Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution S. Margot Finn (2017)
In this thought-provoking social analysis, Margot Finn shatters multiple assumptions about food in American culture. Her main premise is that, over the past forty years, middle-class Americans have embraced eating habits that allow them to feel superior to other Americans. She argues that these eating habits are related to the increasing income inequality in the United States: although members of the middle class have been stifled in upward mobility, they’ve retained a sense of social superiority, expressed through their food choices and through vocal rationalizations of those choices. The media are complicit in promoting the food revolution, even when scientific evidence fails to show that the products are better.
What Finn calls “aspirational eating” is, in her words, “a process in which people use their literal tastes—the kinds of food they eat and the way they use and talk about food—to perform and embody a desirable class identity and distinguish themselves from the masses.” (11) Finn describes four categories in the food revolution—gourmet, diet, natural, and ethnic—and examines each in detail.
What? Are we actually classist if we love our Pinot Noir, low-fat salad dressing, organic broccoli, and sushi? Well, maybe. Finn does absolve aspirational eaters to some extent: “Most of the time, people don’t choose high-status foods because of their association with the elite. Instead, they believe those foods are actually better—better tasting, healthier, better for the environment, more authentic, and so forth.” (44) In other words, we’ve been indoctrinated in our beliefs, convinced that paying more for upscale foods is worth it. We can’t do very much as individuals to change societal structures, but by golly we can eat some of the same foods that the 1% eat.
In Discriminating Taste, Finn ranges widely both to establish the historical framework for her argument and to illustrate the current food revolution. In an absorbing chapter on eating in the Gilded Age, she documents the food fads of middle-class Americans living in the period from 1880 to 1930: “In the new social order that emerged in the 1880s, members of the professional middle class grasped at anything that would enable them to distance themselves from the lower classes, establish their capacity for conspicuous consumption, and assert a moral superiority over the robber barons who usurped them.” (78) The food trends of the Gilded Age, an era marked by extreme income inequality, faded with the arrival of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, only to rise again around 1980.
In discussing America’s obsession with dieting, Finn presents clear evidence from medical research that diets of all varieties virtually never work to help overweight people keep weight off. Her close examination of the television show The Biggest Loser left me appalled at the extreme humiliations that the contestants were subjected to in the cause of becoming thinner. I’ve never watched this program, but Finn’s descriptions gave me a grim picture of the media exploitation of this component of aspirational eating.
Many other aspects of Discriminating Taste are simply delightful to read. Don’t miss her account of the making of the famous commercial for Grey Poupon mustard and her deconstruction of Ratatouille, the 2007 animated movie about a restaurant rat who is a secret chef. When academic prose creeps into the text, it doesn’t last long. I started to get bogged down in a summary of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume’s essay on taste, but sections like this one are more than offset by, for instance, lively discussion of the authenticity claims of Lay’s Classic potato chips as compared with Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha.
The overall thesis of Discriminating Taste has serious political implications for the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, and particularly the gap between the middle class and the poor. Finn doesn’t mince words: “The food revolution has helped stigmatize the foods and bodies associated with the poor and has convinced middle- and upper-class people that their dietary choices prove that they are smarter and more self-controlled and thus deserve whatever social rewards they get from eating the way they do.” (215) Finn addresses this attitude in a chapter called “Sacrifice, Pleasure, and Virtue.” The foodies who insist on gourmet, diet, natural, and ethnic foods sacrifice the conveniences and lower prices of more conventional food products. They like the feeling of martyrdom that this gives them, and they seek to impose their choices on others.
Discriminating Taste has prodded me to examine my own food choices. I’m not much tempted by gourmet or ethnic foods. (Wait. Yesterday I whipped up zucchini-parsley fritters. Were they gourmet? Probably not.) In the diet category, I’ve made peace with some of my decisions. For example, I’ve become so accustomed to skim-milk dairy products that full-fat dairy tastes cloyingly creamy to me, so I’ll stick with my “slimming” products. In the category of natural foods, however, I need to assess my purchases of local and organic products more carefully. I think it’s worth trips to the farmers’ market in summer and fall for ripe-picked corn, tomatoes, and melons, and I wait all year for that week in June when I can buy intensely flavorful Michigan strawberries. But I’ll admit that the extra drive to the farmers’ market uses gas and that organic produce isn’t always worth the cost.
More importantly, I need to adjust my view of friends and family members who love McDonald’s french fries and Kraft boxed macaroni and cheese, two foods cited by Finn as anathema to food elitists. None of us should judge what other people find delicious.
Margot Finn has taken on a powerful cohort in her indictment of current food trends. Even if you don’t accept all her assertions, Discriminating Taste will get you thinking.
[Side note: A shout out to Derek Thornton, who designed the clever cover for Discriminating Taste.]