Much fun was had at David Brooks’s expense last week when the columnist relayed an anecdote about a friend who felt uncomfortable in a gourmet sandwich shop; Alyssa noted some of the ways he could have avoided the whole rigmarole. As others have noted, though, food consumption is an especially sensitive topic, in large part, because food itself is an especially sensitive issue — if we are what we eat, we are also judged by what we eat.
It’s that judgment that rests at the heart of what Josh Barro recently called “the hamburger problem.” Democrats are having trouble connecting with working-class voters not because of policy differences necessarily; Barro highlights a number of “cultural” issues (legalizing pot, gay marriage, even transgender bathroom access) on which the left is winning. The trouble for liberals is that disagreements occur too frequently elsewhere, in realms that should be free of politics — like, say, hamburger consumption.
“Suppose it’s a Sunday in the early fall, and your plan for today is to relax, have a burger, and watch a football game,” Barro posits. Conservatives say fine, have at it. “Liberals want you to know that you should eat less meat so as to contribute less to global warming. They’re concerned that your diet is too high in sodium and saturated fat. They’re upset that the beef in your hamburger was factory-farmed.”
Barro’s essay was not a direct response to Brooks’s, but the underlying issue about the fear of, and annoyance with, judgment of our consumption habits is the same.
There are several such moments in J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” His decision to order chardonnay during a dinner interview because it’s easier to pronounce than sauvignon blanc resonated with many who remember their first foray into professional outings where the choice of beverage transcended “red or white.”
But the one that stands out in my memory is his embarrassment at having taken a fellow Yale Law student to that most Southern of chains, Cracker Barrel.
“The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores,” Vance wrote. “When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst. At no time was this more obvious than the first (and last) time I took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel. In my youth, it was the height of fine dining—my grandma’s and my favorite restaurant. With Yale friends, it was a greasy public health crisis.”
I myself remember a story relayed by a boss about an employee who joined him on a trip to meet prospective clients. The meeting involved lunch at a D.C. steakhouse, where the young man ordered his steak well done and asked for ketchup — the same order President Trump regularly places and that he’s been mocked for. For this young man, the consequences of that order were even more acute. After the meeting, he was given a warning along the lines of, “If you ever embarrass me like that again, you’re fired.”
The point my boss was making to me was clear. There’s a right way and a wrong way to eat. His way was right. His employee’s was wrong. I can only imagine the younger man’s embarrassment. And I frankly was not particularly surprised he no longer worked for that boss by the time I started.
Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs highlighted the way this plays out on a personal level, writing about a gift basket filled with fancy foods he had purchased for his parents that sparked not just discomfort but outright anger.
“They didn’t want to talk about it, but eventually it became clear to me that the basket was ‘fancy’ in a way they thought totally inappropriate,” he wrote. “I knew that my parents would take any praise of the food in the basket as a criticism of the food they bought at Kroger. There was no way for me to win this one, so I just shut up. I expect they eventually threw the whole basket away without ever opening it.”
The offense taken by Jacobs’s parents is the key emotion undergirding both Brooks’s point about social capital and Barro’s point about the anger we feel when some nag gets on our case about the meat we eat. In a society where we are defined by consumptive capitalism — one in which television shows are used as shorthand for who we are; one in which books become passwords unlocking new friendships or currency in conversation; one in which we judge not just which movies one watches but which theater one chooses to watch them in — nothing could possibly be more personal than actual food consumption. It’s the ultimate, most literal, statement of taste, the first (and sometimes final) presentation of who we are to the outside world.
And no one likes to be told that who he is isn’t good enough.