There’s a new article by David Brooks that’s ruffling feathers. It’s a quick read, but I’ll summarize it.
tl;dr: “The _real_ reason for social inequality isn’t inequality in education, it’s that working class people don’t eat the fancy food that upper middle class people eat.
Proof? I took a high school grad friend to an Italian sandwich shop & she felt uncomfortable.”
1) My main issue with Brooks’ article is that he comes across as an insensitive jerk. He could’ve said “Oh hey, weird names, but that’s just an Italian hoagie, Subway style.” Instead, he made a new situation into something unnecessarily alienating.
And the punchline is him then slumming it at a Mexican joint.
You see, I study food + culture. Bonus points: I’m Latina and had a working class childhood. I’ve had the experience many times of going to “unusual” (to me) restaurants & taking people to “unfamiliar” restaurants. It went well when people acted like it wasn’t a big deal that I was having Ethiopian for the first time. And when they explained what things were in familiar terms and expected that I’d like the food.
My basic takeaway? The reason she felt uncomfortable was because Brooks was inhospitable.
2) Brooks squanders a chance to make an important argument about how food and taste can be used to create social divides.
Surely Brooks knows about the classic study that would bolster his argument more, to the discomfort of the Whole Foods Pilates set he critiques? I’m speaking of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, a study of French society and taste in food, art, music, fashion. What Bourdieu did was interview a lot of different French people, asking about education, income, and their taste in things like cuisine, visual art, music, etc. What he found was that socioeconomic class status (connected to education and wealth) strongly shapes one’s taste.
And so, one of the ways higher socioeconomic class folk distinguished themselves from those they saw as lower was by disparaging the taste and the consumption of those people and by, instead, liking rare and/or obscure things. Think: Kale.
Why didn’t Brooks bring this up? Perhaps the same reason he didn’t tell his friend “That’s just a fancy way to say ‘Italian hoagie.'”
3) The turning point in the story is his deigning to go to something safer and more working class: Mexican food. Brooks’ dismissal of Mexican cuisine as simple, safe, unadventurous belies everything everyone knows about Mexican cuisine.
Also, I’m biased, but it’s worth it to study the complex histories that go into making Latin cuisine what it is, from the domestication of chocolate AND vanilla and the avocado to the creative outcomes of multiple migrations from Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and Europe.
Behold, the Indian frybread taco:
4) To top it off, Brooks blithely dismisses a swath of data showing how educational disparities reproduce themselves.
Instead he blames class differences on the unfamiliarity working class people have with subtle ingredients and foreign sounding words (but, apparently, Spanish, Nahuatl, & Mexica words for food aren’t foreign). But Brooks teaches at Yale. Surely he himself sees the pattern of legacies getting admission and students from the same highschools overrepresented year after year. This is because Yale has a secret entrance exam as to whether your palate is refined enough to distinguish between marjoram and oregano?
By the way, the people who’ve been best about introducing me to new food are working class U.S. citizens and immigrants.