Book Summary: Discriminating Taste

My favourite reading this year: Margot Finn’s Discriminating Taste. The author observed a shift in America’s mainstream food culture during periods of widening income gap, and attribute the greater attention that people today pay to food to what she calls “class anxieties”. When the middle class is doing well and the upper class isn’t claiming much of the nation’s wealth, she explains, the former could scale the social hierarchy through hard work and the money they are paid. But when the super-elites emerge and even professional incomes are not enough for “class-climbing”, the middle class rely more on cultural forms of distinction, such as the gourmet or organic food they eat. While some “foodies” may be genuinely concern about nutrition or sustainable agriculture, they are also looking to differentiate themselves from the masses.

These two arguments left a deep impression on me:

There are as many opinions about taste as there are permutations of upbringing, cultures and socioeconomic environments. Gourmet food did not become one because they are universally pleasing. They have been judged to be good taste by people, specifically the elite tastemakers, who based their opinion primarily on scarcity. This is why gourmet food are either expensive or require a very niche knowledge to access. The author has no interest in judging people who consume gourmet food to distinguish themselves, but she takes issue with those who claim that this practice is “classless”. Many food enthusiasts argue that they aren’t highbrow if they also eat lowbrow food. But gourmets eating diversely, Finn argues, doesn’t make eating gourmet food inclusive, and their ability to buy and enjoy both high- and lowbrow food only serves to communicate their privilege. Calling gourmet eating an inclusive gesture, she adds, obscures the fact that food reproduces class hierarchies.

The book also deals with the elitism of contemporary food movements. The advocates of organic, local, or slow food consider their food choices morally superior, but few have evaluated their real impact. For example, transportation contributes only 11% of greenhouse gas emissions in the total lifecycle of food supply chains, as opposed to the 83% generated during the production stage. But people are fixated on food miles and fail to consider the energy efficiency of farm operations. Few are also aware that organic certifications permit the use of organic pesticides and fertilisers, some of which are highly toxic to marine life and have caused worker injuries. Being natural doesn’t mean no or low toxicity. Supporters of these food movements pay more for “better food” without enough understanding of these things suggests that it is the idea of “virtuous eating” that they are more interested in.

This is my interpretation and it may not do justice to Finn’s arguments. Best if you read it yourself. I liked the book because I never thought to look at food trends in tandem with income inequality. Compared to the others I’ve read, the author is also more critical of the movements (some may say too critical), nudging me to evaluate the motivations behind my food choices.

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