American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
January-March 2021

Foodie Tensions in Tough Times

Merin Oleschuk, Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Josée Johnston, Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto
Shyon Baumann, Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto

Merin Oleschuk

Merin Oleschuk

Foodie culture has long walked a razor’s edge of snob appeal and accessibility. Foodie culture celebrates eating styles that cut across lines of highbrow and lowbrow, upscale and down-market, home-grown and remote—from street-food festivals and truck-stop pecan pie to truffle shavings and French wines. 

Navigating these tensions has always been a balancing act, but today’s troubled times seem to further complicate foodie culture’s fraught relationship with culinary democracy and distinction. Amid a global pandemic that has brought death, illness, and economic hardship to millions, do people still value food fashions and pleasure-seeking food experiences? What challenges do the food system pressures and amplified inequalities prompted by COVID-19 pose to foodies? 

First, and most obviously, foodie dining and shopping have become practically and logistically difficult. Supply chain pressures (especially early in the pandemic) made procuring certain food items difficult, and at times limited what people could cook at home. Similarly, dinner parties are, for the most part, on pause for now. With rising infection rates, eating out has been highly restricted by social norms and regulations.

Josée Johnston

Josée Johnston

The dining restrictions prompted by COVID-19 have led to a wave of restaurant closures, sometimes referred to as restaurant “extinction.” People who work in the restaurant industry have been profoundly hurt by the pandemic. In the United States, the National Restaurant Association’s survey of its members in September revealed that there had already been 100,000 closures in the U.S. since March—an astonishing one-sixth of all restaurants, with another 40 percent of remaining operators predicting they would close permanently within six months without an aid package. Although it is too early to know the final toll, it is certain that an enormous number of restaurants will go out of business, taking with them many entry-level jobs on which economically vulnerable populations have long relied. The innovation, experimentation, creativity, and diversity of urban restaurant culture cannot exist in the same way when economic survival is tenuous. Eaters are right to worry, and wonder what they can do to help their favorite restaurants survive the pandemic.

Democracy Versus Distinction

Shyon Baumann

Shyon Baumann

Another challenge to foodie pleasure is less straightforward: how to manage the balancing act between democratic inclusion and exclusionary distinction in a time of hardship. Cultural sociologists since Pierre Bourdieu have recognized that food has a deep, enduring relationship to status, inequality, and social class. 

Food is classed, for instance, through differences in access to food—especially whole foods—and differences in consumption patterns and tastes. Class differences in food preferences and consumption are widely recognized, and food’s role in status signaling is firmly established. Elite dining has a long history, and the contemporary iteration of high-end restaurants and expensive, fashionable ingredients are a continuation of this tradition. 

The classed stratification of food, however, is complicated in an age of cultural omnivorousness where outright snobbery is shunned. In our early work on foodies, we describe this as a tension between “democracy versus distinction.” The core of that tension involved the paradoxical drive of foodie culture: to create a sense of democratic openness to new foods, cuisines, and ideas (against the orthodox elitism of French food snobbery), alongside a persistent drive to distinguish and legitimate foods of privilege. With the “democracy versus distinction” tension, we have seen the elevation of the foods of less privileged folks (e.g., re-creating Oaxaca street foods at home or romantically rhapsodizing about the sweet tea of Indian chai sellers), alongside the fetishization of expensive items, like aged balsamic vinegar, high-end cooking ranges, pricey Japanese chef knives, and tasting menus of the world’s acclaimed chefs.

Our most recent research on culinary capital shows that more ethical choices and preferences are themselves ways to signal elite status through food. A high-status chicken is certainly not bought at a budget supermarket, but its ethical and environmental credentials matter: it is a chicken that is free-range, cage-free, grown without the use of antibiotics, and preferably raised by empowered workers. This chicken, not surprisingly, tends to be valued by groups with high levels of economic and cultural capital. Crucially, the ethical concerns we see among foodies are circumscribed, prioritizing some issues, such as farmer livelihood, animal welfare, and sustainability, with less attention to others like wealth inequality, farm workers’ rights, and systemic racism.

Foodie discourse has been open to acknowledging environmental problems in the food system, favoring organic and local foods, but has tended to exist in a class-less bubble, relatively oblivious to issues such as poverty, inequality, sexism, and institutionalized racism (with some important exceptions). Only recently have stories about the exploitation of farm workers (in the U.S. and Canada) and meat packers, and racism and sexism in the restaurant industry hit the press. By and large, foodie discourse has tended to exist far away from the mouths of the hungry or food insecure and has been largely oblivious to the ironies of serving a humble “hamburger” stuffed with foie gras and shaved truffles. 

In recent times, the apolitical bubble of foodie culture has been harder to maintain as the pandemic has shone light on social inequalities exacerbated in pandemic conditions, including those embedded in food production, distribution, and consumption. For example, food insecurity is a major social problem that has noticeably worsened during the pandemic due to job losses stemming from the economic recession, school closures, and unstable childcare arrangements. During the pandemic, food insecurity rates in the United States have been recorded between 10 percent and 52 percent in different areas of the country, hitting as high as three times that of the Great Recession early in this period. 

Importantly, this phenomenon is not felt equally. Food insecurity has been shown to disproportionately affect BIPOC communities, and is especially challenging for families with children, where mothers disproportionately incur its burden. 

A Shift in the Cultural Terrain 

The statistics are distressing to read. The proportion of eaters who rely on assistance to meet their daily food needs are deeply disturbing. Under these conditions, where food insecurity and economic hardship are even more prevalent, how do the cultural meanings of high-status food appear to be shifting?

Even during the pandemic, many elite opportunities for foodie distinction have evolved and persisted. The foodways of the economically stable and elites are still there, and high-end options remain available for consumption (e.g., takeout from Eataly, to-go meals from Alinea, and a Sunday Market at Chez Panisse). Indeed, as has been the case with health outcomes, the pandemic has had an uneven impact on economic livelihoods, with financially stable individuals bearing a much smaller share of the pandemic’s worst affronts—health, security, and safety. 

Yet as much as cultural inequality has predictably persisted, the cultural terrain seems to be shifting. It seems harder now for foodies to have their cake and eat it too. Cooking and eating with foodie abandon can come across as false and out of touch within pandemic circumstances. In the early days of foodie culture, it seemed relatively easy for privileged eaters to dabble in poor and/or racialized peoples’ food cultures and not be called out for it. While cracks in the seams were appearing prior to the pandemic, the extreme inequalities of the contemporary foodscape are harder to paper over today. It now seems more problematic for privileged people to celebrate the pleasures valorized in foodie culture. Although we don’t have systematic evidence on this point, various trends indicate some significant shifts along lines of racial awareness, sexism, and class politics—especially compared to when we first started immersing ourselves in foodie discourse 15 years ago.

To be sure, unease with the stark racial-economic inequalities highlighted by the pandemic did not occur in a vacuum; the pandemic catalyzed already building anger with xenophobia, sexism, and classism embedded in foodie culture. Questions about cultural appropriation in elite food have been the subject of conversation for several years; however, the Black Lives Matter movement and, in particular, its momentum over the summer of 2020, provoked many within food media to explicitly reflect on racism within their own organizations and fueled a racial reckoning in many areas of the industry. 

This led to the expulsion of a number of former gatekeepers and elites within food media,  including Bon Appétit’s former editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport, who was initially criticized for excluding BIPOC food writers at the magazine and later shown in brownface, as well as Alison Roman, who was swiftly cut down after criticizing two BIPOC women (Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo) for capitalizing on their fame. Food media’s racial reckoning falls alongside heightened awareness of sexism within the restaurant industry that was provoked by the #metoo movement that rose to prominence in 2018. This movement fueled a litany of stories exposing misogyny and sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, including by industry giants such as Mario Batali, John Besh, and Ken Friedman. 

A Time for Critical Reflection 

While much remains to be done to address the issues raised by these movements, they do seem to have fostered an atmosphere of critical reflection within foodie culture. They have provoked questions that will hopefully propel continued changes to our food system: is the pull to enjoy authentic and exotic foods so powerful that we can excuse the lack of attention to pressing social problems in the food system? Can we enjoy take-out restaurant food without also doing something to help improve the employment conditions of the workers who made it, or help them get paid a living wage? Can we cook and consume abundant meals without advocating for the millions of people for whom such a meal is impossible? Amid the pandemic, the usual foodie practices and values bump up against a reminder to at least momentarily consider one’s privilege before tucking into dinner. 

To be clear, we do not intend here to ham-handedly pathologize the pleasures, comfort, and pride that many people enjoy when baking bread or cooking a nice dinner. These experiences involve privilege, but they are not straightforwardly restricted to self-described foodies or upper-middle class white eaters. In a world of tremendous uncertainty and risk, preparing and enjoying food can feel deeply comforting, providing a soothing balm against the hardships of the outside world. We would also note that elements of foodie culture have worked to expose the harms of commonplace foods, like burgers, and to valorize the foodwork that many people (especially women) enjoy and take pride in. We don’t believe that foodie culture is deserving of totalizing scorn or simplistic backlash, but what is clear is that the apoliticism and false universality of foodie discourse no longer seems as palatable to eaters in a pandemic. When the stark inequalities of our food system are laid bare across our collective dining table, the joys of a delicious home-cooked meal cannot help but taste a little bittersweet. 

Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.