To my astonishment, the post I wrote last week — “Let’s Do the Math,” on “slow food” utopianism and a concomitant lack of empiricism in the thinking of some social historians — has garnered more hits and more comments from a more diverse set of readers than almost anything else I have written for this blog.
I couldn’t figure out why. I asked a friend, “What’s the deal?”
“Well,” she said, “not everybody can relate to the philosophy of history. But everybody has some relationship with food.”
I thought of this very astute summation as I was reading Bourdieu this week. His observations about how the signs of social distinction quite literally manifest themselves in “taste” — in various classes’ response to food as a nutritional need and to meals as social occasions — absolutely fascinated me. It was like someone had handed me a key unlocking the semiotics of breaking bread in academe. I’m not sure that the semiotics of French notions of food translate completely to this side of the pond — but I am sure that there are analogous differences between how people of different classes see food, and how they signify with it. The idea of what makes a meal, and what a meal means — this idea is informed by class as much as culture. Or maybe class is culture — this is closer to Bourdieu’s argument, a tricky truth in America’s “classless” society.
My reading of Bourdieu on taste was also informed by a recent rollicking discussion on Twitter about food preferences and politics, including the politics of urban farming of various kinds. The conversation involved several historians who are interested in food or food history. The immediate occasion for the conversation was a “historical statistic” deployed as a scare tactic by a food lobbying group. But that bad stat — I think it was bad, anyhow — sparked a good discussion among a number of interlocutors who discovered some common interests.
I would suggest to them — and to our readers — that intellectual history provides an excellent meeting ground to bring these interests together. Whether we are interested in the history of commodity crops, the history of American agriculture, the cultural history of beer, the social history of bootleggers, the history of tree fruits as crops and symbols in American culture — whatever our interests, we historians can gather together family-style around the table of intellectual history, which has ample room for all these various inquiries like so many dishes laid out for a single, splendid feast: the history of the idea of food.
Anyway, here’s the Storify of the follow-up discussion on “doing the math”: Corn-Fed Questions