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May 08, 2007

Dreaming About Class

Rebecca Traister remembers The Silver Palate, the cookbook which democratized fine dining:

"The Silver Palate" wasn't just about the ingredients. It was about a kind of life, a life that was comfortable and full of bounty. Rosso and Lukins didn't just print recipes, they composed menus of their food, suggesting dishes for a "country weekend lunch," or a "Mediterranean supper menu." Sometimes they pointed out that a given recipe could be served warm or cold, perfect for picnics. A note about Julee's original sour cream coffee cake read, "This elegant cake is just so scrumptious served to a large brunch party, and it's perfect, too, with late-afternoon coffee and a good book." Country weekends! Picnics! Brunches! Late-afternoon coffees and good books! With "The Silver Palate" in hand, I felt confident that I was embarking on an adulthood that would contain, as Rosso and Lukins might (and did) put it, "pesto possibilities!"

I surely didn't realize that I was, of course, fantasizing about class. I understand now that this was a book of recipes that allowed harried middle-class families to wean themselves from the Shake 'N Bake pouch and eat more like wealthy people. This kind of food -- the noodle salads and cold soups and skewered shrimp -- was more urbane and elegant than what we'd been eating in suburban Philadelphia. It's not that it was simply "rich people's food"; though there was a whole chapter on caviar, there were also soda breads and potato salads. It's just that Rosso and Lukins had begun to take labor-intensive methods and high-quality ingredients consumed by fancier people than we and translate them from the original "unattainable" into the modern "practical." Not to mention tasty.

One odd cross-indicator of rising income inequality has been the determined democratization of culture in this country. Containers of garlic hummus and free range eggs that would have been judged luxury items a few decades ago now dot the shelves at Safeway, mega-bookstores of the kind only available in wealth urban centers now populate every shopping mall, espresso drinks that could only have been procured at fine Italian and French restaurants are now offered on every street corner, the multiplicity of news sources once accessible only by the geographically advantaged is exponentially surpassed by those available to anyone with a computer, and so on.

There's no doubt that wealth inequality has increased in this country, and that primary expenses ranging from housing to fuel to health have rapidly increased in cost. But there's simultaneously been, I'd argue, a drop in consumptive inequality, and a significant convergence in the experiences of the rich and, if not the poor, the middle. Traister once required a cookbook to imagine what it was like to eat as the wealthy do. Now all you need is a nearby Whole Foods, or Trader Joes, or even Giant. Doesn't mean you can eat as the rich do, but the ingredients are near, and tangible, and part of your world. Or so goes my impression. We know that consumption-based measures show much rosier pictures of the economy than poverty or income based measures, but how you'd test if we've seen a convergence in consumption patterns (types of goods bought) is beyond me.

May 8, 2007 in Inequality | Permalink


...but Americans are sold on the notion that upper class tastes are available to everyone. That's not the problem. The problem is that the goal posts keep shifting, as things that become "common" can't at the same time be "classy."

I'd agree that we've democratized some food tastes - the ability to find lattes in almost every corner of the US now, if not a Starbucks, speaks to that, as well as renewed interest in flavor over bland dining options (the stuff of "comfort food" if you will). But some of this is reading too much into it. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are more about upscale retailing moving into the grocery sector than about ordinary consumers being able to consume more upscale wares than before. I can't walk out of a Whole Foods reasonably weighed down for less than $60, and often for more than $100. I'm sure for most working class folks, that's out of the question. But again, this also goes back to some of the self-satisfied aspects of the web, and that young people who are more well off than they think consider themselves somehow more prole than they actually are, and it's belied by their casual acceptance of a Whole Foods/ Trader Joe's/ world cuisine/ Silver Palate existence.

All of this notion of cooking for dinner parties, weekend brunches, leisurely afternooons is aspirational. In reality, people are more isolated than ever before, finding it harder to make social connections and probably doing that fancy cooking, to the extent they can afford to, alone. Lots of us, me included, pretend to the life we don't really lead, the one that we'd like to. Chances are "aspirational dining" has simply replaced, for many, other overpriced activities eating into their budget. All of this is about trade-offs, in the end.

Posted by: weboy | May 8, 2007 9:52:47 AM

Are "people are more isolated than ever before, finding it harder to make social connections?"

If so, why?

Posted by: Atrios | May 8, 2007 10:11:26 AM

I'll second weboy that the goal posts have simply shifted. While a few decades ago exotic food may have been a sign of high social standing, now we have fast food versions of most cuisine. It's not like people today can't tell if you're wealthy by the products you buy, it's just that the products that signify such a status have changed.

Posted by: Ben | May 8, 2007 10:20:07 AM

Are "people are more isolated than ever before, finding it harder to make social connections?"

If so, why?

I think the isolation thing can be traced to post-WWII architecture and master-planning. American suburbia took hold in the 1950's, and it became the norm to drive in one's car for every single thing: going to work, getting groceries, visiting friends. You're all alone in your car, pretty much, and back then, housing and roads were designed with the automobile in mind.

Whereas the prior neighborhood models (and of course urban areas) were designed with people and community in mind. Most of the everyday things a family needed--a grocery store, a drug store, a post office--were within walking distance. And the walking around people did in the course of a day meant significantly more interaction with other people, also known as community.

There are efforts to return to this; New Urbanism is a start. But much like the way those wistful upper-class longings underpin recipes and meals in The Silver Palette, new neighborhoods attempting to recreate the pre-WWII master-plan model are aimed at (and largely populated by) upwardly-mobile sorts aspiring to some sense of belonging they believe others had in the past, so they should too. It feels like they're trying too hard, forcing the whole "theme" of it all on everyone. At least, that's the feeling I got when we stayed in Seaside, FL one summer: that the place was more like a Disney experience than living in a town. That everything had been themed to death in terms of fitting the old-school village square model.

I did not feel the artificiality of it was especially conducive to meeting new people or striking up friendships, but the prevalence of cropped-blonde Republican Mommies dressed in Lily Pulitzer 24/7 in Seaside may have had something to do with my sense of isolation...

Posted by: litbrit | May 8, 2007 10:42:04 AM

Are "people are more isolated than ever before, finding it harder to make social connections?"

If so, why?

Absolutely, at least in suburbs. My neighbors have lived in their house for around 20 years, but they don't even know the people who live directly behind them. If I didn't have kids, I wouldn't have met them either, but their granddaughter visits them a lot and plays in the backyard like we do. In the suburbs, whenever you go anywhere you get in your car, leave from the garage, go do your thing, and then drive back into your garage and then walk into your house from the garage. There's no porches, no shared entryways, no shared space at all, really. The sidewalks sit empty; here in Overland Park, Kansas, there's plenty of neighborhoods that have no sidewalks at all.

Churches have long been social centers in America; quite aside from declining attendance the rise of the megachurch, which allows people to attend anonymously, contributes to a sense of alienation. Even smaller churches tend to have congregants who live miles away and therefore don't have much weekday interaction with one another.

There are no pubs in suburbs; only clubs and rowdy sports bars, so gathering with friends to drink and talk isn't really an option. Coffee shops can still work for that, but even then they require a drive to get there and are usually designed more for showcasing useless merchandise than providing a nice place to drink and talk.

Even apart from the toxicity of suburbs, American culture is geared toward individual entertainment consumption than anything else. And we probably shouldn't engage the issue of people substituting online relationships for real-world ones, though that is obviously a factor.

Posted by: Stephen | May 8, 2007 10:43:12 AM

Not to mention that any Muslim with a backpack spoils my fine dining experience at a restaurant...

Posted by: Sister Toldjah | May 8, 2007 11:07:02 AM

I think that the democratization only covers the top half of the income distribution -- the top 2/3 at most. The people at the bottom end (who tend to be invisible) eat cheap convenient food, either because of time constraints or because of money constraints. The number of Americans undernourished because of simple poverty is small, but there are plenty who just aren't part of the democratization.

Posted by: John Emerson | May 8, 2007 11:09:33 AM

Regarding social-isolation trends, I think the key is capitalist prosperity derived from cheap energy. Pre WW2 communities were energy poorer & more rural (wrt energy consumption and cars and proximity to land-based production) and so closer community was necessary & beneficial. Post-WW2 triumphalism led to cheaper energy, more cars and the ability to get away and isolate (for ex: driving your car vs taking a train) in a quest for individualism. Such individualism is demanded by capitalism's desire for more consumption thru more consumers. So you get suburbs, highways, and bigger homes with smaller families (a 40yr trend) becoming monster centers of consumption rather than production. The pendulum swings and so over time we see the Internet (as one ex.) allows for real & illusory connections. Watch how higher energy costs over time makes this pendulum swing more......maybe to more square dances and fewer golf courses.

Posted by: td | May 8, 2007 11:23:53 AM

Having grown up in New York City, I took walking and mingling with lots of people on the street as natural.

As an adult, I moved to California and stopped walking. I get in my car, drive to work. I drive to lunch or sit at my desk. I drive home. And yes. I do try fancy dishes and shop at Bristol Farms, but make dinner for two...no guests please.

I don't even like to stand in movie lines any more. I'll wait for the Netflix release.

People are strange. Crowds are impolite.

Posted by: Jim DeRosa | May 8, 2007 11:28:48 AM

I live in a city and according to my in-law, the isolation happens in the suburbs and rural towns/small towns. She came to visit us in Oakland, CA and was astounded to find people working in their front yards, joggers running by and waving hi, couples with children on walks around the blocks, people walking their dogs and all just sharing neighborly pleasantries.

I think the culture of fear the media fosters contribute greatly to the isolation of people, at least in less diverse areas.

Posted by: resigned idealist | May 8, 2007 11:29:05 AM

Jim -- I hear you, that's been our NYC-to-CA experience as well.

I want to move back home.

Posted by: fiat lux | May 8, 2007 11:37:06 AM

Stephen at 7:43 nailed it: "American culture is geared toward individual entertainment consumption than anything else." Back in the 50's, Russell Baker was surprised upon moving back to the U.S. after being in London at the dropping of conversation in favor of watching TV. And those were the days of one TV per household and three networks. Now nearly half of young children have TVs in their rooms, so their parents can watch what they want to see.

A social life takes time, and you don't get exactly what you want -- you compromise on the restaurant, on the time when you're going to eat, on who's included in the party, and so on. There's much more and better instant gratification to click on the TiVo with your show when you want it. The joys of socializing are more diffuse, more long term, less immediately identifiable. And so community doesn't really get built as well anymore.

Posted by: nihil obstet | May 8, 2007 11:46:35 AM

This phenomenon is about class, but not about affluence. The taste democractized here is not the taste of the rich, but the trappings of what we called, in the old days, limousine liberalism.

Before the Starbucks and Whole Foods revolutions, who was it in America that were consuming gourmet coffees and organic poultry? Who subscribed to the old Williams Sonoma catalogs?

It wasn't country club Republicans.

It was a class of upper-middle class, liberal professionals -- college professors, lawyers, engineers -- who through coincidence or folly became the tastemakers of the Starbucks era.

The taste of today is the taste of a segment of baby boomers -- former hippies, former yuppies, former radicals -- who weaned themselves from political activism on a type of consumption geared toward myths that come out of academic culture: a fetish of Europe over America, a reverence for the old over the new, etc., etc., etc.

These aren't the consumption values of the old affluent classes of the 1950s and 1960s. These folks were eating the same tasteless food, drinking the same watery coffee as everyone else.

It's something different.

Posted by: bink | May 8, 2007 11:57:34 AM


Great Disturbed minds think alike, don't they? ;-)

Posted by: Stephen | May 8, 2007 11:58:15 AM

The democratization of culture is an interesting trend, but there's still a very real picture of inequality on the other end. The modern story of inequality in consumption isn't about who can get a latte -- or whatever commodified luxury food item has come to mass market in the past 10 years -- it's about a new gilded age: mansions and private jets and shit.

It's also about what sectors in the retail economy have continued to thrive (e.g. check Saks vs. Wal*Mart).

On the food tip, the most interesting things I've seen is the cost-per-calorie studies done, which do an awful lot to explain why obesity and juvenile diabetes are so prevalent among the bottom quintile of income.

Posted by: Outlandish Josh | May 8, 2007 12:02:23 PM

Ahem, but this post seems a little out of touch. There's a reason Whole Foods is also known as "Whole Paycheck". And how many lower middle class, let alone poor people, can afford a $3 espresso every day? This doesn't even take into account that the life style of the very rich is still vastly different from that of the professional middle class.

Posted by: christian h. | May 8, 2007 12:09:20 PM

Stephen: Ha!

(Yes. Totally.)

Posted by: litbrit | May 8, 2007 12:19:56 PM

I think TV (and now iPods, Xbox, Internet, etc.) is the single most dominant explanation for the rise in isolation of people in American Society. Every hour in front of the tube is one hour not spent with family, neighbors, friends, etc.

The decline in total interaction with the community is neither good nor bad, just a fact of life. Increased time spent in church, at the market, at the back fence, or even in the family room, etc. also included much higher demands to conform with societal norms. So we traded freedom to be non-conformist with the decline of social interaction with those who are geographically close to us.

Alienation and Anomie are real phenomena, but so was social ostracism in the "good ol' days" for those who could not or would not fit in with societal norms. Pick your poison.

Posted by: Greenlabormike | May 8, 2007 12:32:01 PM

On isolation--don't miss the government.

A governmental safety net makes it safer to be isolated. When if you lose your job, you starve unless your church feeds you--you will be a loyal church member.

Posted by: SamChevre | May 8, 2007 2:53:10 PM

Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, even though they appeal to a similar demographic, have very different price structures. Whole Foods is just expensive all around. Trader Joe's is actually often as cheap or cheaper than many ordinary supermarkets for the same or similar items. I just bought 11 ounces of goat's cheese for the regular price of $3.99, a pound of roasted cashews for for regular price of $3.99, 4 medium avocados in a bag for the regular price of $3.19, a bit over a quart of balsamic vinegar for the regular price of $2.99, and there was whole milk for $2.99 (this is in California, where it's typically more unless you buy two gallons). I don't live here, so I don't know for sure, but I think I could probably shop as cheaply overall at Trader Joe's for all my groceries as at Ralph's or Albertson's. I'd have a very much smaller selection of some kinds of foods that I don't like much anyway, and a better selection of others. (I can't even buy some of the stuff at Trader Joe's, such as goat cheese, at my local grocer in Utah.)

On the isolation thing, Stephen mentions the church connection, which is one I've noticed. One of the things I missed most in moving from BYU, with its tightly-nit locally based "ward" structure, to the University of Texas, which has basically no formal social structure at all outside voluntary clubs, frats and such, was the enforced social interaction that is so helpful to naturally unsociable people like me. My folks here in Southern California have close friends from church but barely know most of their neighbors, with a couple exceptions. Churches that focus on it are good for social interaction in part because they can give you reasons hard to manufacture outside churches. Mormons, in particular, are required to do so many things together, including visit each other as representatives of the church and teach each other in small groups, that you really mix it up with lots of people you'd never get to know otherwise. And it's part of your purpose to care about them. Hard to duplicate that outside religion because the motives are harder to reinforce. Even the obvious and potentially annoying "God wants you to visit these people every month" helps. It has its downside, of course, but on the whole it's pretty successful, and I wonder what secular alternatives can work as well.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 8, 2007 3:24:15 PM

As others have pointed out, I think the very poorest and those in urban areas-- in those "food deserts" where there are no grocery stores for miles-- miss out on this equalization. But things have gotten easier for the middle class and those just below it, I think-- even if the $3 Starbucks is a special treat, you once couldn't buy it at all without going into a restaurant that might not even be willing to serve you. (Especially in a rural area like my own-- I well remember thinking pate and brie cheese were the height of snobby exotic food when I was first introduced to them at twelve.)

Posted by: Persia | May 8, 2007 4:10:01 PM

As my boyfriend and I were leaving Whole Foods Friday night, I remarked that each bag he was holding contained $40 worth of produce. (That's compared to the average $16/bag Gristede's used to cost me in NYC in the late 1990s.) "Yuppy food," as my working-class reared stepmom calls it, ain't cheap.

The social isolation that Weboy is referencing is from an American Sociological Review article last June (06) in which three sociologists found that people's networks had shrunk between 2004 and 1985. 43% of respondents in the General Social Survey said they discuss important matters with either no one or only one other person. (Only 25% answered similarly in 1985.)

While as an urbanist I would like to blame the suburbs as much as the rest of you, suburbanization was firmly in place by 1985. The authors find educational stratification is an important indicator:

“The American population has lost discussion partners from both kin and outside the family. The largest losses, however, have come from the ties that bind us to community and neighborhood.” People’s networks are becoming even smaller, more “tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family (spouses, partners, and parents). The education
level at which one is more connected through core discussion ties to the larger community than to family members has shifted up into the graduate degrees, a level of education attained by only a tiny minority of the population. High school graduates and those with some college are now in a very family-dominated social environment of core confidants.”

They then go on to speculate about what else might be causing the shrinkage (they are quant jocks and thus look to other qualitative work for causality). They attribute it largely to increased work-family demands for both men and women. Indeed, they find that upper-middle-class, highly-educated, dual-income couples are the most likely to suffer the decline in core networks.

“Shifts in work, geographic, and recreational patterns may have combined to create a larger demarcation between a smaller core of very close confidant ties and a much larger array of less interconnected, more geographically dispersed, more unidimensional relationships. Families, especially families with children, may face a time bind that comes from longer commutes and more work time (Hochschild 1997). As more women have entered the labor force, families have added 10 to 29 hours per week to their hours working outside the home (Jacobs and Gerson 2001; Hout and Hanley 2002). The increase has been the most dramatic among middle-aged, better-educated, higher-income families—exactly the demographic group that fuels the voluntary association system (McPherson 1983; McPherson and Ranger-Moore 1991). The narrowing
of the education gap suggests that this group—highly educated middle-class families— is where the declines in the number of core discussion ties have been sharpest.”

Posted by: Leigh | May 8, 2007 6:15:03 PM

the art of fine cooking,nowadays, requires time and money.
the art of joyful dining requires appreciated and appreciative guests and lively conversation around the table.
...whoever has all four is indeed a very lucky person.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 8, 2007 9:20:48 PM

The study that Leight references above showed that primary decline in the number of close friends has happened among men. I suspect that what's going on is the increased intensity of companionate marriage. Husbands now have fewer male friends outside the home and are more dependent on their wives for conversation. This is a nice way to live -- until you lose your wife, and then you don't have much of a social network to fall back upon.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | May 8, 2007 11:01:10 PM

It's not just the suburbs, a lot of the formerly very strong social capital of rural areas has seriously hollowed out too, mainly due to economic and educational dry rot, and the flight of any and all young people who have a means of escape to the cities, or to anywhere where a decent job can be found. As older pillars of the community and social connectors die off, nobody is really replacing them, and the Big Boxes have all but wiped out the sorts of small-scale downtowns and local businesses that used to serve as meeting grounds and clearinghouses. Farmers are selling out to agribusiness or developers and taking off, and absentee landlords are growing more and more common. You've got a whole lot of aging, increasingly isolated people left behind in rural areas, combined with those of their kids and grandkids who had kids of their own too young and/or dropped out of high school, and besides Wal Mart and Meth, there isn't an economy to speak of anymore in many places. It's even worse than the suburbs in a lot of ways, because the social fabric is about equally bad, and at least in the suburbs you theoretically have access to the opportunities of a city and a decent chance of making a living and getting an education. It's really depressing to go back to my medium-sized Midwestern hometown these days, and it's much, much worse now than it was 10 years ago. These places are dying in slow motion by the thousands, and not much of anyone in either party seems to pay much attention, other than ritually throwing bazillions in useless farm subsidies at a lucky/connected few.

And maybe many of these places do deserve to die off in the long run, but the process is unnecessarily ugly and cruel, and has and will continue to have serious social and cultural repercussions. Perhaps most importantly, serious political repercussions, in a system where rural areas are extremely over-represented in national elections. Some of this has already happened, but it's still going to get worse before it gets better or goes away.

Posted by: J. Dunn | May 9, 2007 12:31:08 AM

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