The Distinctions And Genres In Food Culture Cultural Studies Essay

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Distinctions between the imported exotica available exclusively to the upper class and the routine local fare of commoners have largely faded. What was once available only to kings and queens in 1960s France is now readily found sitting on local supermarket shelves (Feffer, 2007). Resulting from years of immigration and international trade, exotic flavours that were once exclusive such as cumin, paprika, vanilla, and saffron are now commonplace in modern society. Sociologists are frequently guided to the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1984) to understand the role that food trends, tastes, and symbols influence the creation of class distinctions.

For Peterson (1996), omnivorousness is the solution to the concern associated with modernity, an expression of greater cultural tolerance, and a form of social distinction. Peterson and other cultural sociologists have accepted a general trend away from "snob to slob" and towards "omnivore to univore" when considering cultural capital in modern societies (1996). He argues that highbrow tastes have become explicitly difficult to showcase because traditional signifying methods are veiled by the immense variety of other food genres made available by subgroups. Unique individuals are now satisfied with what they can get since numerous food alternatives have distracted them from the elite consumption behaviour. When the elite are eating hamburgers and hot dogs, food snobbery and culinary stratification must be fading away (Johnston & Baumann, 2007). Therefore, in today's omnivorous era, cultural consumption signalling high status and representing highbrow cultural genres are no longer effective (Peterson, 1996). Bryson (1996) argues that omnivorousness is itself an exclusionary form of cultural symbolism and possibly displays a cultural tolerance but with a significant class basis. Erickson's (1996) view identifies an instrumental purpose for omnivorousness, one which directly reinforces class inequalities because it upholds a capacity to transform cultural capital into social capital.

All of their indicators of cultural distinction, their interpretations of meaning for such differentiation, and their operationalisation of social class are, at the micro level, non-comparable (Warde 1997). However, all of their ideologies work effectively with a broadly similar Bourdieuvian problematic, while pursuing to modify conclusions about the direct correlation between cultural and symbolic differences upon social divisions (Warde 1997). This paper adds evidence to the debate and offers an extension to existing research. It demonstrates that food genres within the realm of omnivorousness provide a solution to the tension associated with an uncertain modernity as they act as particular forms of social distinction and are an expression of greater cultural tolerance in society as well.

While past sociological work on cultural omnivorousness has primarily focused on musical tastes or arts consumption, I propose to examine omnivorousness in the field of food culture in the United States and England. I argue here, that Bourdieu's concept of class distinction in tastes is still strong and prevalent in today's food world despite the omnivore's dilemma of having endless consumption options to choose from (2009). While, Peterson points out that these distinctions no longer hold power as status markers then they did in 18th century France, I argue the opposite. The emergence of various food genres has created unique pockets of exclusivity and opportunities for the upper-class to maintain distinction. Given that more options are available and easier to access; more highbrow options are also harder to obtain. The distinction is reinforced through the institutionalization of high-class fare through popular media as well as an 'aesthetic of entertainment,' and a 'gastronomic aesthetic of food' whereby food and setting both produce and reproduce highbrow distinctions in the overall consumption experience (Johnston & Baumann, 2007; Miele & Murdoch, 2002). Therefore, food genres have become an instrumental mechanism for distinguishing group affiliations considering the concept of omnivorousness still encompasses distinct visible levels of preference and accessibility.

In the first part of the paper, I outline how Bourdieu's concepts of class distinction persists even in an omnivorous world by applying my research on food culture to the three contrasting sociological ideologies as presented by Peterson (1996), Bryson (1996), and Erickson (1996). First, I will be referring to Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann's article on authenticity and exoticism in gourmet food writing in response to Peterson's conclusions (2007). Differences in social status are reinforced through the institutionalization of upper-class tastes in food magazines. Audiences of such popular mediums are exposed to highbrow cultural capital which grants distinction through mentioned food genres and food practices (Johnston & Baumann, 2007). Second, I will use John Feffer's article on the local food movement and growing food trends created by highbrow individuals to illustrate Bryson's argument (1996). These individuals are able to define social class through exploiting value-added food genres and employing their higher economic capital to do so (Feffer, 1996). Third, I will compare Alan Wardes' work on social characteristics of customers' experiences dining-out in England with Erickson's ideology on knowledge of cultural variety and networks (1997).

In the second section I provide an overview of the rise of nouvelle cuisine which has

Aesthetic food = aesthetic of entertainment and gastronomic aesthetic of food.

Lastly, I provide a reaction towards the increase in food genres and propose that the slow food genre incorporates both realms of status and variety. This food movement exists to maintain the status quo of typical classique cuisine while considering surrounding socio-economic and ecological relationships.

Distinction in modernity

At first glance, it might look as if a new age of food democracy were dawning-out with the snobbish history of elite foods for elite people. One might conclude that, according to these food experts, any food is eligible to ascend to prominence as a high-status dish. However, one reason to be sceptical about such a conclusion is that dining practices have been linked to status for centuries across many cultures (Goody, 1982). One of the several social functions of food, and the modes in which it is consumed, is to serve as a form of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984).

JoseĀ“e Johnston and Shyon Baumann examine gourmet food journalism to understand how some foods are legitimated as high-status cultural signals. Food writing is a relevant research tool because gourmet magazines are an influential medium among highbrow individuals with sophisticated tastes. These magazines are legitimizing institutions with cultural authority that target upper-middle to upper-class audiences, whom are the audience that practice omnivorous cultural consumption. Additionally, gourmet food writing identifies culinary trends and acts as a guide for 'worthy' food choices, while excluding the majority of available foods. Johnston and Baumann find in their qualitative and quantitative research is that two dominant frames are used to define distinction in food writing: authenticity and exoticism.


Authenticity in gourmet food writing is often represented through the geographic location of specific foods (place-specific foods), and the preparation methods used to create the culinary dishes. Vague continental references, such as Asian or Mexican, are insufficient references for legitimate tastes to be perceived as authentic foods. In contrast, geographic references to highly specific places, cities, or especially small towns such as Bologna, Italy; Lucknow, India; or Siglufjordur, Iceland were much more convincing. Precise location specificity signals authenticity by letting the reader know that this food is valuable in part because of its specific geographic origins, which sets it apart from more generic versions (i.e. slowly stewed pulled pork carnitas from a cantina in Mexico City versus Taco Bell's taco supreme) Furthermore, the attention to such detail provokes specialized knowledge and expertise for the particular food showcased in the magazine. This specificity once again plays a major role in persuading the readers that what you ultimately get is the 'real deal'. As a result, in comparison to place-specific delicacies (e.g. Parmigiano-Reggiano from Parma), generic supermarket versions appear unworthy substitutes (e.g. Kraft parmesan cheese).

The simple preparation of food is another valued quality for seekers of authentic cuisine. The term 'simple' refers to many aspects in consumption preferences. Simplicity can convey the distancing or rejection of mass produced, industrialized food associated with lowbrow individuals. Simple can imply homemade/handmade, small-scale and high-quality comfort foods that rely on the natural flavours and aromas to make the dish. Compared to rich butter-based sauces that take hours to finish, simple and light reductions made from natural juices display care in authentic cooking. By large, simple cooking is a giant step forward from commercialized ingredients and an even larger step forward towards honest household cooking that have existed since the beginning of time. For example, in an article set in rural Louisiana, the authors offer a glowing portrait of a black female cook's "unschooled," intuitive cooking technique: "'It's from my mama's kitchen,' she said. 'I cannot tell you how to do it because she never taught me to measure anything. You just add seasoning and spice until it's right'" (Gourmet, April 2004, p. 52). The simplicity of food also speaks from the descriptions of food in gourmet magazines. For instance, a dish described as "porchetta topped with caramelized onions, fennel, and mustard on rustic ciabatta bread topped with micropickled green tomatoes," concentrates its description on exposing each specific ingredient rather than calling the dish one lavish title. Food magazine descriptions seem to pay tribute to each component as though they wanted to implicitly declare that there is nothing to hide but simplicity at its best. It's about taking the time to do it right. It's about hands- people making things, everything by hand that same exact day. It's about people talking to you through food, telling you something about themselves, their country, their town, and their families.

In sum, gourmet food writers emphasize food that is authentic as it expands food evaluation away from a strictly narrow, snobbish focus and opens up a world of options for what can be considered gourmet fare. Gourmet food culture is now omnivorous in the sense that high-status eating can be done in a large number of cuisines or "genres." Authentic foods are seemingly "simple" foods that come from highly specific places off the middle-class tourist path, they are produced by hard-working rural people with noncommercial motivations, they have ties to specific personalities and culinary artists (especially in wealthy settings), they have a rich history, and they are consumed in casual, "simple" settings. Authentic foods are frequently portrayed as more democratic-they are the foods of common, "simple" people, produced and consumed in a "simple" fashion, connected to age-old traditions, and frequently presented as superior to stuffy, rulebound haute cuisine. The democratic nature of an emphasis on these qualities of food is made explicit in food writing. What is left implicit, however, is the exclusionary effect of an emphasis on authenticity.

Given the extreme geographic specificity and labour-intensive production techniques tied to food's authenticity, most of the authentic foods profiled in these magazines are extremely expensive and difficult (if not impossible) to acquire in the mainstream commercial supermarkets and restaurants where most Americans buy food and eat out. Instead, authentic food items are primarily accessible to cultivated, upper-middleclass individuals with liberal funds who are capable of extensive global travel, allowing them to eat an authentic bowl of pho noodle soup on the streets of outskirt villages in Thailand. Moreover, the appreciation of authentic foods requires high cultural capital, since specialized gastronomic knowledge is required to identify what is deemed an authentic food fashion (e.g., where an authentic French Roquefort blue cheese is made, and why a commercially made American cheese is not an adequate substitute), and to understand why authentic foods are superior compared to their inauthentic industrial counterparts (e.g., the place-specific French cheese has a unique mold producing and aging process that is linked to a remote region of France). Cooks with limited economic and cultural capital may not only remain unaware of changing food trends, but may also be restricted to "lesser-quality," inauthentic, industrially produced supermarket variants-Hershey bars rather than authentic handmade chocolate truffles made by an artistic chocolatier. Gourmet food writers indicate the superiority of authentic foods mostly by ignoring inauthentic foods. We almost never read of fast-food, supermarket brands, or industrial food processing. This is a subtle ideological tension that simultaneously works to democratically open the culinary terrain to include certain authentic culinary traditions and food producers, while providing criteria for exclusion that diminish the value of "inauthentic" foods available to most middle-class and working-class cooks in neighbourhood supermarkets and restaurants.

Beyond exoticism: Localvores

Exoticism alone no longer provides adequate justification for value-added higher price tags. The declining value of bacon, carrots and potatoes are struggling to keep producers alive, and the same logic applies to more upscale choices like specialty coffee, Thai basil, and Japanese eggplant. In essence, the only products those are in rare supply and considered as delicacies, such as emu meat or white truffles, are able to maintain exquisite integrity while avoiding industrial-style production, genetic engineering, or simple export competition that drives down prices. Whereas distance once defined value on food as traders brought unique items back to a land of curiosity, the international market and fierce price competition have almost eliminated that value. To sustain profit, the food industry has transformed the methods of adding value to both raw and finished products.

The alchemy of the marketplace transforms this vulgar pursuit of profit into something higher-minded: a quest for distinction. To acquire this distinction, in Pierre Bourdieu's sense of the term, wealthier global consumers have drifted toward other designations to reinforce their sense of exclusivity. It is no longer enough to eat New Zealand lamb or Brazilian oranges in the wintertime. These products have become déclassé, much as sugar and tea lost their distinction as elite comestibles in the Middle Ages to become the mainstay of the British poor by the time of the Industrial Revolution (Mintz 148). Discriminating consumers, who want to show that they have taste-which is so much about asserting status and economic class-gravitate toward other marks of distinction. This campaign has also involved the transformation of "health foods" from flavor-challenged options-the lowly tofu burger-into flavor-enhanced superfoods full of vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. "Healthy" once battled "tasty" in the popular imagination. Today, as the advertisers for Healthy Choice frozen dinners remind us, the consumer doesn't have to choose.

The "organic" designation has for some time been one such attempt to push a certain class of food up the value chain. In this way, the industry has succeeded in getting a growing number of consumers to pay more for fresh produce and packaged goods. But as organic food goes mass market, higher-end consumers are looking for other distinctions. The "local food" movement, by turning the age-old relationship of value and distance on its head, is poised to replace organic as the value-added distinction du jour.

Going Local

Locavores-the latest trend in dietary activists-speak of reducing "food miles," of sustaining small farms, of the better taste of produce grown or raised locally (Feffer, 2007). It's not just Europeans. North Americans are beginning to follow the European lead in prizing local products. Local sourcing-with its application of the term terroir to products other than wine and the rapid growth of direct farmer-to-consumer marketing through consumer-supported agriculture (CSAs)-has taken up the same radical challenge to factory farming that the organics movement raised a generation ago, but with an additional critique of the global agro-assembly line. In a reversal of the old relationship between emperors and their dominions, people are nowadays assigning greater value to items produced locally.

Consider the various "eat local" challenges that have sprouted up throughout North America. In Gourmet magazine, environmentalist Bill McKibben chronicled his effort to survive a Vermont winter on root vegetables, canned tomatoes, and locally brewed beer. Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan confined his year of eating locally to within 200 miles of his northern Arizona home where a rather narrow range of food can be coaxed from the landscape. The food service Bon Appetit conducts an annual 150-mile "eat local challenge" at its cafés in universities and corporate campuses across the United States. Further north, a Canadian couple spent a year eating a whole lot of potatoes in the 100-mile circle they drew around their Vancouver home ( And, in his latest book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, food writer Michael Pollan set the bar even higher by defining local as no further than hand's reach, as his progressively more demanding effort to eat off the land culminated with a meal of wild pig that he shot, wild mushrooms that he gathered, lettuce that he grew, and fruit that he gleaned.

At the moment, the locavore movement seems impervious to the institutionalization that has afflicted organics. Production for local consumption is by definition small-scale. A certain amount of added value can rise up through the food chain: the local farmer charging more for the local tomato, the restaurateur charging a little more for the local tomato salad, the consumer willing to pay extra for something that has a local "distinction" attached. But such a value-adding exercise by definition stops at the boundary of the defined "local space," whether it is 200, 150, 100, or 50 miles. True, "local" Vermont maple syrup or Pittsburgh microbrew or Memphis barbecue sauce can be produced and marketed on a large scale, and these products derive much of their value from their specific locale. But the "eat local" purist is not interested in someone else's local food. The local designation is not comparable to a Codex Alimentarius geographic designation-basmati, champagne, kimchi-that facilitates trade. The movement is designed to discourage trade because trade pushes producers to greater economies of scale.

Does the consumer, by buying local, acquire distinction in the same way that the Chinese emperor did by consuming Samarkand peaches or the upscale shopper does by buying organic plums at Whole Foods? The "eat local" movement has reversed the value-distance equation. It becomes the poor who are condemned to eat the cheap food in the supermarket-white bread produced several states away, frozen orange juice from Brazil, sandwich meat from hogs butchered in Mexico. The wealthier consumers demonstrate their extradietary concerns-whether expressed in the desire to reduce overall consumption, help small farmers, or improve their own health with less-processed food-by paying a little more for locally produced products, whether vegetables or microbrewed beer or bread from a local bakery. This process of creating value, often arbitrary, is inescapable in our economic system. When locavores praise the flavor of a locally grown tomato, they are asserting that taste-as opposed to merely the calories needed to sustain life-is important. They are privileging their own tastes, their own health, and the socioeconomic assumptions embedded in these choices.

Although the eat-local movement will, by its very think-small nature, resist the institutionalization that the organic sector has experienced, it may nevertheless fall into the same value-laden trap. Like the organic politics of Whole Foods, the eat-local phenomenon may devolve into a simple pocketbook issue-which vegetable, the locally grown or the imported, costs less?-and its fundamental critique of food production will remain largely rhetorical. If it stops evolving into a political movement and instead devolves into a mere consumer movement, eating local will become little more than a set of distinctions to distinguish one type of product and one type of consumer from another, and another opportunity to change the world will be eaten away by the exigencies of the market.

Knowledge, benchmarks and institutionalized expectations

Predefined highbrow tastes still exist and are still instilled through gourmet food writing

Bourdieu's signifier of elite status through food as being pretentious and established seem to have been worn down over the years by new preferences for local fresh ingredients and authenticity.

Dimaggio argues that genres emerge from social subgroups with strong boundaries that can generate distinctive subcultures over time, including new kinds of art, fashion and food. As modernity is represented by a growing diversity of cultures and options, communities with a more differentiated social structure will have more subgroups. Thus, individuals in modern societies have more exposure to different sorts of genres and they can easily find a particular genre that suits them.

Although we would agree that the homology between dominant/dominated classes and high/low culture that Bourdieu observed is no longer to be found, we do not find this discrepancy to be a crucial flaw inBourdieu's theory of distinction. The decisive cultural boundary Bourdieu draws is not between high and low culture, but between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" culture, or put differently, culture that has been endorsed or consecrated by institutions or individuals with cultural authority (universities, critics, etc.) and culture that is lacking such approval, or that is disapproved of by those with cultural authority. Gourmet food writing suggests that the omnivorous age does not usher in a relativistic cultural paradise where "anything goes" and all foods are made legitimate. Instead, boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate culture are redrawn in >new, complex ways that balance the need for distinction with the competing >ideology of democratic equality and cultural populism.35 In this way, Bourdieu's homology between class and culture is maintained.