11th April 2012

Elitism won’t hold back the food revolution

Dr Geoff Andrews (The Open University)
Interest in the sociology of food has increased substantially in recent years, with sociologists  investigating the social meanings attached to the presentation of food, analysing the social construction of ‘taste’, studying food and health inequalities, or assessing the impact of fast food and the shifting trajectories in consumption. More recently, ‘globalisation’ has become a focus, bringing with it threats to the survival of local food traditions and cultures, the imposition of standardised fare and service and assumptions about what constitutes ‘fine dining’. Christel Lane’s research into the haute cuisine culture of Michelin-starred restaurants has revealed some of the contemporary social markers and assumptions which continue to drive perceptions of taste and dining protocol. Her research, which involved interviews with chefs and restaurateurs, has made important connections between food, identity and cultural history, as well as revealing tensions between business models and aesthetic concerns.

In an earlier study in the 1970s, Pierre Bourdieu found that assumptions about food were responsible for aspects of ‘distinction’ in the French social structure. He concluded that taste was a marker of class and went on to distinguish between what he called a ‘taste of necessity’ and a ‘taste of luxury’, where most emphasis is on the presentation of food and stylistic nuances, which had the effect of denying the ‘natural’ enjoyment of food while ‘reaffirming’ its ‘sublimated’, and ‘disinterested’ pleasures. He also found that there were further class distinctions between ‘working class conviviality’, prevalent in the local café amongst workers, and the more ‘refined’ atmosphere of formal dining where the bourgeoisie would eat in isolation.

Since Bourdieu’s research, social and class divisions around food have been reflected in new ways. There are many positive aspects of globalisation, for example the learning of a variety of tastes and cuisines, but one of the negative consequences of globalisation has been to make local food knowledge, traditions and artisanal skills seem redundant, while the power of chain restaurants, fast food outlets and supermarkets have reduced the ‘dining’ experience to a drab set of rituals. Attaching the cringe-making label ‘Foodies’ to people who have an interest in and knowledge of the pleasures of food only serves to reinforce artificial status divisions and assume that gastronomic pleasure is something that is achieved through an imaginary certificate of etiquette, while remaining anathema to the rest. The proliferation of food programmes on mainstream TV only partly redresses this; while this has heralded the rise of the gastronome as a political subject at the forefront of  important causes – in the cases of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – much of it is little better than food pornography.

The reassertion of a ‘service ethic’ is another insidious feature of globalisation and also serves to condition behaviour and rituals in restaurants. A reading of most amateur restaurant reviews finds them more akin to a management training questionnaire, with marks given for numbers of visits to the table, regular enquiries of well-being and promptness of attention, notably on getting the check to the table before it has been requested.  In fact this further reflects the commodification and standardisation of the restaurant experience.  In this context, the widely admired waiters of Balthazar, a bustling Manhattan bistro, appear as counter-cultural, complimented (in the words of one reviewer) for their ‘civil inattention’ in not grabbing your plate before you have finished, and free of ‘the quirks or games  that people are often forced to play in the theatre of fine dining’. Other  counter-cultural alternatives to the new global orthodoxies (though in fact rooted in ancient regional food traditions) are the ‘eclectic’ waiters I remember from living in Piedmont, in northern Italy.  Their ‘surliness’ or grumpiness (one regularly used to fall asleep between the ordering of ‘secondi’ and ‘dolci’) never detracted from their knowledge of local food and wines.

However, these divisions and social distinctions are now facing rapidly growing new challenges. The markers of elitism and the assumptions of ‘fine dining’ are being disrupted.  Gastronomic pleasure is effectively being democratised (and in many cases revived) through the range of local food and farmers’ markets and cooperatives, and a vibrant street food culture in London and elsewhere. That is street food which is both simple and sophisticated and which has done much to challenge perceptions of taste, pleasure and affordability. The plethora of food co-ops, food clubs and community supported agriculture schemes – whereby local consumers pay a set fee to farms for whatever food is seasonal – have demonstrated that even in austere times, it is possible to eat well without the impositions of corporate chains or the pretensions of haute cuisine.  Consumers are being re-connected with producers and we can now say that grassroots food movements have become one of the strongest political and ideological forces in modern times.

Further reading

P.Bourdieu Distinction (Blackwell 1984)

C.Lane: ‘Culinary culture and globalization. An analysis of British and German Michelin-starred restaurants’, The British Journal of Sociology Vol 62, Issue 4 pp 696-717 December 2011


Article originally published on OpenLearn.

Photograph by Muy Yum. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.