Food status: an update

Image of Simon Kuper

The London neighbourhood where I finished school has never been fashionable. One of its few mentions in literature is a Noel Coward jibe about its lack of chic. It is perhaps best known for a 1980s serial killer and has never, in my memory, had a good restaurant.

I left 23 years ago, and now live in Paris. But I returned for a few days last week, and although the Edwardian terraces looked as drab as ever, I barely recognised the neighbourhood. It now has an organic supermarket, a health-food shop, a “nutrition centre”, farmers’ market, bakery with till receipts in French, and an Italian restaurant-cum-delicatessen where a small bottle of olive oil costs £18.95. “A delicate oil with a velvety, buttery finish,” claims the label. “From olives grown and milled on the family estate.” Inside I ordered a cappuccino. “Rich or smooth plain?” asked the eastern European waitress.

I left London thinking that the western world’s food obsession has reached its logical extreme. Soon it must go pop. The food-social status nexus has simply been overloaded.

Of course food has always been tied to status. In ancient Hawaii, only common people ate rats. In 1950s’ Johannesburg, my grandmother published a cookbook to teach local housewives French savoir-faire.

But what elevated food to the perfect status symbol was the supermarket. By the 1960s, almost everyone in rich western countries was eating mass-produced food. All you needed to do to be different was to eat something else.

The hippies started it by seeking food free of capitalist chemicals. Slowly the trend grew. In 1986, The New York Times wrote: “Pure Food: The Status Symbol of the Decade; Who Buys It?”. The newspaper answered: “Once eaten by rich and poor alike, simple, unadulterated foods have become status symbols, affordable only by the affluent.” In some Californian supermarkets, you could use a spectrometer to test your food for pesticides on the spot.

So-called “natural foods” were bound to conquer the planet 25 years later. No matter that health researchers couldn’t find nutritional benefits from organic foods, or that farmers didn’t seem to get cancer from handling pesticides. Eating “natural food” – the stuff once eaten by peasants – distinguished you from the masses.

“The main thrust is: don’t touch my food,” sums up Eric Melloul, director of Verlinvest, the Belgian family investment company that invests in natural-foods businesses. By the 1970s, Melloul said, food-processing had liberated the working woman. “Now the same working woman is finding time to go to the farmers’ market, and do the cooking herself – what her grandmother used to do. I go to dinners where probably 50 per cent of conversation centres around food.”

Educated middle-class people now buy raw food that is still growing in their shopping basket. They take cooking classes in the same way that an earlier generation took art classes.

The middle classes talk about food. “The tomato is such a complex food,” an American doctor mused to me at the dinner table the other night. Oddly, these people are seeking status by aping the actions of peasants. People who buy luxury goods are aping aristocrats, which seems more logical.

No wonder the cult of the peasant is strongest in London. Britons began leaving the land 200 years ago. By now London professionals are so denatured that a back-to-nature movement was inevitable. Some even take “lambing holidays”: they pay farmers for the privilege of helping deliver the lambs.

Peasant food has become an educated middle-class status marker. Indeed, when Barack Obama, campaigning in Iowa in 2007, asked locals, “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula?” it was seen as an insult to working people.

The upper classes don’t eat peasant food. They prefer their own status markers. One of the worst meals I’ve eaten in London was at a friend’s gentlemen’s club. The over-boiled mush was probably intended to evoke boarding-school dinners of the 1950s. For the posh, peasant food is for those who strive.

But eventually strivers must abandon it too. When missionaries like Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama succeed in spreading peasant food to the masses, it will lose its status.

For a while, the educated middle classes can stay just ahead of the masses. They will move, in the jargon of this industry, from “premium” foods to “super-premium”. Melloul says, “There’ll always be something new. There’s always going to be, what we call in our jargon, ‘early adopters’, the 0.2 per cent of the population.

“By the way, these early adopters are starting to know that they are early adopters, and starting to capture the value of that. Some of these bloggers, celebrity chefs, are charging a lot of money for adopting new products.”

However, food will start shedding its status. Eventually, people will eat things just because they like the taste, or if they think it’s healthy. Then the consumption of peasant food will go the way of wigs and long fingernails, which once upon a time, in long-dead societies, were considered to be status symbols too.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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