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America's obsession with specialty, organic foods linked to widening class differences, book argues


Grocery store shelves, restaurant menus and cookbooks are a lot different in 2017 than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Americans tend to pay a lot more attention to the food we eat and how it's prepared. We know more about fine wines. Many of us seek out organic fruits and vegetables, and are willing to try exotic foods our parents and grandparents couldn't even imagine.

But, at the same time, we've seen the income inequality gap widen. How has "good food" become conflated with high status?

Margot Finn’s new book, Discriminating Tastes, explores the way food trends and consumption is an expression of class anxiety and economic inequality.

Finn lectures in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. She specializes in food, popular culture, and class.

Finn started writing her book wondering why so many talk about how to eat better. 

“The common thread that I found in looking at the way people were talking about these foods and choosing them, seemed to be that it was about status,” Finn said.

She found similarities between today and the Gilded Age, a period of economic inequality from 1880 to 1920. Popular then were elaborate dinner parties, “slimming” diets, a concern for the purity of food, and an embrace of ethnic food, particularly "Oriental" culture.

“Japanese teas were a popular way to entertain, particularly for the upper middle class,” she said.

The four ideals of the food revolution — sophistication, thinness, purity (clean and natural foods), and cosmopolitanism (food diversity) — expressed a need to differentiate oneself through food consumption, Finn said.

These food trends disappeared during the Great Depression and mid-century period, when income inequality shrunk. As income inequality rose in the 1980s, these four food ideals started to become popular again.

“Because income inequality hasn’t shrunk at all, my feeling is that there’s still actually a lot of pressure to aspire through your consumption practices,” she said.

Listen to the full interview above.

*This story was originally broadcast on March 27, 2017.

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