One of the bigger secrets of food and food history is how laden it is with classism, the belief that upper class people are smarter and more articulate than working class and poor people, and have better taste. That belief permeates the restaurant world where a 30-dollar-a-plate restaurant is perceived to be of higher quality than the hamburger joint down the street.
Not only is this belief a bunch of hooey, but if you look closely at the history of food, you find out that this completely contradicts itself. Those high end Italian restaurants and Mexican restaurants have their traditions based in peasant food. Items like caviar, lobster and various cuts of meat have been at some point or another in their history have been seen as ‘lower class’ food as well as ‘upper-class’. And often, a food won’t be seen as fit for consumption until members of the upper class has embraced it.
Think I’m kidding? Quick, who invented the sandwich?
If you said the Earl of Sandwich (real name John Montagu), you would be…
WRONG! In reality, there is evidence that the working class of Europe had been putting meat on bread for quite sometime (as early as the 13th century). Montagu simply made the ‘sandwich’ acceptable to eat for the aristocrats.
Even more recently, the once lowly hamburger, which was once relegated to simple carts and cheap fast food chains, has now found a following by the upper crust. In New York, you can find hamburgers that cost 27, 59 and even 99 dollars. Sure, the 99 dollar hamburger is most likely a gimmick, but the 27 dollar burger has been well received enough that it is now popular and the invisible hand of the market has accepted it.
These are the thoughts that went through my mind when I read that Soul food has made it to the big leagues. Having eaten at Georgia Brown’s in Washington DC, I can attest to the fact that this sort of food translates very well when in the hands of an artisanal chef. But the irony is not lost. The history of soul food (or ‘Low country cuisine’ as it’s being hyped) is based on the food that either plantation owners discarded (think ham hocks and jowels) or African in origin (okra).
(Side Note: Ironically, the diet of a slave was often better than the plantation owner’s , as the “owners ate mostly fatty foods, with little or no vegetables and lots of sweets and alcohol that left them lethargic. The slaves needed to be strong and energetic to work the fields, so large vegetarian meals were encouraged and drinking discouraged. Ice tea and lemonade became typical drinks. .. from “The History of Soul Food“)
It’s interesting to watch what emerges as Haute Cuisine goes by the way side. As the American dining experience evolves, it’s clear that it has rejected the “meals for the few” for the idea of “meals from the many”. And Soul Food fits snuggly into that philosophy. Nouvelle Cuisine has found it’s inspiration in ‘High class’ peasant food. The question is how long until the next “big thing” takes place.