Food is an integral part of who we are as human beings. In fact, without it for constant and continuing sustenance and replenishment, we literally wouldn't be here. But many of us would never guess that what we eat sometimes reflects who we are culturally, socially, and economically.
Yes, simply put: We are what we eat and we are biased in our choices.
Take, for instance, the leafy green vegetable kale. For many, kale is simply a kind of greens (like collard and mustard), produce that is boiled down, a common side dish for soul food entrees. For others, it's a dark green garnish to be pushed aside to get to the main dish.
Until quite recently, kale was produce that could be found only on the menus of the poor or in traditional ethnic dishes of those who had moved up the socio-economic ladder. But with the rise of ethnic cuisines to take their place among the world's great cuisines, not to mention the rise in the popularity of healthy and nutritious dining (further helped along by the neverending reminders of the growing obesity epidemic), kale has become quite popular among the general populace.
That is due to it not being seen as something that poor people eat. Or black people. Or immigrant Irishmen (from years gone by).
In a recent article in The Smart Set, Sara Davis reminded the world of a book about two decades old, Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu, which noted that people are often willing prisoners of culture, keeping themselves dietarily penned up in the cuisines within which they are reared and generally only moving into other dietary levels when exposed to foods via socio-economic mobility.
Davis writes: "According to Bourdieu, our preferences for music, clothing, and food are inflected by our social position, and are themselves acts of social positioning. In turn, social position — or class as I sometimes say for shorthand — is formed by a complex cluster of circumstances: Not just the money you have or don’t have, but the labor you do or don’t do and the things you know or don’t know."
Laborers and people in intensive labor-oriented jobs tend to eat heavy, hearty meals. Even those in administrative positions will follow the same diet, for the most part (just spend more money). In contrast, teachers tend to eat lighter, more nutritional meals. And even though most teachers make less money than, say, your average construction foremen, they will be more willing to eat a wide variety of foods, not to mention more exotic foods.
This is due to teachers being a transitional vocation. Though they might be poor (or wealthy), they are much more aware of cultural distinctions and social placement, more willing to experiment and incorporate and pass on their knowledge within their social circles.
None of this means that the lesser educated or those of meager financial means cannot widen their culinary horizons, however, and some do. It simply means that people tend to remain in place unless they are more open to experimentation, education, and change. This works on a socio-economic level as well as in culinary tastes.
This widening of horizons -- from both poles of the socio-economic spectrum -- will most likely continue as the world becomes a bit closer through the Internet. The rise of cooking channels and culinary shows will also undoubtedly have an effect on eating habits. And shows like "The Dr. Oz Show," where nutritional value is paramount, will also deliver information all along the socio-economic and cultural spectrums, making food less of a distinguisher of class (save for the financial part).
But until then, here are a few questions: Have you always eaten kale? Did you start eating kale as a young person? Was it part of your family's menu because of your socio-economic status? Or have you recently begun eating kale because it is a trendy, healthy food?
How you answer could indicate that your inclusion of kale in your diet is a simple matter of tradition and socio-economics, or it could be due to the fact that now that kale is trendy, it is a formerly unacceptable food that is now acceptable to be placed on the menu. Aside from those who don't eat kale due to an aversion to its flavor, one is a knowledge and preference born of cultural socio-economics; the other is a preference born of cultural bias.
Which are you?
(photo credit: Evan-Amos, Creative Commons)