Walter Mencken 11:31 a.m., Feb. 1
Dinner with Karl
As promised, a reflection on class hierarchy and restaurants!
A little while back, I was reading through A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne. The book mostly deals with the social structures that surround the culture of poverty in an attempt to construct an understanding of working class ethos and how it’s perpetuated along generations of people. The book’s not particularly riveting or widely relevant to restaurant criticism, but it does contain an interesting table that diagrams the “hidden rules” that govern behavior in different social classes.
One of those rules pertains to food. Specifically, it gives a one-sentence breakdown of how a meal’s value would be judged from different cultural perspectives.
From a working-class point of view, the key question is one of quantity: was there enough food? Many people face the very real challenge of keeping food on the table and this concern is no doubt born from that struggle.
For the middle-class diner, it becomes a question of “did you like it?” When food becomes a regularity, it’s easier to focus on the quality.
Among the wealthy classes, quality is taken for granted and the value of a meal becomes tied into its presentation. The ceremony of gathering and eating is used to enshrine upper-class social mores.
From the position of the restaurant critic, I can’t help but wonder how this is reflected in the culture of restaurants in this and other cities. It’s obvious that there are certain places where one can go to pig out if cash is short. Almost everyone has such an outlet at his disposal. I mean, it’s what potatoes were cultivated for and my friends who were dumpster diving for a while said “nobody should even pay for potatoes.” At the other extreme, it’s plain that the gracious waiters and white table cloths of fine dining are specific to situations in which money isn’t a concern and cost is no problem. It’s the center that interests me most, specifically the way in which it applies to popular trends in restaurants right now.
I’m thinking largely of the craft/local/sustainable/farm-to-table style that’s become definitive in San Diego and other cities. Many restaurants have adamantly rejected the “constraints” of fine dining, stripping away things that signify luxury. The result has been a series of restaurants which have made a concerted effort at this humble, “back to basics,” often a touch Earth Mother-y, sometimes borderline pathological sentimentality for dirt, and farmers, and the quality that’s perceived as coming from localized labor.
What’s interesting to me is that the extreme focus on the quality of food has often been highlighted by a rebellious attitude towards “snooty stuff,” which hints at the aforementioned middle-class social concerns. Of course, it’s easy to drop $100 at the Linkery, Sea Rocket, Tractor Room, or any of the admittedly good champions of quality over quantity and ostentation. While such places may thumb their noses at fine dining, they’ve learned how to charge a pretty penny for their services.
All of which, I’ll remind you, I’m quite happy to pay for.
It’s just interesting, especially when things started trickling upwards and fine dining places began emphasizing the quality of their food, something which would have been taken for granted until recently. There’s a little tension in the culture of restaurants and I think it reflects shifting trends in the social order as a whole. It is the way of society to grow and change, its very nature, and we can see the details of that endless shifting being written out on menus all over town.
At some point, eating a salad made with greens from Suzie’s Farm became a gesture of bourgeois pride, mixed with a certain degree of sensibility and humility that’s both valid and valuable. It became a simultaneous rebellion and affirmation of the establishment and its structures. Maybe think about that next time you go out for a grass-fed burger?