If we’re going to discuss food snobbism, I think it’s best for me just to state that I am a snob, that way we all know where I’m coming from. I don’t believe myself to be, but I’m sure there’s enough evidence out there to support that claim.
The question of what is a food snob came up while I was reading Joanne Chen’s wonderful book The Taste of Sweet. One of the questions she brings up in the book is why so many people with “sophisticated” palates dismiss sweets such as cake, pie, or even candy, migrating towards upper end chocolates and tartlettes from a trendy bakery to fulfill our desires. The answer lies in something called “aesthetic distancing”.
The idea is that common experiences, such as, say, eating an apple pie or consuming a Snickers bar speaks to an experience that, for the most part, everyone can participate. Because the pleasure associated with these activities are common that the experience is then devalued. Look at it this way – When you find a special restaurant that few people know about, your more likely to have an emotional attachment to it. When that place becomes crowded, it loses a bit of what makes it special. The food may have stayed the same in quality, but it’s uniqueness, an aspect that has nothing to do with the quality of the food, is now gone or less.
People do this all the time when they look at art. They ascribe meaning to the aesthetic. Don’t worry, this is what people are supposed to do whether the artist wants them to or not. By ascribing meaning to an object far beyond the immediate, the aesthete gains both distance to the piece of art, and a connection and appreciation to their own intellect that allows them figure out how to understand that distance. It’s, as Chen writes, an intentional “snubbing (of their) most instinctive emotions and basic thoughts (those they share with the masses) in favor of the unusual and unexpected”. It’s this sort of behavior that allows a two layer chocolate cake to be common and demeaned, while a bittersweet cube of rich dark chocolate graced with cayenne, spicy almonds, cocoa nibs and burnt meringue is exotic and desired.
Food snobs work in the latter tradition, where they wish to eschew the common and intellectually justify their exotic choices under the cover of “quality”. It’s different, therefore it must be better.
But, as Chen points out, what they are often doing in these instances is demonstrating some measure of luxury, in the form of money, time, or education. Someone telling you of their dinner at El Bulli fits well into this territory. Yes, there are novel and wonderful things going on at this restaurant (a restaurant, by the way, that can’t afford to keep itself open). But there are novel and wonderful things happen at restaurants everywhere. The question is, who gets to decide what’s interesting and wonderful?
Let’s get back to the two-layered chocolate cake – Say you lived in a remote village in Tibet, where chocolate cake is rare, and thick, gooey icing is even rarer. In locations such as these, that two-layered cake is as exotic as the bittersweet cube of rich dark chocolate mentioned above. Does the rarity of a product make it inherently better in Tibet than in Toledo, Ohio? There may be a value assigned to it due to its rarity, but the quality in of itself hasn’t changed. And there’s the trick: the value assigned to a product is due to it’s rarity, not its quality. The food snob sees value as equating to quality, which allows them to justify their intellectual distance to the product. The lack of commonality allows them to explore their own aesthetic, their own sense of fashion.
In the end, it’s nothing more than a two-layered chocolate cake; a delicious, moist chocolate cake with thick, rich, icing. It’s quality comes not from its rarity, but because it addresses our biological need for something sweet and does so in such a way that is satisfying. The additional value of the cake, as I see it, is that it also brings forth the idea that most people reading this blog can understand: most of us have had two-layered chocolate cake. And food is at its best when it speaks to the many, rather than the few.
This is the opposite of what the food snob advocates. The value of food to them is that it justifies their distance from the common.
Don’t get me wrong. I love true balsamic vinegar, wagyu beef, or dinners at five star restaurants. But the best food experiences I’ve had in my life is when I’ve shared foods with others, including those experiences mentioned above. The more people with I can share these experiences, the better.