April 27, 2004 10:35 PM | By Adam Roberts | 9 Comments

Entitlement and Food: Part Two of an 87 Part Series

I really enjoyed the first part of this 87 part thread, namely because of the vibrant debate that went on. Keep in mind that you really can't offend me with a dissenting opinion, as long as you stick to the issue and don't make it personal. (Unless of course you're William Shatner in which case it will ALWAYS be personal. I'll get you Captain Kirk!)

For a really well crafted dissenting opinion, check out Trey Given's "The Glorious Luxury of Food" in which he picks my piece apart. I wish I understood political and economic discourse better, because it seems the terms of that debate are beyond my ken. (I better get the ken back, though, before my Corporations final Thursday!)

Suffice it to say that I am that cliched breed of privileged liberal satarized so well in John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation." I decry the corruption of corporate America while reaping it's benefits. I'm like Meadow Soprano: fighting the good fight for the disenfranchized while daddy kills people. It's all very ironic.

What I don't like about my original post is that it's very paternalistic. "I, the wealthy white male, know what's good for you, you downtrodden minorities. Here, let me tell you what to eat."

It's a rather smug proposition. But I don't mean it that way.

I feel like discovering food is like discovering sex or music or art for the first time. It's this wonderful thing that's always existed but that you never really noticed. The transition from "eating to live" to "living to eat" is an exciting one. It is to truly appreciate what it means to be alive.

And that's why I find America's food situation so discouraging. You get the illusion of freshness without actual freshness (Subway: "Eat Fresh.") You get the illusion of authenticity without the authenticity (The Olive Garden). You get carbon copies of food culture without actually having a food culture. Which is why so many food critics, when they're asked what they eat when they don't want to spend a lot of money will tell you "ethnic food." That's because it's the only "real food" that's left that doesn't cost you an arm and a leg. Ethnic food is the one place in American culture where the excitement and beauty of food preparation (check out John Kessler's James Beard nominated piece on the Dekalb Farmer's Market) is a thriving enterprise. The trouble is that its merit is precisely due to the fact that it's NOT American.

And I should point out that I'm not so concerned with health as I am a quality food culture. And by that I mean a food culture like you'd find in Italy or Spain or France, that's indiginous to the land and a huge part of the experience of living in those places. Italians PRIDE themselves on their food. Do you pride yourself on Appleby's? I rest my case.

I'll leave you with lyrics to a new Ben Folds song that's right on point. (Well it's on point from the first thread, but not so much this one which moved in a new direction, but I still like the lyrics). Let's keep the discussion going!

All You Can Eat

So I'm lookin' at all the people in this restaurant
What do you think they weigh?
Look out the window to the parking lot
at their SUVs taking all of the space

They give no fuck
they talk as loud as they want
They give no fuck
just as long as there's enough for them

Gonna get on the microphone down at Wal-Mart
Talk about some shit that's been on my mind
Talk about the state of this great nation of ours
People, look to you left, yeah, look to your right

They give no fuck
they buy as much as they want
They give no fuck
just as long as there's enough for them

(piano solo)

So I look at the people lining up for plastic
I'd like to see 'em in the National Geographic
Squatting bare-assed in the dirt eating rice from a bowl
With a towel on their head or maybe a bone in their nose

See that asshole with the peace sign on his license plate
Giving me the finger and running me out of his lane
God made us number one cause he loves us the best
Well maybe he should go bless someone else for a while, give us a rest

Just so everyone can see
We've eaten all that we can eat


Nobody likes a born-again who is out to convert the world. Sorry, Adam, you can not impose your food values on America (not that you are LITERALLY doing that), nor can you preach your message of "quality food culture" to a nation that makes a sport out of junk food culture. All you can do is make sure you eat a diet consistent with your values. However, while you don't like Appleby's, lots of people LOVE it. I hate it but when we lived near one, it was always the "neighborhood place" that my boyfriend wanted to frequent. I'd take ethnic food over burger king anyday (is there anything better than Syrian stuffed grape leaves??), my boyfriend actually likes hamburger helper. I love ethnic food, to him, sesame chicken qualifies as ethnic food. Thing is, I was raised on all sorts of ethnic food, and seldom fed junk food. Other people were raised on American standards. Appleby's and other assorted junk IS America's version of ethnic food. It's the ethnic food we export to other countries. People are actually proud of American food. I'm not. You're not. But others are.

Adam, two points about this and the previous post:

-Trey Given's article is IMO mainly bollocks :-) especially when he writes about the poorer getting richer. He doesn't give any info to prove this and to anyone who's familiar with the statistic of wealth distribution not only in the US but in most westrern countries this is a very simplilyed way to put things. The quality of life of the lower "sector" of society has certainly improved form the 40's and 50's but worstened since the 80's. Also what has really increased is the salary gap between low and top earning workers, going almost back to pre WWII values.

-Being Italian myself I hope you don't mind if I add a bit to your "Italians PRIDE themselves on their food." comment. This is something that holds true only since a few decades. Italians were always proud of their family-local food but disliked anything unfamiliar, even if it came 20 miles down the road. Thanks to many factors, not last the interest of food writers, many British and American, the Italians have redescovered their gastronomic treasures in the last 30 years. What IMO is the great difference between Italy, France, Spain and the US is that the European countries have a great deal of local specilaities that evolved because of isolation, need to use the only resources available and poor economic situation. The best of these products survived and with them local traditions. In one way Americas' bounty, i.e. the great amount of food produced at low prices, might be one of the reasons why the States haven't developed a similar array of products and recipes.

Just my two cents' worth: I agree that often these things have to do with upbringing as much as social/economic class. My stepdaughter is being raised in a white upper-middle-class liberal British household and she thinks the main food groups are hotdogs, pizzas, fries (chips!) and chicken nuggets. And I don't think this is just because she is a child: her father had very similar tastes when I first met him and her mother by all accounts is even more conservative. And yet it isn't because they couldn't afford good food.

So, yes, some poor people don't eat well because they can't or because it's not convenient, but I think all of us inherit most of our eating habits from those around us when we are growing up. (Unless we consciously rebel, as some of us do!)

I grew up in a home full of the convenience foods of the sixties with a pantry crammed with Hamburger Helper, Twinkies and Lipton Soup Mix, and I can assure everyone that it is possible to become a lover of fine food despite such an upbringing. Palates CAN be refined through the pleasures of interesting food, and making it yourself is one of the greatest creative experiences - it will change you slowly but surely into a foodie for life.

Nobody likes a born-again who is out to convert the world? I disagree. It is commendable to want to share something that has the potential to improve the lives of the other people we share the planet with. After all...

"Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death."

- Auntie Mame

As a side note, Amateur Gourmet, I don't know how old you are (I'm in my late 20s), but honestly I think we're MUCH better off now than we were say, 20 years ago, even thirty years ago. I think there has been a revolution in eating in the States (can't speak for other countries). How else do you explain the explosion in cook books and cooking shows, and heck, even a whole cable tv channel devoted to food? (If you are ever in upstate NY, PA, or the D.C. area, I implore you to check out Wegmans grocery stores, they are a delight!)

I think this country is on a culinary upswing. Things that were not available to the average consumer in America (plaintains, anybody?) are now readily available almost year round. While we might have a ways to go in terms of democratizing culinary delights we're miles ahead of where we were a few decades ago (I submit to you Lilek's Gallery of Regrettable Food. :^)

Mr. Given's encomium of the current American economy is probably very comforting to those with a lot of money--it asserts (without any support) that the American poor are not that poor, really. I don't find it to be well-crafted or insightful. (Please note that this is a criticism of the ideas, not the person, whom I don't know.) I'm reminded of Mr. Swift's solution to the Irish problem.

What I do find insightful is the way in which you, AG, choose to struggle with these issues because it's transparent (I mean that in a good way) and genuine. It gives my insight into my own struggle with these issues.

Americans do seem to be changing the way they think about food. Last time I visited my folks, I noticed 3 sushi places in Hot Springs (AR). My jaw dropped. Of course, 2 of the 3 also served fried catfish, so take it with a grain.

One of my personal heros is Alice Waters, who champions local, urban gardens. My fervent hope is that projects like hers will multiply.

Of course, ethnic food is "American" food, too. If we mean American food to be only food originating with those who are indigenous to this continent, then hamburgers and apple pie aren't all that "American" either.

And while there is delicious and extraordinary Cambodian and Lebanese and Vietnamese and Pakistani and Mexican and Italian food out there, I don't know if I agree that it automatically is the product of "excitement and beauty of food preparation." Anybody's who's been eating in restaurants their whole lives (like you, AG!) must know there is plenty of dismally bad ethnic food out there, too. Just like any other kind of food.

In fact, I suspect many of us (food critics alike) who DO enjoy "ethnic" food do so especially because it is different from what we grew up with. I enjoy discovering unexpected flavors. Even at my favorite Indian restaurant I still am not certain what every dish is. Can't say that for Applebee's. But is Indian food intrinsically "quality food" in a way that my mom's pork chops are not? Can't say I'm comfortable with that either.

As someone who collects vintage fundraiser cookbooks, I also take exception to this assumption that there is no distinctive food culture in the United States.

There are plenty of people (of all ethnic backgrounds and all socioeconomic classes) who still DO take pride in planning meals every night, who worry about what they're going to bring to the potluck, who trade recipes, or what have you. They might not be using the highest quality ingredients, quoting Alice Waters and keeping up with the latest trends, but I think it's selling these folks (who am I kidding? these WOMEN) short to lump them in with mass market restaurants.

Home cooking, of the everyday variety, is a craft, too. And a lot of work and love. Though it will never be on the cover of Gourmet. Unless, of course, it's been made trendy and "rediscovered" by somebody.

My apologies to the readers of The Amateur Gourmet! I assumed that my knowledge of the economy was common. Lo, I have been soundly corrected.

Fear not, hungry readers, I have provided you with a second post containing supporting evidence of my "assertion" that the poor aren't getting poorer. Alberto, you'll be keep to know that the article I cite focuses heavily on the increase in wealth of the lower quintile of Americans between the 80's and the 90's.

Anyway, regarding THIS post, Adam, it reminds me of a story my best friend from college told me. He is called "Food Scientist" and he was telling me about American Chocolate and how these days it is basically wax mixed with some dirt and boogers compared to fine European chocolate. I, being an uncultured American doesn't know what he's talking about, but he told me that the reason this happened was because WAY back in the day Hershey formulated his chocolate for longer storage and in so doing changed the American taste for chocolate.

I'm not sure how true it is... (He told me the story based upon a book he read about the candy wars between Mars and Hershey) but it seems to harmonize with your post here in saying that the American "taste" is not *generally* really authentic anything.

That's not to say there isn't American food out there, it's just not common, and I think you touched on the reasons why very nicely.

Thanks for a post!

hmm, i'm all about people expressing themselves... and that song by ben folds certainly rocks.

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