A Dish of Material Culture

Go on, have some more.

A friend sent me a link this morning to the Cook Political Report, and their 36 interesting statistics about the recent election. One of them was striking, a perfect example of what has been called “a blinding glimpse of the obvious:”

Biden carried 85 percent of counties with a Whole Foods Market and 32 percent of counties with a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Back in the 1970s, the cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky was trying to firmly identify American “culture regions,” and was looking for ways to know when you were in the North and when you were in the South. He examined speech patterns, religious memberships… and decided that the most reliable indicator was to go into a grocery store and look for lard. In the North, it would be in one-pound blocks; in the South, it was in ten-pound tubs.

Likewise, in 2001 after the heat of Bush/Gore, when the whole red-and-blue Americas trope took off, the writer David Brooks spent some time driving back and forth between a blue county in Maryland and a red county in Pennsylvania that were about an hour apart (writing for the Atlantic). He said that no matter how hard he tried, it was impossible to buy a restaurant entree in a red county that cost more than $20. In that article, he wrote that Cracker Barrel was “Red America condensed into chain-restaurant form.”

Food matters. Food had ethnicity and social class and regional history baked right in. Here, just have a look at these two restaurant home pages.

The first is from Atalier Crenn, Dominique Crenn’s award-winning restaurant in San Francisco. The home page video is ballerinas, the oceanscape, a genderfluid couple walking down the beach. The message here isn’t about how wonderful the food is, the message is about how elegant and sophisticated your experience will be. And at one thousand two hundred dollars for two with wine, one expects sophistication, doesn’t one. The Michelin Guide has awarded Crenn three stars, meaning “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey!”

The second is from the New England favorite, Ninety-Nine Restaurant and Pub. No stars, no ballerinas, no scenery, and everybody is clearly cisgender-conformative. The corporate history page says “Charlie wanted to give locals a place where they’d always feel at home. A place where they could get no-nonsense food at down-to-earth prices, and where they’d be treated right by people who had a passion to serve.” Two people could get out for forty bucks, if they’d had a beer with dinner.

Let’s dig into Charlie’s statement a little further. He wanted to serve “locals,” because real people don’t travel for dinner no matter how many stars somebody got. A place where they’d “feel at home,” be “treated right,” not some uppity bullshit with French words and too much silverware, where every interaction brings the risk that you could do something wrong. A place with “no-nonsense food at down-to-earth prices,” not a place where there’s one fussy little thing on a giant plate wearing stripes and a hat.

Food is culture is economics is politics. Spending more money for less food = sophistication. Spending less money for more food = common sense. And when we don’t even share a vocabulary, how can it surprise anyone when we don’t share politics?

My parents had come from different kinds of social class backgrounds. When they argued, which they did, the worst thing she could call him was a hillbilly, and the worst thing he could call her was a snob. Which they did.

This class warfare played out in every possible aspect of their decision making. She drove an AMC Matador with the Oleg Cassini interior. He drove a succession of used pickup trucks. She drank—when she rarely did—a Grasshopper. He drank—when he did, frequently—Pabst Blue Ribbon. She bought a French Provincial living room furniture suite, and had a mural of some vaguely classical landscape painted on the living room wall. He stopped coming home, because it didn’t feel like his home any more.

If someone gave you a gift, say $60,000 to buy a new vehicle, your choice would be related to your social class. I might, for instance, buy a Porsche 718 Cayman, but most of my neighbors would prefer a Ram 3500 Laramie. If someone gave you a $1500 restaurant budget, you could go for a lovely evening at Crenn (using the extra to fund some of your Michelin-approved travel to San Francisco), or you could go to Ninety-Nine… every week for a year.

Scholars talk about material culture, about the ways in which our things tell stories about our values. But really, we’ve always known that even without the term. Everything we buy, everything we eat, everything we wear, is a message about “the good life,” however we define that to be.

Now, let’s broaden that some more. When you think of “comfort food,” what comes to mind? Mac ‘n’ Cheese? Mashed potatoes? Or sweet tea and barbecue? Or kimchi and japchae? Or enchiladas and rellenos? Or Tim Horton crullers and poutine?

Food is a language with which we speak. And like any language, it will feel easy and familiar to some, entirely alien and opaque to others. Go to Dunkin Donuts and ask for a medium regular. Everybody in New England knows what that means, but no one anywhere else will have a clue. I went into a neighborhood coffee shop in New York one day, one of those beloved holes in walls, and I asked for a tea, reflexively giving the size as “grande.” I was nearly bodily removed.

Another blinding glimpse of the obvious: thirty years ago, I was in a doctoral classroom where the topic of long-term housing for seniors was on the agenda. Our guest for the day said that we were used to bad, mushy food in trays being called “comfort food” because the seniors in homes had all been white Americans born in the 1910s and ’20s. We won’t provide real comfort through food, she said, until we learn to broaden our definition of comfort.

If we could all agree on whether we wanted to eat at Crenn or at 99, life would be a lot easier. But we don’t. Much less would we agree when our choices are expanded to also include a crab shack, a tandoori, a taqueria and a chips shop. And that’s part of the fear of “globalism,” a world in which our own choices and values aren’t taken for granted, aren’t seen as native and unquestioned, are seen as merely one option among many. For some people, that’s exhilarating; for others, disorienting.

Our choices are choices. They aren’t native, and the others aren’t wrong. We come from a long line of language and objects and foods, and other people will have come from their own equally long histories which lead them to make different decisions. When we dismiss or demean something even as simple as someone’s dinner, we do damage to the ideas of free will and democracy. All of us need to do better at being curious, to turn less easily toward judgment. That’s one of my resolutions for this pending year.

Be safe, be generous, and be curious in 2021.

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