Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
The anecdote sent the always-volatile Twitterverse into total meltdown mode. A few choice tweets:
Right now, Brooks probably wishes he could crawl inside a can of pomodoro sauce (where his editor should join him). Yes, his anecdote is poorly framed as a class issue. But the thing is, in a larger context, Brooks is correct: Gourmet food can divide people.
So much ink has already been spilled about how fancy foods — particularly the stuff at farmers markets, Whole Foods and high-end restaurants — are beyond the reach of lower- and middle-class consumers. This is not a debate I will engage in right now, given that, for example, people have argued both sides of the farmers market affordability question. But here’s what I can say without equivocation: Fashionable and gourmet foods don’t just alienate the poor and undereducated.
I was born into a middle-class Midwestern family, a lovely group of people who have gone to college, worked hard all their adult lives and raised families to mirror their values. They, more or less, show an indifference to the foods I write about, whether trendy Filipino cuisine or pan-Asian menus. They might be intimidated, or they might not care. Their lack of interest is impossible to decipher without a deeper conversation about it.
But whatever their reason for sticking with the foods they know, it has nothing to do with education or class. One of my siblings is a lawyer with a home that could double as a concert venue. We went to a dinner one night at a fancy French restaurant, and she couldn’t find a thing she wanted to eat. I felt terrible, but I quickly understood something basic: My food culture is not her food culture.
It’s even worse with my friends, who all but ridicule my specialty coffee obsession. I have so many brewing gadgets at home, I could probably start my own wholesale company. But few of my friends — well-educated people who otherwise have an active interest in fine food and drink — share my passion for brewing single cups at home, a fastidious, time-consuming process. Some people may be scared by third-wave coffee and its focus on techniques, equipment and costly beans, but not my friends. They just think it’s a waste of time.
I suspect Brooks’s friend didn’t reject the “gourmet” Italian deli out of some class inferiority. I suspect she just likes Mexican food more. And for the record, I bet I can name a few fancy Mexican restaurants where David Brooks wouldn’t know the ingredients on the menu. Would that tell you anything about him?
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