April 25, 2015

Exotic cuisine, status-striving, and achieved vs. ascribed status

What role does the increasing popularity of foreign food play in the larger trend of status-striving over the past 30 or so years?

The usual view, which I had bought into without giving much thought to it, is that it has to do with signaling how esoteric your tastes are, and by extension how erudite you are in the foodie world. Everybody knows about "Mexican food," but do you know what the "cuisine of Oaxaca" is like?

In this view, the players in the status contest are trying to one-up each other by discovering, obsessing over, and then abandoning one exotic cuisine after another. Each cuisine goes through a fashion cycle, and the larger contest is jumping from one to another, each cuisine less obvious than the last.

And yet, after three decades of fashionable foodie-ism, Asian restaurants are still basically Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. Japanese has not fragmented into increasingly esoteric sub-cuisines -- Okinawa, Hokkaido, Tokyo vs. Osaka, etc. Thai-mania has not led to obsessions over Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, Laotian, Malaysian, or other Southeast Asian food.

North African is still Moroccan and Ethiopian, leaving out giants like Egypt as well as tiny places like Eritrea.

Caribbean food is still Cuban and Jamaican, leaving out dozens of smaller and more obscure islands.

South American food is still Brazilian. Central American is still Mexican, and still catch-all Mexican rather than dozens of sub-cuisines finding their own success.

Middle Eastern is still Lebanese and Persian.

"Indian" is still northern and western Indian, not Tamil, Bengali, or Nepali.

Eastern Europe is still totally avoided and unexplored, outside of the Mediterranean food of Greece, which has not led to a trend-hopping chain to Serbian, Bulgarian, Albanian, etc., after the initial novelty of Greek wore off.

This is not to overlook the occasional exception that finds a niche audience, like Mongolian barbeque. The point is that if the goal of the contest were to burn through ever more exotic and esoteric cuisines, Thai food should have been done by the end of the '80s, and Tibetan restaurants should have enjoyed a burst of success at some point along the way. Its no-show status is even more puzzling when you look at how much the elite likes to show its sympathy to the culture of Tibet.

If it's not a case of trend-hopping, how does the foodie phenomenon tie into the status-striving climate after all?

It looks more like it ties into the switch from cultural identities being ascribed status to achieved status, to use some sociological concepts. When some aspect of cultural identity is acquired by being ascribed, it's beyond the individual's choice and is usually inherited from parents or community upbringing. Your parents were Baptists, so you're brought up Baptist, and you remain Baptist in adulthood. If that piece of cultural identity were achieved, it's through a more effortful choice from the individual. For example, if your parents were Catholic and raised you that way, but you convert to Baptism as an adult.

An earlier post explored the link between the status-striving climate and identity as achieved status, as opposed to identities as ascribed status in an anti-striving or accommodating climate.

In short, if the impulse is to climb up the status ladder, to reside wherever you need to do so, to behave however you need to, then the norms must favor identity as something that you can choose and craft to suit your needs and preferences. If the impulse is to rein in the competitive war of all against all, then the norms must make identity something that is beyond the individual's ability to mess around with, and keep people more or less where they already are.

Thus, dynamism is supported by norms of laissez-faire, with collectively destructive competition as the side effect, while stasis is supported by norms of reining-it-in, with collective harmony as the side effect (or rather the intended goal).

Food has been part of ethnic identity forever, seen most clearly in food taboos that distinguish Us from Them. Incorporating foreign food into your regular diet tells others that your cultural identity is constructed rather than handed down. That signal lets them know that you're a serious contestant in the status-striving competition. Once you've identified one another, you get to feel a status boost over those who are not eating foreign food on a regular basis. It also lets you identify who your micro-competitors are -- everyone who is into Indian food can now begin the contest over who knows the best Indian places.

The broader importance of signaling your diet of exotic food, though, seems to be telling or reminding others that they shouldn't try to regulate anything you do. In a climate of greater regulation, a white person seen eating Indian food every night would be looked at funny until they started to eat what is normal for someone of their cultural descent. In an anything-goes climate, there are few ways to more convincingly flout the norms about regulating the self on behalf of group cohesion.

Even better, it's not a very flagrant, aggressive, or offensive way to let others know not to bother trying to regulate your behavior, unlike punk-y clothing and hairstyles that are unabashedly giving society the middle finger. Indian food isn't inherently anti-social, unlike shredded clothing, tongue piercings, green mohawks, etc. It doesn't offend us at the most basic gut level, as though we saw someone eating bugs (notice that the inherently gross stuff in exotic cuisines is strongly avoided). Bug-eating is offensive no matter whether that's native to their culture or a foreign adoption.

But what's so gross about palak paneer, an Indian dish of spinach and cheese? Nothing, and it wouldn't seem so out of place in European cuisine, except for its distinctly Indian flavor. Making it a regular part of your diet is not designed to offend the norms that regulate us away from eating inherently gross things, but those that steer us toward what our culture does and away from what a foreign culture does.

Broadcasting your taste for exotic cuisine makes your message of "don't try to regulate my behavior" a bit more palatable, as it were, since it requires conscious thought to construe your behavior as rule-breaking, rather than a gut reflex to see so. It's one of the most pro-social ways you could go about signaling your lack of social constraints.

That probably explains why the phenomenon is biased toward the elites, who want to appear superficially polite and civilized, whereas the bird-flippers at the lower-middle-class level will just buy some obviously offensive t-shirts, chains, and piercings from Hot Topic.

16 comments:

  1. I think a large part of the shift is that food quality in the US has plummeted in the last forty years.

    Non-Japanese Asian foods in general (and note - non-sushi Japanese is comparatively popular) were developed to accommodate abominably bad meat. In a hot culture, spices are used to cover up the spoilage. Mexican, Ethiopean, the cuisines from hot climates tend to have this in common.

    Most of the meat in the US these days is a joke compared to what it was fifty years ago. Normal old-fashioned european and American food is very popular and very delicious at high-end restaurants, where the meat quality is high (and accordingly more expensive to source). The high-end scene in most large cities is dominated by French and northern European food, and the New York restaurant scene sees countless attempts at high-end ethnic food failing (cue retard NYT food writers calling diners "racist").

    Pork you buy for 99 cents a pound is going to be better suited to a cuisine that treats it like something that needs to be improved rather than a cuisine that treats it like it can stand on its own - it's got very little taste. But the better meat is still great in American/European preparations - and that's generally what it goes towards.

    I think striving does play a part in food consumption, but it would have more to do with how people are constantly trying out new dishes within cuisines, trying to get an edge on fellow diners in how good at eating they are. The competition's gone a little deeper - ew, Pad Thai? You know that Pad See Ew is where it's really at, right?

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  2. Typo in the second paragraph - I meant to write that non-sushi Japanese food is comparatively UN-popular.

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  3. I worked at an office with a large H1-B visa worker (Ukrainian/Russian, Chinese/Asian, Indian) presence.

    We would have a Thanksgiving meal which was mostly provided for us but which also had a potluck component.

    The Eastern Europeans who were very smart and tight-knit and good at their work didn't bring anything! No Russian food! No American food from them either. They comprised a majority of the senior engineers.

    Lots of nice white lady desserts. The Italian from Italy brought real high class Italian dessert.

    The Indians brought vegetarian food and Indian desserts.

    I don't think the Chinese brought anything, not that I could recall.

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  4. Eastern Europe is still totally avoided and unexplored

    I brought up my office potluck because they don't seem to be keen on sharing their food with colleagues.

    They also eat a lot of Thai food and Italian food (like everyone else).

    They're also smart enough that they can work as programmers and do not have to open up a restaurant like other immigrants.

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  5. Looking at the USA as a foreigner, foreign food does seem particularly popular at elite levels.

    At the same time, my impression is so are elaborately and meticulously prepared hipster perfectionist / twisted up versions of American classics - burger, mac and cheese, barbecue, pizza, etc. "Artisan chocolate". Craft beer and bourbon isn't adopting anything ethnically new (unless you're Chinese or Mexican or something else) but is from what I can tell now ubiquitous.

    I suppose this comes from a similar kind of dynamic though - where the person is cosplaying their idea of having a diner meal from the 1950s or as a Southern barbecue chef or they're doing over an "updated" version of a classic to signal the same dynamic.

    So why specifically foreign food rather than lots of this kind of thing, I suspect may be to do with immigration, or globalisation (and taste and flavour, as well). Also, if a lot of the "classics" are junk food, then that gives a motive to elites who want to eat something that tastes light or fresh.

    And why some cuisines rather than others, probably to do with the richness and quality of those cuisines, and whether they were the first mover in their area, etc. Also, strivers are pretty quick to attack others like them as pretentious wannabees - I suspect the biggest users of that "you probably haven't heard of it" joke are others strivers - so perhaps going too far from the norm without going deep is also punished.

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  6. "The Eastern Europeans who were very smart and tight-knit and good at their work didn't bring anything! No Russian food!"

    Were they Jews?

    Or perhaps it's Slavs being the inscrutable Orientals of Europe.

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  7. Were they Jews?

    Or perhaps it's Slavs being the inscrutable Orientals of Europe.


    Only two of them were Ukrainian Jews. The rest were mainly non-Jewish Ukrainian. They were tight-knit. They would go to the local coffee shop every day for an espresso. They would also take a daily walk together in the office complex. From photos in their cubicles, they would get together to drink at each other's houses. They were atheists. Most weren't even Christmas and Easter Christians.

    They could make facial expressions, smile, and laugh. They could also speak in decent English to the non-Ukrainians though they would always speak in Ukrainian with each other.

    I guess they were just a mafia occupying a high position in the engineering hierarchy and weren't really interested in anybody else.

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  8. There was a Russian FOB female engineer at the office who never made facial expressions and was as rude as could be. She didn't spend time with the Eastern Europeans at the office. She would spend her time with a Chinese FOB man and her sister who worked in the nearby office. No Russian food from her either.

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  9. I don't know anyone who is interested in Indian food.

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  10. What about the interest in drinks? Wine tasting, microbrew, getting your bartending certificate?

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  11. Foodies aren't just into one type of exotic food, but sample all of them. This signals their status as globalists not beholden to their home culture, nor to any foreign culture, either.

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  12. I have no data to support this, so perhaps I am just projecting deficiencies in my own youth, but anecdotally in my childhood predominately white middle to upper middle class suburban neighborhood the 2-income parenting setup left a lot to be desired at the dinner table. And many of the stay at home moms seemed not terribly interested in rocking the boat on that front either. At least my observations from eating at 100 or so different households over those years.

    And not to lay into my mom too much because she was a phenomenal mom in other categories, but I tend to think my food hobby stems from her less than average abilities in that department. So it is possible that the sub 40 crowd is really just rebellion against the bland diets of their childhood. And in a sense are writing their own palates now because many of them were left blank thanks to hamburger helper.

    Now when I say my hobby is food, I don't mean I restaurant chase, so I can snap pictures, and put them on facebook like a "foodie". I mean, I learn how to cook it. And while my primary focus has been and probably will always be BBQ (which I am exceptional at) I have learned a number of Indian, Thai, English, Chinese, German, and Mexican dishes that I would not be embarrassed to serve company, and some are even restaurant quality.

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  13. It's human nature to want to try a variety of foods. Yet the post is more aimed at people who spend exorbitant money and cultivate a highly public reputation as a "foodie".

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  14. Interracial dating and marriage is another blow to social cohesion.

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  15. I'm not sure I get this . . . .

    I see white people in Indian restaurants all the time. They don't seem to perceive that dining choice as being particularly rebellious. Instead they eat Indian food because they like the taste.

    Heck, I like the taste; I think Indian food is delicious.

    But I'm still pretty reactionary on other issues.

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  16. this post certainly proves relevantl, what with Bruce Jenner claiming to be a woman and Rachel Dolezal claiming she "identifies as black".

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