LANGUAGES OF FOOD: The framing of culinary appropriation

JOSEMARÍA BECERRIL ACEVES

In the modern global market, languages are traded alongside with goods. Words and linguistic symbols are used to mediate economic exchanges. The way products are framed, described by their quality or authenticity, has important effects over their value. Meanwhile, purchasing and consuming are languages by themselves, symbols of class and status that transmit meanings to others. Although there is no straightforward explanation about how consumption expresses meanings, there is a general sociological consensus that purchasing is not only an individual activity to ease personal needs and please innate tastes, but rather a language through which we interact with other people,  fulfill social aspirations and place ourselves among our peers. Mainly borrowing from the contributions made by the French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu sociologists have produced a vast range of academic research about consumers as subjects devoted to a communicative process.

In this essay, I will follow this well-trodden academic path to present some modest comments and insights into the interplay between the decision of buying and consuming food and the formation and expression of identity and social standing.  Because food’s preparation, serving and eating is perhaps the most frequent and mundane feature of all human societies, it can provide invaluable information on the way social groups structure their everyday practices and organize their class relations. Studying the social conditions of eating decisions and how they are talked about and used in public culture helps to understand how food operates as a language of status and distinction in our classed contemporary society.

The culinary landscape of capitalist modernity is characterized by worldwide circulated class identities and social attitudes about food as a mixture between tradition and globalization. Here, I propose some considerations about the birth and distinctive features of a culinary foodscape that privileges authenticity, cultural appropriation and traditionalism. My main objective is to explore the relationship between this language of consumption and class relations in the young-bourgeois food culture and upscale culinary market. For achieving this goal, first I briefly present some theory on the relationship between taste and class identity. In this section I also describe the way goods and service consumption, food among many others, is employed as a language tool to socially express values. Secondly, I talk about the way consumption patterns and its symbols have shifted in the past twenty years from a more luxury oriented lifestyle to a hipster authentic way of experiencing globalization. Finally, I select a brief Mexican case to observe the way this upscale way of consuming food is framed through language and how it expresses the unequal class structures of our modernity.

 

CONSUMPTION AS A LANGUAGE OF TASTE AND CLASS

Identity is a reflexive project that individuals construct both in terms of their personal decisions and in relation to the social groups to which they belong. In our modern culture, dominated by the logic of individualism and competition, consumption choices define who we are and how we are seen by others. Therefore, purchasing power and the tastes it is meant to fulfill are two of the main components of modern man’s identity.  Nevertheless, these two elements of self-image are not the result of personal actions or decisions but rather are heavily influenced by the social conditions of every individual.

Firstly, in our context of low-growth capitalism, combined with high levels of inequality and low levels of social mobility, what we (can) buy and own, and thus who we are, is an almost unchangeable attribute fixated to the class we were born in. Secondly, tastes and consumption desires are tied to a complex interaction between beliefs about individual place on the class structure, lifestyle representations and social expectations. Some things are more desirable and enjoyable according to our position in the social strata and our cultural formation. Personal taste is a culturally embedded characteristic: it results from unconsciously existing social structures and by its satisfaction expresses status distinctions.

As Bourdieu put it in Distinction, consumption is, in this case, a stage in a process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code. As with art and music (the typical cultural goods of the educated elite), when it comes to food there is no “love at first sight” and no natural or instinctual appreciation. Instead, haute cuisine has meaning and interest only for someone with the culture to understand its language. Therefore, the style of meals people prefer is a good indicator of their position in the economic and cultural hierarchies. Enjoying food is an act of cognition, taste is a culturally acquired capital used to decode food and the symbolic language attached to it. At the same time, the food we share with people, physically or talking about it, is a symbolic language meant to express desired images about ourselves to others.

In essence, consumption is both a collective and personal communicative activity as it is influenced by socially acquired tastes, and at the same time, it is a way of telling ourselves and others our position in the social, moral and economic order. In an environment where individuality is so highly valued, consuming has become the foremost form of expressing identity which, as a relative social construction, needs the recognition of others to exist and matter.

Because consuming is a way of communication, in order to convey understandable meanings to others it requires to be framed in a transferable language. Publicity, marketing branding, slogans, logos, and other identifiable and fashionable elements form the language of consumption. These symbols were added to products in order to make manufactured goods more desirable. When it comes to food, the presentation of a plate, the design of a restaurant, the description of the ingredients and the prestige of the chef were, in theory, just added symbolic goods that facilitated the enjoyment of the food.

Nevertheless, in today’s world these communicative symbols, meant to give the buyer a sense of false individuality and transmit to the viewer a class position, have taken preeminence over the objects they were meant to describe. Contemporary management consensus considers, as Naomi Klein showed in No Logo, that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products. Because of this idea, the modern process of buying and selling is now overcharged with symbols, images and words that allow sharing images of wealth, prestige and status. The obsession with signifiers is big enough that the signifieds they should relate to have lost their importance. In our postmodern consumerist culture products are bought because of what they mean and not because of their usefulness. Food is not anymore a substance, but a circumstance. In a nutshell, consumption has been devoid of its practical uses to give preeminence to the subjective values attached to goods.

 

THE OLD AND THE NEW LANGUAGE OF CONSUMPTION

During most of the last decades, the western mass culture was dominated by a notion that “more is better”. Pop culture was centered on lavish consumption and on the admiration of luxury and high class objects. Accumulation was a sign of success and the media was overcrowded with the images of the ultimate consumers. Celebrities, whose only ability was to spend money without producing goods, were praised because of the quantity of their consumption (instead of their production). The widespread wish to imitate their lavish lifestyle says much about our society: deindustrialized; with unexplainable growth in obscure economic activities, such as finance and real estate; growing inequality; and dominated by neoliberalism, an ideology that despises social support to the impoverished and instead shifts them the individual blame for their “inadequacy” to compete in the market.

Although the beginning of this century has still been dominated by this pecuniary culture, in the past few years an important change in the symbolic component of consumption has spread in the western world. Leaded by the well-educated middle classes, who have the cultural capital to legitimize its economic expenditures, a strong ideology against the opulent consumerism of the affluent segments of society has been born. This notion stands against the disposition to buy objects because of how they look (big and shining) and instead focuses on what they mean (authentic and different). In this language of consumerism, economic capital has lost relevance while cultural capital has gained importance: prestige is determined not only by material goods, but also by possessing the knowledge and skills needed to appreciate and consume them. Even though their feelings toward consumption stand at the furthest extremes of the mainstream leisure class, for both ideologies consumption fulfills the same role: an identity formation process that shows off the acquisition of capital (be it economic or cultural) to differentiate themselves from the dispossessed ones.

This new leisure class has received many names: it has been often defined as hipsters, now millenials has become the fashionable word to use. Although its name might change, its definition is achievable through identifying its patterns and symbols. It originated in the streets and media of capitalist beacons such as the hyper gentrifying Manhattan were precarious job conditions and deep rooted anxiety problems have left few spaces other than consumption for identity formation and expression. In rebelling against their allegedly conforming environment, hipsters consider themselves as antiestablishment trendsetters. This ever-growing community of buyers uses the experience of authenticity as the main linguistic trait for talking about their consumption. In addition, they frame their purchases in the narrative of discovery, social media sharing, tradition, ethnicity and handmade crafting.

Paradoxically, the self-consciousness of difference, of antagonist relation with the mainstream society and fashionable outsider mentality are the main characteristics of a culture that each day becomes more dominant and hegemonic. Through the omnipresence of social-media and the growing relevance of self-created content, such as blogs and review sites, this new consumerist image has reproduced in modern cities of the Global North. Through this same communication channels, the hipster has become a globally circulated image of desired western upscale culture among the middle classes of the Global South.

The foodie is the expression of this new consumerist identity in the realm of food culture. Being a foodie involves taking a particular attitude towards food consumption heavily based over the assumption of having more educated tastes. Therefore being a foodie is a performativity activity; rather than being private consumers, foodies engage in discourses about food. For these consumers, the scope of eating well has big differences with the tastes associated to affluent, but uneducated, classes. The food culture of foodies is based on a supposed interest in a broader range of cuisines and an emphasis on authenticity to cultural traditions. For foodies eating out is a tourist activity framed around the discovering of new lifestyles and identities. For this young middle class “culture eating” is a way of experiencing otherness. This attitude has been commonly perceived as a superficial interest in other cultures, limited only to consumption and to the possibilities of the market. Commonly this culinary experience is heavily marked by inequality and cultural appropriation.

 

THE ETHICAL PARADOXES OF THE NEW CONSUMPTION LANGUAGE

Around the world, the traditional cuisine of Mexico is experiencing a moment of transcendence, a myriad of respected bloggers and food connoisseurs are raving about its exotic flavors, its mesmerizing colors and its closeness to deep rooted traditions. In spite of this indigenist praise, its most reputed figure is a white skinned affluent male educated in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York.  Enrique Olvera is the world leading personality of Mexican upscale cuisine and his rise and language offer powerful insights into the main moral paradox of authentic food: only the dominant class has the language and cultural capital to profit from mundane food. In one of his many recent interviews he explains his culinary philosophy as a mixture between long-utilized indigenous ingredients and traditional techniques applied in new ways. That is to say, his style of cooking is based on the commodification of ancient goods through modern cultural capital.  In another interview he states, borrowing most of the tools of authenticity and tradition language: “If you build on your grandmother’s recipe, the taco stand you visited as a kid, that is when you are most successful,” he says. “It is a modern idea to do the food of your childhood. Having a taco, I know that is right and wrong. I know what it needs. They say Mexicans don’t have identity, they have history. We are a mix of many cultures.”

The paradox of cooking remembering the “taco stand you visited as a kid” is that informal stalls on the street cannot expect to charge more than 1 USD per plate. In contrast, eating at his restaurant Pujol, ranked 16th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, will set you back about 90 USD, making it one of the most expensive in Mexico’s capital, a city where the average income is 12 USD per day. The defendants of this upscale dining experience will point out that the difference is based on the quality of the ingredients and the complex experience offered, for other not so wealthy in the cultural capital needed for enjoying this foods the main difference will be that one is being sold by a reputable and prestigious white chef while the other reeks of poverty.

The main strategy of these expensive restaurants is thus a new form of colonialism. Affluent chefs are able to make profit using a tradition they have not developed. Enrique Olvera is an influential tastemaker because he has the symbolic power, and the cultural-economic capital to determine what is legitimate taste. The status of a traditional food is changed by the cultural elite, the only one able to establish that tacos are haute cuisine. In Pujol, as in many other restaurants of Mexico City, the taste of necessity has been transformed into the taste of luxury, whereby the dominant class, while eating the food of the dispossessed, still distinguish themselves from them through its language and presentation.

This cultural colonialism is backed by the Mexican state which has based its tourist policy on the sanitization and commodification of the heritage of different social and marginal groups. Mexican authorities frequently take Enrique Olvera along when visiting the most important touristic world fairs in order to present a representation of Mexican food catering to an international audience. As in the World Exhibition of 1855, national states continue to expose their gatherings earned through colonial campaigns carried in order to grease capitalist accumulation. A century ago, you could pay an entrance fee to the Champ en Mars to see shining cage containing the fantastic traits of a subjugated indigenous tribe. Today, you can pay the tasting fee to try some “gordita de chicharrón” and “taco de barbacoa” without having to stand the annoying smell and sounds of a street stall and without the annoying sight of an overweight black skinned Mexican cook.

In this new consumption pattern, eating is not seen as the consumption of food itself but the experience of a commodified culture and tradition.  Food and foodways have been transformed into a cultural artifact, an artificial diorama, to observe local culture and identity. In modern tourism food serves as a sensory window into the culture, history and people of a place that filters the many contradictions and particularities of this social space. It is worrisome that Mexican food has become a tourist and exotic experience for the elites of the Latin American country, as it showcases that the ruling classes perceive the majority of the country as part of a completely separated periphery. The appropriation of traditional food has become, in Mexico as in other countries of the world, a luxurious window that allows rich people to enjoy from a safe distance the spectacle that the masses have produced for them. Because inequality is the mainstay of the economic system, affluent classes from poor countries share more cultural traits with their peers from the developed nations than with the impoverished classes of their own regions.

Enrique Olvera finishes one of his interviews saying: “When you produce good food, it doesn’t need an instruction manual. If it’s delicious and beautiful and well produced, you don’t need to convince anyone that it’s great food.” These words only sound logical when pronounced by a privileged chef who is surreptitiously trying to argue that his food is not overpriced, but is a difficult to agree with him if you don’t have the cultural capital to do it.


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