We are living in what appears to be an age of great culinary awakening. It is reflected everywhere: the aisles of grocery stores are stocked with organic, non-GMO, locally-grown, cage-free, plant-based options. On television, you can watch food-related programming every hour of every day.
Celebrity chefs have transcended the foodie sphere and become general household names, while high-profile food activists have become celebrities. Restaurants featuring cuisines from all over the world are nestled in suburban strip malls, your standard Safeway has three kinds of kale, and if you encounter a recipe that calls for an ingredient you can’t get — while book sales are declining generally, cookbook sales are up — well, that’s no problem, you just order it online.
And this seems good! We used to have worse taste, as a nation, but now, with the help of technology and shipping and immigration and tourism, we have refined our palates, and now our taste is good, and soon it will be even better. It is an appealing explanation for a shift, which began in the 1980s and continues to the present day. Who doesn’t like progress? Who doesn’t like three kinds of kale?
S. Margot Finn, an author and lecturer at the University of Michigan, doesn’t buy it. At the same time American taste is supposedly careening toward enlightenment, it is also said to be getting worse. Aren’t we also a fast food nation, gorging our way toward our own decline?
Instead, Finn offers another explanation. In her 2017 book, Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution, she argues that our beliefs about food — which ones are “good” and which ones aren’t — is a direct result of economic angst. In the late 1970s, the middle class began to stagnate, while the ultra-rich start getting even richer, and almost immediately after that, middle class Americans got really into brie. By cultivating what we eat, and how we eat, and how we talk about what we eat, Finn writes, we can “perform and embody a desirable class identity.” You may not have actual dollars, but you can certainly develop a very loud appreciation for the merits of certain natural wines.
I called Finn to talk about why we eat what we eat, food as a status symbol, whether some tastes really are superior to others, and the relative merits of American cheese. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
So let’s start at the beginning. What is taste, and what does it mean for it to be “good”?
For most people in the US, I think, good taste is a mark of a combination of things. For one, people tend to think that education goes along with taste: if you have more education, then your taste is better, and if you’re less educated, then your taste is worse. The things that we like, and the ways that we like them, are all really deeply tied to different kinds of class identities, racial identity — all kinds of aspects of social identity can be communicated by different kinds of taste.
There’s this general narrative that “our” taste — the taste of the broad American public — has gotten “better” since the ’80s, and while I’m not sure I would have said it like that, that’s pretty much what I thought. Like, thanks to immigration and tourism and growing interest in nutrition, we’re just better at eating than we used to be. What’s wrong with that explanation?
This is what I’ve referred to in the book as the culinary enlightenment thesis — tastes changed because in the past, we didn’t know enough, or didn’t care enough, or were smart enough to do better. But now look at us, now everybody is going to choose the food that truly tastes better and is better for us and for the world.
There was a shift. People were clearly trying to “eat better,” in the sense of “eat food that might taste better,” usually in a way that they were constructing as more sophisticated. Gourmet food. Better-tasting food. Imported food, whether it’s from France, or other kinds of exotic, faraway places. But at the same time, people are trying to eat what they’d constructed as “healthier food,” which is usually constructed as less tasty. So you get triple cream brie, but you also get skim milk. So the enlightenment thesis doesn’t explain the contradictions in food culture. “You can get delicious things all over the world, but also all of your produce should come from less than 100 miles away.”
They’re not just slightly different goals. These are things that are mutually exclusive: you cannot both think that things from other locations far away are better, and also that things from locations closer to you are better. That just doesn’t work.
Right! There are all these different ideas about what constitutes “betterness,” and a lot of the time, they’re mutually exclusive. But you make the case that actually, there is one way all these seemingly incompatible ideals fit together: They’re all associated with the elite. And so you argue culinary taste — which is always a marker of social status to some degree — becomes a particular obsession during periods where there’s a lot of economic inequality but not a lot of economic mobility, like … now. Why is that?
I think that vast, vast inequality gaps — like the one we have right now, like the one we had the Gilded Age — change the kinds of things that people want in terms of class status, and things they think that they can have. The kinds of benefits that accrue to people by acquiring more status change, depending on class structure. How different are the super rich from everybody else? What do we think about how they got their richness? Is it accessible to us?
The ways people were talking about these things in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era just strikes me as so similar to the way people were talking about these things now. Like dieting for weight loss. Initially, I was like, oh, that came from the 1980s, but then you go back to the 20s, and people were talking about the “slimming craze” and the “reducing fad.” It was so clearly different from what had prevailed before that you could tell that there’s something had shifted in people’s aesthetics.
This stuff wasn’t new in the 1980s. So the progressive narrative then totally falls apart, right? We knew a lot of these things along time ago. Did we forget for 40 years? Well, probably we didn’t forget. Probably, people’s values and interests changed.
It’s not that those things went away. But the things people were focusing on as status-bearing were things that were plain or familiar or ample. So the way you would show off was, you’d get a really, really big steak — not an exotic preparation of beef, but a really ample amount. And again, people still do status that way now, it’s not like that’s gone. It’s just about what’s dominant. Mid-century, it was about having American things. The roast turkey and apple pie — nice things, good things, but things that are not necessarily striving for otherness. They’re striving to hit a certain standard.
The working middle class had the cultural authority in that moment. You didn’t have to have a college degree to have a completely dignified life, of full security and status in this country.
It wasn’t as desirable or as rewarded to try to distinguish yourself, because the status wasn’t there. And there was also just wasn’t a sense that the rich were harder-working or more deserving, necessarily. Yeah, maybe they inherited some money and so they like fancy wine, good for them. I’m going to drink my Budweiser. That’s not lower. In fact, it might actually be a better status to embody then that fancy person over there drinking wine.
So what does that look like today? If taste is this stand-in for class identity, how does that play out, in a hyper-stratified 2019?
So here’s an example. I really love American cheese. And why do I love American cheese? Well, part of it is because I ate as a kid and so I have a nostalgic attachment to it.
I also liked it because I think that it is unfairly derided, because in this moment, highly processed foods are bad, not good tasting, and not good for you. I feel sort of defensive of it, and also, I want to position myself as somebody who is not a snob. So one of the ways I do that is by developing an even greater attachment to American cheese than is justified by the taste.
But the other wrinkle is, right now in my refrigerator, the kind of American cheese that I have is a brand called Cooper. I like the sharp American cheese, and it’s not sold within 100-mile radius, so I have it shipped to me. It’s not an expensive cheese. It’s like $35 for the five-pound brick of cheese, but it’s another $15 to have it shipped to me.
So how does taste work? This is the weird nonsense that goes on: You have a person like me who can afford to buy really any cheese I want. I mean, not infinite amounts of it, but I can consume it and I don’t have to worry about the price.
And I have a fairly cheap cheese that is not actually that cheap because I have it shipped to me, in part because I want to have a low-status food in my house because I do like it, but also because I’m trying to prove to people that I don’t just like foods that are high status, because I want to make sure that people know I’m not a snob. I don’t think that’s emblematic, but I think that tells you something about how complicated taste is.
I think about this a lot with fast food, where people who generally see themselves as like, nutritionally and socially enlightened — care about labor and animals, eat lots of organic salads — will be really into some menu item. And it seems like part of the appeal is that it doesn’t fit with their general conception of themselves. What is going on?
I would probably describe that as a kind of slumming. They’re not categorically the kind of person who eats whatever that kind of food is, in their mind, but they might consume it selectively. I think there’s a subset of fast food that is acceptable for this — there are a few items at every fast food chain that people have just decided, “Oh, yeah, that’s so good, everybody likes it.”
And so the slumming part of it, then, is you go do the thing, and then leave. You enjoyed it, you’re not the kind of snob who just shits on fast food indiscriminately. But you don’t eat that way all the time. Because you’re actually a virtuous eater, you leave it behind. So it does reinforce this idea that that’s a lower kind of food for a lower kind of people that are not you, definitely not you.
What about something like sous vide machines, which confer status — in a totally different way — but also seem to undermine it. For a second, vacuum-sealing your steak and cooking it real slow in a water bath was to be a sign of knowledge and sophistication and connoisseurship, but then it shifted. Now, I feel like being really into sous viding everything makes you kind of a jerk.
Yes. Actually, I think almost everything that carries high status usually comes with the risk that if you like it — whether that liking of it is seen as genuine or not — it is seen as an affectation. Because it carries status, the perception is that you could be performing this preference in order to accrue the status that is attached to it. To actually get the status, you have to not only have the preference, but you also have to be able to perform the preference in such a way that people don’t think you’re faking it for the status.
There are a lot of foods, and they often seem to be high-status foods, that are “acquired tastes” — you have to learn to like them, but if you do, they come with, as you say, “chemical and cultural” rewards. I want to break that down: Why do we invest in learning to like things we don’t like, and what are those rewards?
I mean “reward” in a pretty literal way. I’m not an addiction specialist, but my understanding is that there are some substances that cause dopamine to be released in your brain, that’s a way of your brain literally rewarding the behavior. Caffeine, and alcohol, and sugar and fat — lots and lots of things things that are in food, even just calories can possibly induce the reward response.
So coffee is a good example, right? Most people don’t like the taste of coffee when they have it for the first time. But because caffeine is a drug that your brain usually likes — and because you’re often going to add some sugar, or dairy fat to mask the bitterness — you’ve got all these things that are making your brain go, “Oh, ding ding ding! More of that please,” and that literally changes your perception of what taste and smell of coffee mean.
It can go from “ugh, that,” which suggests I’m about to experience a bitter taste that maybe I have some deep association with poisoning, to “yes, please, more of that.” Our associations with food can change over time and some part of that has to do with just the biological effects that foods have on us, but some part of it is cultural. Some kinds of tastes can literally be harder to acquire, and so they tend to get associated with maturity, adulthood, with masculinity, in many cultures.
Why do these hard-to-acquire tastes have so much value? Are they “better,” because you have to cultivate a taste for them?
You mean, isn’t there really some connoisseurship going on here, if you have to acquire this taste? Gosh, it’s such a hard needle to thread. I think you can absolutely acquire and hone a special ability to detect certain kinds of flavors in certain kinds of food, or distinguish between different kinds of tastes, smells, textures — whatever it is about the food that you’re spending a lot of time with. And this is true with anything you do a lot of, your pattern recognition is going to get better. And then people have different capacities for taste sensitivity. We have the whole profession of sommeliers, people who spend a whole lot of time specifically cultivating the capacity to tell differences, often very fine differences, between wines.
I have real questions about the idea that you should consult with that person to find out what you like to drink. Is their specialization actually going to be better at discerning what you will like? Even if they can do this weird task of identifying that there are some plum notes in that wine, are you going to have a better taste experience based on their ability to discern that? I don’t think so.
But do you think I’m missing out, then? Are some wines objectively better at being wine than other wines?
I mean, this makes sense to me. I like this. But then I think about bread, which is probably the food I’m snobbiest about, and I have trouble saying that like, yes, this Wonderbread is as good as this fancy homemade sourdough.
But like a piece of Wonder Bread, toasted, with butter on it? Is that really going to make you sad to eat? It wouldn’t make me sad to eat. You toast it, and then you get some of that Maillard reaction, and some butter and we’re in business here.
Is anything better than anything else?
Something can definitely be better to you, it can definitely be better on this day in this meal.
As I come across the different ways that people in very different times and places have created meaning around the ways that they cook and eat together, I just don’t see anything better, more sophisticated, more interesting, more complex about any particular way of doing that. It’s actually amazing how delicious most of the food most of us have access to is, if we have enough money. People get upset about how highly processed stuff is, but my gosh, take somebody from the 18th century and put them the gas station, and think about the amount of amazing taste experiences they could have.
You talk about one of the failures of the food revolution being the way it’s “helped stigmatize the foods and bodies associated with the poor,” while convincing middle- and upper-middle classes that their dietary choices mean they “deserve” their status. In the book, you say that trying to get other people to eat “higher quality” foods is a kind of bigotry, because it feeds into “pernicious social divides.” But at the same time, aren’t there reasons — environmental reasons, health reasons — you might want to try to get people to change their behavior?
I think the reason I get so iffy about this is I’m just not interested in lecturing people about how they should behave. I don’t think that works. I think people make choices within context. I’m interested in creating structures that enable people to eat how they want, and creating opportunities for people to learn what they want to about food.
The measure of whether or not your structures are working is whether or not the behaviors that you want to see occur. So if you enable people to make choices that are going to build the world that you collectively decide you want to live in, then they will.
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