Spending a week or more away from home, which I have to do twice a year, does not delight me. It does, though, give me lots of time to observe human behavior and that’s always worth the time invested. Participant observer activities, with a hint of ethnomethodological meddling, have filled more than a few of my days. This trip, though, I found myself thinking more about food and the ways in which it serves purposes far beyond simple nutrition.
I was primed for this by a piece that appeared earlier in the month on The Atlantic’s site. In it James McWilliams jumped into what is evidently a debate on the morality of sustainable food and maybe even foodies themselves. These types of things often bore me–just more of the chattering classes jostling for superior position. But Professor McWilliams (a faculty member at Texas State University, San Marcos–which I believe was LBJ’s alma mater–with a lot of interesting pubs in his CV and a focus on colonial American history) caught my eye with references to Kant and Pierre Bourdieu.
I love Bourdieu’s ideas about groups using cultural capital and language to exclude and discriminate. Discriminate would be my word; in translation the less loaded word distinction is used as the title of one of Bourdieu’s key works. Whatever the word, I always thought Bourdieu was on to something.
And then there’s the foodie thing. I’m the cook in my house and I enjoy making and eating it. I’m also keenly aware of the moral components so easily overlooked by many. I’d prefer that my food not be better traveled than I am and if you’re going to do something like ‘farm’ seafood why not farm mussels, which actually make things better, instead of salmon, which are an ecological disaster. At the same time, I’m not wearing my hairshirt or preaching vegetarianism.
Yet I’m troubled and three different meals in Chicago drove that home. The first was at The Purple Pig, a temple dedicated to using every part of the pig including the oink. Now I could get all goofy and foodie here but this isn’t a review. What I’ll note is that in some ways this is a fine model for a restaurant–use the total animal and serve small portions. There’s less waste and I bet the operation is more profitable. The side effect, though, of that approach (which garnered mention in Bon Apetit) is the woman sitting to my left who leaned over to tell me, unironically, that she was a foodie. The “too” was implied.
Then there was Spiaggia (which I just discovered has an ownership interest in TPP). This establishment sells distinction on fine bone china. The prices alone could induce a coronary and will keep ordinary members of the polity well at bay. Yet if you don’t embrace the foodie ethos which permeates the joint you’ve missed the point. Spiaggia is all about us and them and the ability to pay the bill is just a starting point.
I think it all hit home over breakfast at Xoco. You could argue that Rick Bayless’ coffeeshop-like boite delivers the foodie experience at a price anyone can afford. And you’d be right. You might also be ignoring the fact that with the exception of my Asian American dining companion and one other patron the staff were brown and the customers white. It goes without saying that the patrons seemed almost uniformly upper middle class, with the studied casualness that is licensed to today’s knowledge worker. I hope I was not alone in finding that uncomfortable but there were too many conversations about ‘projects’ and ‘possibilities’ going on for me to believe it was even noticed.