Mining culture, elevating taste: foodies and the work of refinement
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As a means of social differentiation through taste, distinction has historically been viewed as a form of snobbishness. Elites with high cultural capital used their exclusive, esoteric, and refined preferences to both signal and justify their superior position in society. More recently, however, scholars have largely agreed that the dynamics of distinction have changed. In our “omnivorous” era, the types of tastes that are socially valuable are also more wide ranging, accessible, and tolerant of cultural expressions outside the Western elite cannon. While broadly accepted, the omnivore thesis has been subject to sustained critiques. This dissertation furthers such inquiries by examining whether the metaphor of the omnivore is appropriate.To be omnivorous, two separate criteria must be met: taste must be less restrictive than classic sociological theories would predict, and new cultural objects must be valued on their own terms. Across four food-related cases, I ask which logics and practices go into elevating seemingly ordinary and non-elite material objects: in 1) the category of “natural” foods in differently classed supermarket settings; 2) the service strategies of food truck operators trying to appeal to customers in different Boston neighborhoods; 3) the standards of value applied by participants in a food swap event, where individuals barter with items they have made, grown, or foraged themselves; and 4) the reappraisal of rosé wine by wine critics. Comparisons across diverse cases avoid reifying what counts as valuable within a given category, bringing more general logics of the gastronomic field to the fore. Using ethnography and content analysis, I find that while contemporary foodies may be consuming a wider range of objects, these objects are not accepted on their own terms. New objects and food practices are more highly valued when producers, distributors, consumers, and critics can monopolize the social meanings that get attached to them. As a result, this dissertation suggests a new metaphor for taste in contemporary social life. Foodies are more like the miners of our culinary landscapes than true omnivores. Theirs is an eye for raw materials—appropriating and refining their quarries to fit their needs.