Food is rarely considered a politicised agent in social control. It is only given the spotlight in development discourse, in relation to its security. That is, preventing shortages, contamination, and measuring the stability of utilising production. Occasionally, the nutritional aspect to food is addressed in the media, in part of a health-kick crusade to make a nation have a healthier diet. Yet the conceptual underpinnings of what makes a society’s cuisine, and how said cuisine is indicative to class structures, traditions, migration and trade, frequently goes unremarked.
With that being said, the crux of this essay, as I will soon explain, is an ode to my years of culinary inquisition. I consider myself a foodie, with a self-taught passion for trying new ingredients, methods, and flavours for as much as my student overdraft will allow. As the years have passed however, I have realised there is a lot of nuance in cooking, eating, and dining. My first realisation was that my interests in types of cuisine and different ingredients were not always a shared experience. For example, despite their ardent support in my culinary experiments, my family were never one to explore different tastes. They ate when necessary, and for functional purposes. I noticed how a meal was most praised when ingredients and method was a cultural pin-point to one’s own home cooking; that is, when I cooked something quintessentially British. I began to wonder why traditional foods meant more to my parents than trying something different.
Second, appreciation for the process of ingredient-to-meal is by no means universal either. Many people go out for dinner and see it more as a chivalrous or status reviver. For instance, with my dad’s infrequent spouts of saving up to go to a decent restaurant with my mum, only to order a steak cooked to resemble a leather shoe. To my fellow foodians, well-cooked steak defiles the cow and indeed the pallet - at least in my humble opinion - but each to their own. This led me to question when people go out for dinner, how often they dine, and what kind of food appeals to them and, most importantly, why.
Finally, food and cuisine has always been an internal point of contention for me. Before I started associating political structures to food, I hadn’t noticed diets had labels other than healthy/unhealthy/balanced. In short, I thought these terms were neutral in their own right. However, growing up with Jamie Oliver getting rid of my school dinner turkey dinosaurs, and Steve Miller’s atrocious depiction of working class families’ eating habits, it seems this perpetual food fundamentalism is closer to anti-poor rhetoric rather than a genuine definition of health. This, I soon came to realise, is a belief which UK society has internalised. Thus, my curiosity began looking for the class dynamics at play when talking about food, diet, and cooking.
Therefore, this essay will explore the phenomenon of eating, and all things concerned with this simple act of vitality. I will begin by outlining the cultural significance of cuisine, namely, how British society created staple dishes and how this changes over time and space. Then, I illustrate how class manifests in food and dining experience, drawing from Bourdieu’s seminal work: ‘Distinction’: A social critique on the Judgement of Taste (1984) and its thematic exploration of cultural capital. I conclude on the point that cuisine and diet is impacted by class dynamics, and reveal how eating habits influence people’s attitudes and status in UK society.
Gastronomy of Britain
Often described as stodgy, bland, and cheap, British cuisine undoubtedly receives relentless slander from the hierarchy of international cuisine. British culture, on the other hand, revels in its ability to maintain staple dishes that are authentic to British origins, in spite of its harshest critics. I want to address both of these points and offer some inquisitive insight on a) why British food is considered awful, and b) whether British cuisine can claim ingenuity.
Colin Spencer (2002) theorised the social history of British food as having a rich past of sensual, flavourome and spicy experimentation. In the Mediaeval period, it was popular to play with herbs/spices, to create brilliant hues, jellies and foams which produced fantastic feasts with a plethora of local and oversea ingredients. Whilst quality of meat, fish, and fresh vegetables were ostensibly associated with wealthy diners, peasantry dishes also included a variety of seasoning to enhance flavour for cheap meat and vegetable meals; including ginger, cardamon, and nutmeg (Bovey, 2015). Gradually, Spencer (2002) fancies that the sensual experience of British cooking dulled due to a number of factors including the suppression of hedonistic living under the Church. Eating and drinking became synonymous with worldliness, which clerics began associating with sin. This, according to Spencer, may have encouraged a cultural reset surrounding the celebration of flavour. Moreover, McCrea (2020) contends this and argues that historic remnants surrounding Catholic subordination has left Britain with a repressed gastronomy, whereby signs of outward appreciation for food and preparation is seen as uncouth.
However economic development may have also contributed to the decline of quality British cuisine. For example, large investment monoculture tied workers to mass production of particular foods which meant a variety of localised ingredients increased their demand which in turn increased their price. This, along with the rise of urbanisation, meant country-folk abandoned their knowledge on home-grown preservatory methods and instead looked for more time-efficient eating habits to adjust to city living. As Britain became the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution by the 18th century, cooking and eating became a much less favourable task for the average labour worker. Thus began the popularity of processed, calorific, and bland meals in order to sustain the appetites of people with a 84 hour work week.
Therefore, food historians are in general agreement that Britain, along the way of becoming an individualist, modern-industrialist society, lost its passion for food and feasting. It seems experimentation of food and flavour has become class-centric, which will be discussed in the following section of the essay. British cuisine, and how we know it to be in contemporary society, cannot be acclaimed as authentically British either, as many historic dishes have been lost to years of ideological and foreign influence. Having said this, it gives Britain an opportunity to label itself as evolutionary and therefore, subject to change. Britain should at the very least recognise its culinary roots stemming from invasion, colonialism, industrialization, and migration to accept it as part of British cuisine make-up.
Food, Class and conservative consumerism
Bourdieu's study on French society in the 1960s brought light to the idea that the culture of taste, that is, interests in the arts, education, hobbies, and sport, is hierarchized depending on one's social origin. This, as Bourgieu suggests, "predisposes tastes to function as markers of 'class'" (Bourdieu in Nike and Bennett, 2019, p.xxv). Furthermore, the foundations Bourdieu's argument is that culture gives interest and relevance to what it has created, and that value is something to bestow onto culture, rather than it existing in its own right. It is, by default, a cognitive feat to generate meaning. For example, a work of art is appreciated when one receives the social teachings of why art should be valued (and in many cases, epitomised), and thus they gain an ability to have taste in art and appreciation for aestheticism. On the other hand, if one is from a society that does not appreciate nor teaches the relevant subjectivity of art, and one is surrounded by those of this opinion, then art renders itself meaningless in such a social setting. What Bourdieu makes clear however, is that "aesthetic disposition as a universally valid principle takes the bourgeois denial of the social world to its limit" (p.xxvii).
In such a case, food becomes an aestheticised principle when one has the social conditions to value it as such. As Douglas (2003) reminds us:
"The concept of culinary complexity in itself is independent of economic determinants[...] it depends on the individual decisions about how much complexity or logical structure is desirable; of course, those decisions, as we will see, are affected by costs and social needs" (Douglas, 2003, p.23)
Bourdieu found this in the study whereby “rich-strong-fatty tastes [were associated] with economic capital (fois gras, pheasant, puddings) and the healthy-lean-exotic tastes of those with greater cultural capital (natural yoghurt, grilled vegetables, unusual cuisines)” (Bourdieu in Atkinson and Deeming, 2015, p.2). It is here where Atkinson and Deemings provide a contemporary survey analysis on Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital, to define British class systems as perpetuating food-class homologies.
They found that economically-culturally dominant classes (defined as business executives or lecturers) had, to no one’s surprise, an interest and ability to eat anti-functionally. That is, they found time to buy and prepare meals with healthy and unusual ingredients. This is in comparison to culturally Intermediate (Managers, Nurses) and economically dominated classes (such as caring servicers, manual workers) who preferred time-efficient meals and classic ‘pub grub’ (Atkinson and Deeming, p.890). Another study done by Tomlinson (1994) also came to a similar finding and concluded that, though social mobility had changed the way eating habits are defined, people motivated by culturally dominant pursuits (such as occupation in the arts) still upheld a food snobbery in comparison to economically pursued arenas (such as careers related to business).
In contrast to both Bourdieu and Tomlinson, Atkinson and Deeming did find that in all occupation-oriented class sections, there was an interest and educational understanding of nutrition, but that economic constraints limited households to utilise pure healthy-eating as a prioritised good. Whereas, the economically-culturally dominant fields tended to describe healthy eating as a commoditised, ethical consumption choice, and tended to make assumptions that:
“...less lean or ethical diets were simply bad choices made by autonomous or ‘stupid’ people rather than the product of a ‘here and now’ practical orientation attuned to the harder conditions of life and experiences associated with less capital.” (Adams and Raisborough, 2011, as cited in Atkinson and Deemings, 2015, p.894).
Therefore, social lines are drawn using middle-class consumer irrationality, which creates ostensible ideas on what constitutes as high quality ingredients which promote ‘pure health’ (i.e the pipeline from Waitrose to Holland and Barrett). Similarly, this belief system amongst middle and upper classes has been theorised to manifest a conservative consumerism which criticises a nation’s eating habits based on individualist assumptions. This leads to the final point which emphasises the paternalistic attitudes surrounding class-food dynamics and dietary choice, and how it increases further demonisation of dominated classes.
Social Intercourse of Food
Douglas (2003) noted that the rhetoric in the majority of hyper-industrialist, Western societies is that education on nutrition, however plentiful, has a major issue of becoming undisciplined. The nutritionist or food scientist will be broadcasted as experts on the rising obesity crisis, or on the dangers of processed meals, which produces a folk devil for society to click their tongues at. However, this supposed neutralised social criticism “neglects the real dynamics that exist between people and food” (Doughlas, 2003, p.11).
This is especially pronounced when approaching the politics of ethnic cuisine in which Chinese, Indian and Mexican foods, to name a few, are apathetically branded as egregious offences to Western gastronomy (See Pilcher, 2008; Douglas, 2003). Not only does this hot air blow into UK media, but it averts the reality of migrant constraints to remain authentic whilst assimilating in host culture and work demands. This, as Douglas illustrates, “shows in the process of menu organisation as pressure to conform to host community meal formats” (p.29). Essentially, the criticism that Britain has of the unhealthy takeaway is in part due to the British culture around food in the first place.
An acerbic realisation comes to mind once we associate the demise of British cuisine and the role that elites have had in forming this narrative. It is this very group in society which ardently ridicule and censure people with marginalised status who have become reliant, and admittedly sentimental, on their eating habits in which the dominant class created. O’neill (2008) remarks on how the intermittent spouts of health crusaders, namely celebrities such as Jamie Oliver, do not actually cultivate the reasons behind eating habits and the class distinctions that go with it. Instead, they opt for a food-saviour complex which obsesses over a disdain for lifestyle of people with lower status. As Offut (2015) articulates, “food is called trash, and then the people are” [no pagination].
Furthermore, Offut describes a phenomenon known as ‘cuisine slumming’ whereby people from dominant class backgrounds will mock and enjoy feasts colloquially considered ‘poor people food’. Though he has drawn from his personal Appalachian background, the same case can be considered in Britain where aestheticization of the poor is in full fruition. I can think of how baffled some of my flatmates, from a similar background as myself, were when we first heard passing comments from people in the higher echelons of society regarding their new student diet as a ‘pile of stodge’. Or they would yearn for their mother’s cupboard filled with Iberico ham for charcuterie boards, or vanilla pods for ‘crème anglaise’. Though I must admit, I was first in awe of how much opportunity they had had to play with flavour, and no doubt I took liberties in stealing a couple Burford Brown eggs from those who bought them regularly. However in conversation, I soon realised that this approbation I had came at the expense of judging the food that I was raised on. Openly mocking the cuisine of anyone is a big no-no, yet it has become normalised to disparage those who relied on cheap British dishes growing up.
In summary, this essay explored the social history around British cuisine and class distinctions associated with food and flavour. I myself have come to appreciate British cuisine as a powerhouse for constant innovation and influence. If anything should be taken away from this essay, it is that food and feasting are necessary conductors of society, and should not be labelled as impartial influences on how people govern themselves on individual and collectivist scales. It is instrumental in how we communicate as a society, both on the material and subconscious level and it is that which value should be held. Finally, I reside on the point that: whether you enjoy a good meal because of its deep cultural and flavoursome underpinnings, or simply because you like sharing company over dinner, whatever you do, never have your steak well-done.
Atkinson, W. and Deeming, C. (2015). Class and cuisine in contemporary Britain: the social space, the space of food and their homology. The Sociological review (Keele), 63(4), pp.876–896.
Bourdieu, P., Nice, R. and Bennett, T. (2010). Distinction : a social critique of the judgement of taste. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Tomlinson, M., (1994), ‘Do distinct class preferences for foods exist?’, British Food Journal, 96(7): 11–17
Douglas, M. (2003). Food in the social order : studies of food and festivities in three American communities. London ;: Routledge.
Huskins, B., 1996. From haute cuisine to ox roasts: public feasting and the negotiation of class in mid-19th-century Saint John and Halifax. Labour/Le Travailleur, 37, pp.9-36.
McCrea, A., (2020)., ‘Why British Food is Terrible’, The Outline, 22 January, Available at: https://theoutline.com/post/8586/why-is-british-food-so-bad
Offutt, C., (2015), ‘Trash Food’, Oxford America Magazine, Issue 88, Spring, 10 April, Available at:https://main.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/550-trash-food
O’Neill, B., (2008), ‘Roasting the masses’, The Guardian, 27 August, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/aug/27/oliver.foodanddrink
Pilcher, J., (2008). ‘The globalisation of Mexican cuisine’. History Compass, 6(2), pp.529-551
Spencer, C., (2002). ‘British Food, an extraordinary two thousand years of history’. London: Grub Street with Fortnum and Mason.