Building on the insights from our new article in Social Forces, Emily Huddart Kennedy, Shyon Baumann and I blogged this week for the ASA Section on Consumers & Consumption. We discuss some of our findings on social status and ethical food consumption, the idea of “Cultural Capital 2.0,” and a visit to a farm-to-table restaurant in Victoria.
I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to carefully read Richard Ocejo’s super interesting book, Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, for an Author-meets-critic session last Spring at the Eastern Sociology meetings. Ocejo’s book does an excellent job thinking through the labour underpinnings of urban hipster/foodie culture. It’s also an excellent example of how good sociology can creatively make connections between seemingly disparate phenomena — like butchers, cocktails, craft whiskey, and barbershops.
What does the restaurant reveal about us as a society?
I had the pleasure of being interviewed as part of a wonderful documentary on restaurants and inequality that was just released by CBC Radio. The Restaurant: A Table Divided was co-produced by Zoe Tennant and Michelle Macklem. Drawing on interviews and soundscapes from Toronto and New York, it explores the early history of restaurants all the way to their present-day context.
Here is an excerpt from my interview, where I discuss how foodies’ sense of ease with eating both high-status and low-status food serves to downplay wealth inequality (I explore foodie culture at length in my book with Shyon Baumann, Foodies: Democracy and Distinction).
“The kind of privilege that goes on in these eating spaces comes at a time of unprecedented economic inequality. But the reality is, so many people are just struggling to make ends meet. Inequality has become so extreme that there is a backlash to people who display their wealth and status too overtly . . . Like eating caviar while riding around in your Bentley. So instead you’re eating a rice bowl with truffles on it, driving around in your Tesla. You have these things that kind of take the edge off of wealth inequality. It’s like an homage to the common person. This is a way, at a larger cultural level, to make inequality more palatable.”
Although much is known about how affluent ‘‘foodies’’ use food as a marker of status and distinction, what are the food tastes of people with a lower socioeconomic status?
In a new article in the Journal of Consumer Culture, Shyon Baumann, Michelle Szabo and I investigate this question. We analyze interview data from 254 individuals from 105 families across Canada to explore the cultural repertoires that guide low-socioeconomic-status consumer tastes in food. We asked respondents across socioeconomic status groups which foods they prefer, and for what reasons.
We argue that low socioeconomic- status respondents show aesthetic preferences that operate according to four cultural repertoires. These repertoires are notably different from people with a high socioeconomic status who practice “cultural omnivorousness” (i.e. eating a wide range of high-status and low-status foods). Our respondents display tastes for foods from corporate brands, familiar ‘‘ethnic’’ foods, and foods they perceive as healthy.
Even though low-socioeconomic-status taste preferences in food are shaped by everyday economic constraints – what Bourdieu called ‘‘tastes of necessity’’ – we show how cultural repertoires guiding low-socioeconomic-status tastes relate to both material circumstances and broader socio-temporal contexts. Our findings shed light on the underlying meanings and justifications behind food ideals among people with low socioeconomic status.
Merin Oleschuk, one of the PhD candidates I’m supervising, just published a brilliant article in Cultural Sociology called “Foodies of color: Authenticity and exoticism in omnivorous food culture.” Her article focuses on the framing of particular foods as ‘authentic’ and/or ‘exotic,’ and how foodies of colour in Toronto reproduce, adjust to, and resist ethnoracial inequalities in gourmet food culture. Check out this write-up on the story behind Merin’s research.
BBC’s The Food Chain podcast recently broadcast a show on some of the controversies associated with foodie culture and conspicuous consumption, including a discussion of anti-gentrification protests against a high-end cereal shop in East London. I was interviewed for part of the segment, which is available here.