial:

Chapter 5 on food snobbery also includes several fantastic pages historicizing and analyzing “foodies,” an often contested term that emerged in the early 1980s, not coincidentally tracking the most recent surge in income inequality that Finn seeks to situate.

In the end, Discriminating Taste provides a provocative and historically-informed answer to how the current mainstream definition of “good food” came about. Finn asserts that today’s emphasis upon gourmet, healthy, natural, and diverse foods are not the result of culinary enlightenment or decline, but of class anxiety, rooted in income inequality and its attending correlations with various types of capital.

Finn also demonstrates why this definition of good food matters: it misdirects the economic, cultural, and social energy of the middle class, while further denigrating the lower classes. Finn proposes that the true food revolution lies in more critically examining Brillat-Savarin’s maxim—often reduced to the refrain “you are what you eat”—taking into account the forces of inequality in all its forms.

Top Image Credit: Emily Contois, 2017

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