Alberto Mingardi  

Food, snobbery and anti-capitalism

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I'm currently reading a truly interesting book, which some of EconLog's readers may be already familiar with: "The Intellectuals and the Masses. Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939" by John Carey. Carey argues, in his own words, "that modernist literature and art can be seen as a hostile reaction to the unprecedentedly large reading public created by late nineteenth-century education reform." He thus describes How intellectuals endeavoured to develop an increasingly less intelligible sort of artistic production, to distinguish and separate themselves from "the masses."

But of course "the masses" do not exist in nature: they are instead an intellectual construct, manufactured, according to Carey, to dismiss in a much easier fashion those individuals who could be classed as "mass men." Mass men are a fictionalised version of what intellectuals suppose ordinary people, with ordinary tastes, are. This latter species of human beings surely is a fault of the Industrial Revolution, in the sense that it multiplied in the process of "Great Enrichment" Deirdre McCloskey speaks of.

Carey's analysis reminded me somehow of the one developed by Ludwig von Mises in "The Anticapitalistic Mentality." There, Mises explains that capitalism "could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala. It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books."

One of the ways in which "common men" are depicted in "uncommon books," Carey points out, is as partakers of bad food. Simple and "industrialized" food habits speak badly of those who hold them. In particular, a customary enemy of the high culture intellectual happens to be tinned food.

Being essentially unknowable, the mass acquires definition through the imposition of imagined attributes. (...) Another curiously persistent attribute, worth noting in conclusion, is tinned food. We saw E.M. Forster's Leonard Bast eats tinned food, a practice that is meant to tell us something significant about Leonard, and not to his advantage. The Norwegian Knut Hamsun waged intermittent war in his novels against tinned food, false teeth and other modern nonsense. T.S. Eliot's typist in "The Waste Land" 'lays out food in tins' (...) Tinned salmon is repeatedly a feature of lower-class cuisine in Graham Greene.

(...) In the intellectual's conceptual vocabulary tinned food becomes a mass symbol because it offends against what the intellectual designates as nature: it is mechanical and soulless. As a homogeneous mass product it is also an offence against the sacredness of individuality, and can therefore be allowed into art only if satirised and disowned.


My impression is that this goes on today as well. "Man is what he eats," and certain food habits are either proof of lack of sensibility (aesthetic but also environmental, think about food miles), or of lack of refinement and education, a deficiency individuals should be rescued from. Would the equivalent of tinned food, in the language contemporary intellectuals speak, be fast food? The "mass men" to be "re-educated" thanks to the political process eat burgers and drink sodas. But does any other example come to your mind? How food habits are used as a signal for the need of straightening the crooked timber of humanity?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
sym writes:

Cheap lager, for sure.

Tom Davies writes:

C. S. Forester, in "The African Queen" criticises his lower-class characters for liking tinned food.

Grant Gould writes:

I have long felt that Orwell was the only writer of his time to put this in a humane context. From "The Road to Wigan Pier,"


“Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even...saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing...A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't... when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'.”

Which is to say, of course "mass man" will partake of bad food. Mass Man is having a hard time of it, and wants something cheap and flavorful, a simple pleasure, even if it is tinned (or alcoholic, or "processed", pick you decade's favorite class-linked treif). Orwell appreciates this in a way that other socialist writers did not or even could not.

It's no coincidence that so many of the world's great cuisines started as subsistence staples of the peasantry, only later "discovered" by the professionals for the use of the upper classes. Whether sushi or barbecue or the organ meats and mushrooms of French cuisine, the search for something cheap and tasty has overwhelmingly the work of the tired and the poor.

Jeff writes:

Since much of this stuff is status-signalling on the part of people who believe themselves to be part of some cultural elite, there in many cases may not be any coherent reasoning behind whatever attitude is being looked down upon. The less broad appeal a book or other piece of art has, the better, and there are basically an unlimited number of reasons something wouldn't have broad popular appeal. The more avant garde and inscrutable a piece of art happens to be, the better it functions as a status signalling device.

Part of the rise of hipster culture, I suspect, is an implicit recognition of this fact, and thus you see them latching onto aspects of mass culture (flannel shirts, beards, cheesy '80's rock music, Pabst Blue Ribbon) as a sort of finger in the eye of the self-styled elite, while at the same time calling their embrace of these emblems "ironic" in order to signal that they are not, in fact, part of the blue collar class they like to mimic; they're above it. But they're also not like those elitists, either.

Anyway, that's my hypothesis.

KPres writes:

It's not fast food anymore. The unwashed masses do better than that these days. Now it's "chain restaurants" that inspire all the scorn.

ThomasH writes:

There are a lot of funny food beliefs like "organic" food is good and GMO food is bad. But there are so few anti-capitalists around that can hardly be a explanation for their popularity.

JKB writes:

I'll admit to not catching on at first to Megan McArdle's post on the impact of the CA drought. But by the time I got to end, I saw that the problem was not the coming lack of vegetables in winter, but the fact that the really recent availability of fresh vegetables (arugula as well, I expect) might be coming to an end.

The horror of frozen vegetables, or God forbid, canned.

She was writing for certain type of reader.

JKB writes:

The one I love these days is Sea Salt.

Sure, sea salt has its uses and can be unique when it is a separate taste element. I like the large clump of crystals sprinkled on a fresh baked baguette. But really, sea salt in a sauce, pasta water or otherwise diluted. Any concept of trace minerals is wiped out. I lose about 80% of my respect for any chef or recipe that calls for sea salt that will be dissolved.

Oh, and I can't remember where I saw this, Kobe beef stew. Now that is hilarious that anyone would fall for that.

Adrian Tschoegl writes:

32oz. sugared soda has to be top of the list; ask Mayor Bloomberg. More generally: food with salt in it (except sea salt), food with refined sugar, food with fat (I can never remember whether I should be avoiding saturated or unsaturated fat, though I am pretty sure transfat is evil, or maybe it isn't?), etc.

Timothy Hopper writes:

Back in high school there were some kids who thought that their taste in food and clothing demonstrated their superior sophistication (mostly, it demonstrated that they had more money). Those of us who were more intelligent thought that an obsession with such things demonstrated a lack of intellectual ability and maturity. Yet once we became adults, even supposed intellectuals imagine that their taste in food and clothing demonstrates their superiority; I think we had it right back in high school, and the 35 year old leftie who takes pride in eating only GM-free fresh organic vegetables is as much to be pitied as the 15 year old in love with their brand name jeans and basketball boots.

Shane L writes:

Curiously, Timothy, I can remember being mocked by a moronic classmate when I was around 14 years old, for drinking milk. A more fashionable adolescent, in our small town culture, would be drinking a masculine (unhealthy) drink like Coca Cola. Milk was considered a bit childish and effeminate! The macho culture among teenage boys tended to emphasise unhealthy junk foods and the kid who drank milk and ate fruit would be singled out for contempt.

There are many kinds of snobbery, indeed.

As an adult I find alcohol intriguingly laced with cultural rules and snobbery. Beer is sometimes considered masculine while wine - usually more alcoholic - more feminine. (In some cultures at least.) There are complex rules identifying alcohol consumption with nationality, sex and socio-economic class. As an Irish man who didn't drink at all until my mid-20s I can vouch for that: looks of astonishment and confusion at my glass of water for many years!

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