Some Ruminations on class, food and great divides

Karen Virag editor, writer, broadcaster, teacher, and one half of The Grammar Gals, died January 11 after a brief illness.

Everyone at The Tomato loved Karen’s take on food and food issues — her stories were supremely well-researched, erudite and always funny.

Karen was past president of the Editors’ Association of Canada, Prairie Provinces branch and past national vice-president of the Editors’ Association
of Canada (EAC).

She leaves her mother, brother Steve, cat Stanley (adopted by a friend) and a legion of friends and colleagues.

We’ve chosen to reprint a piece that is classic Karen, including one of the longest titles in magazine history.

We’ll miss you Karen.

Sorry, people, but despite what you might have heard to the contrary, a banana is never just a banana.

I say this because we are constantly interpreting the world — everything we do, say, wear and eat reveals something about us. In his book Everybody Eats, food anthropologist E. N. Anderson tell us that in medieval England, one of the original duties of the coroner was to ensure that people did not eat the porpoises or sturgeons they caught — such creatures were reserved for the royal court. Today, even if porpoises are off the menu and the coroner is no longer responsible for monitoring fishermen’s catches, food, with all its moral, cultural, political and religious overtones, is still an important signifier of one’s social class.

But what do we mean by class? In the absence of a North American aristocracy (with apologies to Lord Black) one definition of class is that it is an economic category. Many studies have found a correlation between poverty and poor eating habits, but such a superior statement insults vast swathes of people and smacks too much of middle-class smugness for my liking. Besides, not every poor person shamelessly washes down buckets of KFC with Coke every day. One of my friends told me that during the poorest period of her life (she went back to university in her thirties to complete a master’s and had a yearly income of around $19,000), she and her daughter ate fairly well. Here’s why — she was an adept cook who knew that cheaper cuts of meat are delicious if prepared properly, and dried beans are tasty and nutritious. But here’s the rub — you need time to prepare such foods, and with a grad student’s timetable, she had it. These days, technology has increased the pace of life to an almost unbearable degree. Many people work several jobs to survive, and lots of us, poor or not, drive around every night delivering our oversubscribed children to yet another lesson or club. It is estimated that about 20 per cent of meals eaten in North America are consumed in the car. No matter what class you hail from, who has time to eat, let alone cook?

Hey, Michelina!

Not all societies have status-based food distinctions in eating habits. Stanley Mintz, a noted food anthropologist, observed that in China, “there is a remarkable constancy from top to bottom of the society in regard to the agreed-upon ways to produce good food, and about the patterned relationships among foods.” In contrast, our country has many status-based food distinctions. Think of the difference in register between lobster and Salisbury steak, braised radicchio and Cheez Whiz-stuffed celery, Miss Vickie’s kettle-cooked, hand-selected potato chips and Old Dutch.

Of course, factors other than economics affect food consumption: geography; ethnicity; the disconnect of our highly urban society from where food actually comes from; and loss of knowledge — unless they are maintained and passed on, cultural habits fade into history. A friend in his forties once asked me how to cook a potato. Another friend, who works in a provincial ministry, tells me that her younger colleagues never bring lunch to work because they don’t know how to cook; instead, they go to fast-food restaurants. And given that sales of fast food in Canada are expected to reach $23.6 billion by 2016, it is obviously not just the poor who are buying Big Macs and Whoppers. As for my very middle-class workplace, many of my colleagues bring frozen microwavable meals for lunch. StatsCan reports that in 2010 Canada’s frozen food industry had revenues of $3 billion. Hey, Michelina, that’s a lot of dough!

Perhaps the most influential factor in consumption patterns, though, is the tsunami of advertising that comes at us from every screen, every publication and the uniform of every professional athlete in the land. Food ads feed us endless images of the wonders of heavily processed foods, full of unpronounceable ingredients, ready to be rapturously consumed by beautiful, slim people. A recent Stanford University study on the language of food advertising found that companies tailor their message to their intended market. Ads for the upper and middle class stress a food’s “naturalness”; ads for the working class stress tradition and family. And give yourselves three lashes with a wet noodle if you think you’re not affected by advertising — corporations don’t spend $3.5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial because advertising doesn’t work.

Do they grow grapes in the Bronx?

Another great divide complicates traditional class-based food consumption patterns — average Joes and Josephines versus food snobs. A recent Boston Pizza TV commercial, which plays with this concept, shows three men seated in a booth. One remarks that his “pulled pork penne is divine.” His use of the word “divine” surprises his friends, but they are even more surprised when he suddenly sprouts a suit jacket, bow tie and dark glasses. The voiceover then tells the viewer to love their Boston Pizza pasta, “just be careful not to become a foodie!” The word foodie is pronounced with a particularly contemptuous sneer. According to the commercial, then, Boston Pizza is for ordinary people but its fare is good enough to be appreciated by a bow-tied food snob, which is not a good thing to be.

It’s hard to disagree when you hear about foodie groups that, say, consume endangered species, like ortolans, songbirds fattened in dark boxes. Such abominable behaviour makes consumption more fetish than food. Fortunately, such practices are rare. Instead, one is more likely to encounter a more mundane kind of foodie-ism, like that of an effete snob who wouldn’t be caught dead eating a Timbit, lest he pollute his holy interior. This kind of food elitism was summed up by the chef and über foodie Alice Waters in a 60 Minutes episode, in which she is cited as saying: “Some people want to buy Nikes, two pairs. And some people want to eat Bronx grapes and nourish themselves.”

It’s obnoxious statements like this that give those of us interested in food a bad name. Such sanctimony! Besides, Alice, it’s just not that simple — many families have to choose between eating and not eating. One in ten kids lives in poverty in wealthy Alberta; about one-third of them have one or both parents who work full-time. They are not choosing between brands of expensive running shoes, but between eating and not eating. I imagine they would be happy to feed their children any grapes, let alone a Bronx grape (whatever that is).

Class acts

You might think we eat food but really we eat our history, geography and social class at every meal — those things shouldn’t be laden with pesticides and additives. So what can we do? Vote for politicians who espouse wise policies on food safety and land use; teach our kids how to cook; read labels; try to eat local; be skeptical about advertising. What we mustn’t do is become insufferable snobs who will, say, eat only almonds that have been shelled between the downy thighs of vestal virgins. We are all in this together, folks, so this also means not turning up our noses at the contents of other people’s grocery carts. I can’t believe he’s buying frozen pizza! Look at all that pop she’s buying — no wonder her kid is screaming! Haven’t those people heard of roughage? In other words, let’s have a little class.

Call her what you like, but Edmonton writer Karen Virag actually prefers Old Dutch potato chips to Miss Vickies.