When I was young, I didn’t find too many vegetables palatable. I liked carrots, peas, and lima beans — all boiled and buttered — but would otherwise only eat produce to fill the quota to be excused from the table. When I started college, however, I was prepared to add more roots and leaves to my diet. To my mind, salads belonged to the world of adults; I was determined to belong to that world, so for lunch and dinner I dutifully filled a small bowl of raw vegetables to eat alongside my Southern college refectory’s chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes.
Pierre Bourdieu, a 20th century French sociologist, would argue that my transition into a dedicated eater of plants was not just a metamorphosis into maturity, but also a shifting of social position. In his voluminous book Distinction, Bourdieu explores the material paths through which taste is socially constructed and transmitted. Taste, in his book, refers to the sense of what is good and appropriate and desirable — not just the sense of the mouth (although in his language as well as ours, the word for both senses is the same). According to Bourdieu, our preferences for music, clothing, and food are inflected by our social position, and are themselves acts of social positioning. In turn, social position — or class as I sometimes say for shorthand — is formed by a complex cluster of circumstances: Not just the money you have or don’t have, but the labor you do or don’t do and the things you know or don’t know.
Written decades ago in another country, Bourdieu’s conceptualization of food space is still a useful tool and surprisingly up to date. Bourdieu imagines culinary taste in four quadrants, with economic capital along one axis and cultural capital along the other. Cultural capital implies education and fluency with cultural norms and hierarchies: think of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman learning to use the forks at a formal dinner, a lesson which imparted cultural capital she could use, almost like money, to purchase credibility and good grace.
Through extensive surveys, Bourdieu found that although financial capital influenced how much money an individual spent on food and whether they favored simple dishes or complex, time-consuming meals, cultural capital influenced whether an individual preferred meals heavy or light, rich or delicate, rib-sticking or refined. To illustrate, Bourdieu singles out the survey respondents who taught school for a living. Teachers are individuals who generally possess significant cultural capital — whose job is in fact to transmit cultural capital — but who earn low economic capital. Teachers tend to prefer foods on the “refined” side of food space — grilled rather than stewed, fine rather than coarse, fresh produce and dairy; they are more likely than many other professions to enjoy exotic cuisine; when cooking at home they tend to prepare light meals that don’t have time-consuming or complicated preparation. (Touché, Bourdieu!) He contrasts these habits with the reported food preferences of foremen of manual and industrial laborers; though foremen usually make a higher salary than teachers, their tastes resemble what he calls “popular” preferences — salty, fatty, rich foods that are filling and satisfying. The main difference between the preferences of foremen and the laborers they manage is the amount of money spent on food.
Of course, Bourdieu’s food space axes should not be taken as an astrological chart, but as a frame or lens through which to view the complex, dynamic interaction of individual choice and cultural conditioning. As my self-imposed salad regimen and the fork scene in Pretty Woman would suggest, the framework isn’t static. Not only can an individual learn to acquire new tastes and fluencies, but the meals themselves might shift in status and meaning over time. Consider the changing fortunes of kale.
Right now, kale is enjoying a moment. Kale is considered a superfood, rich with vitamins and minerals, but it is also an increasingly classy food. Kale can be found pickled in jars in upscale groceries, shredded and served raw in salads, baked into shattering chips for an alternative snack food, or blended into a fine green juice for liberal arts graduates to drink. Kale is presently positioned firmly in the category of foods enjoyed by those rich in cultural capital, though fortunately you don’t need economic capital to acquire it. (At least, you shouldn’t. Store-bought kale chips can cost you a pretty penny, though.) Kale is now something people feel that they need to learn to eat and cook, to be initiated into, or even to feel smug about enjoying.
Kale wasn’t always so chic, though its nutritional benefits have been known for a long time. If you go back in the New York Times archives, there is at least one food feature every decade since the 1920s touting the miraculous properties of kale: it’s just as nutritious as spinach and broccoli, cheap and available even in the frosty months — perfect for your wartime victory garden or frugal postwar shopping list. But for most of the 20th century, kale coverage remained sparse, and most of the articles admit openly that they aim to combat a cultural disinterest, even distaste, for the leafy green. For some reason — most articles feign innocence as to the reason — kale remained unpopular.
One reason is surely the prevalent mode of preparation. Kale was considered a bitter green and a coarse leaf; recommended recipes usually involved boiling the leaves in a small amount of water until tender, with butter or oil to sweeten it. (You’ll notice a resemblance to my childhood food preferences; boiling with butter had a stranglehold on American-vegetable relations for many, many decades.) But another reason — perhaps the dominant reason — is that kale was a vital component of the foodscape of America’s poor. Think back: What was the first time you tasted kale? Was it in Irish colcannon? Portuguese caldo verde or a Tuscan soup with white beans? Perhaps you first tasted kale cooked with mustard greens or collards in traditionally African American cuisine? Each of these ethnic groups was, for at least part of the last century, economically disenfranchised and discriminated against in the United States. Kale was an ideal addition to the cuisine of the ethnic poor precisely because it was cheap, nutritious, and could be left to simmer on the stove with cheap cuts of meat for a salty, rib-sticking meal. Of course, these qualities are exactly the kind of associations that class — both wealth and education — might teach us to avoid if we want to better position ourselves socially.
Kale’s cultural tide didn’t begin to turn until the 1990s, which saw a resurgence of “crunchy” countercultures, the rooting of the Slow Food Movement, the waning of French culinary dominance in the gourmet foodscape and the waxing status of local and ethnic cuisines. Even so, since food culture is taught intergenerationally as much as through peer sociality. It took a long time for my generation to discover and enjoy Brassica, cabbage’s cool cousin that just got back from a semester abroad.
We like to believe that our tastes are personal — and to some degree, they are. No four-squared food space chart could predict your allergies, your aversions and appetites created by memory, the unexpected culinary paths your adult life might take. But understanding our food choices within a matrix of labor, wealth, and education — not to mention race and gender — can lead us to challenge our own preconceptions about food. Better yet, it might lead to a better, kinder national conversation about what “good” eating is and how to teach it.