The Rise of Yuppie Foods

Do you shop at Whole Foods? How about Trader Joe’s? Do you insist on the superiority of dark chocolate over milk chocolate? Do you buy organic foods? Fair Trade? Equal Exchange? $2.50 cups of coffee?

milk-curd.jpg
from icanhascheezburger

 

The recent explosion of the gourmet is an interesting phenomenon to me. I question whether the organicification and gentrification of food tastes is the result of a surge in disposable income, a surge in availability of such foods, or a genuine movement in the name of taste. While I’d like to think that the movement is bud-driven, I can’t suppress the idea that the proliferation of Whole Foods is a result of a middle-class need to distinguish itself through consumption. Once iconic brands like Kraft and Heinz are now seen as secondary products to the small company; a product is superior as long as it has an earthy label and description about its small-world ethics an natural roots. I highly suggest William Roseberry’s The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States (pdf warning). It’s a nice analysis of the roots of this movement. Read it, because I spent too much time on this post for you not to.

“We live now in an emerging era of variety and choice, and the revolution in consumption seems to indicate, and in some ways initiate, a revolution in production. As with coffee, so with other food products: the moves toward product diversification often came not from the established and dominant corporations but from independents whose initiatives have undercut and undermined the established practices and market share of those corporations.”

This is different than the debate between fresh/local foods and pre-packaged/corporate foods. Recall that, during the 80s and 90s, folks considered name brand foods like Kraft and Folders to be fancy eatings, given the alternate was usually a generic rendition of the same. Now we have the consumption of gourmet because, quite frankly, the poor don’t consume the organic. Why wade through the diseased masses at Shop Rite when there’s clean aisles and fresh fish to be had for a few bucks more at *Insert Name Here*’s boutique shop? The taste, I suspect, is only part of the equation.

This, of course, brings me to coffee. Oh, let me count the ways I love thee, coffee. I read the above-linked paper for an “anthropology of food” course and saw my yuppie, caffeine loving self mirrored in the text,

“As I visit the gourmet shop, it might be a bit disconcerting to know that I have been so clearly targeted as a member of a class and generation, that the burlap bags or minibarrels, the styles and flavors of coffee, the offer of a “gourmet coffee of the day,” have been designed to appeal to me and others in my market niche. But such are the circumstances surrounding my freedom of choice.”

coffee.jpg

The ambiance (to be read in a French accent) of the cafe is the reason suckers people like me are willing to pay out the nose for such a cheap commodity. There would be no two dollar coffee if Starbucks were as dingy and florescently lighted as a McDonald’s. I am paying to be surrounded by jazz, yuppie intellectuals, people playing chess, dark chocolate, and a secure blanky of middle-class comfort. The same phenomena has now spread to food producers writ large. Frozen vegetables? Maxwell House Coffee? Milk Chocolate? You might as well drink Mountain Dew if you are going to consume these new foods of the proletariat.

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~ by wcuk on August 14, 2007.

5 Responses to “The Rise of Yuppie Foods”

  1. A great, though-provoking post. I am most definitely going to read up on the referenced article. It’s also particularly interesting since it was written in 1996.

    I have been obsessively driven by flavor and taste in my pursuits of good espresso, at home and in the local café scene in San Francisco. And I’ve always been a bigger fan of dark chocolate. I occasionally shop at Whole Foods, but “worse” perhaps — I prefer my local neighborhood market over the grand supermarkets nearby.

    But I do not exclusively buy Fair Trade and organic beans necessarily (and I find those that do to often be really annoying and myopic). And in the past decade I’ve come to regard the word “gourmet” as a desperate labeling ploy to make something sound better than it really is.

    On the one hand, we as a society have had our taste buds deadened by the industrial commoditization of food. Our produce is less ripe, less flavorful, and more the product of chemical and genetic additives than ever before. We’ve forgotten that people used to roast their own coffee at home, for example, and got lost in the 1950s technology world of instant convenience — choosing the perception of modernism and supposed futurism over the stodgy, old world ways of our grandparents. We were blinded that the cost of a lot of this convenience was flavor. Kraft and Heinz now represent what comes out of distasteful plastic packets and unbreakable 46-oz bottles.

    There’s a very big reaction to that these days. But I would suspect, as you do, that a bigger piece of what’s going on is marketing the expression of individual choice and identity through consumption. As horribly ostentatious as that may seem, I know a lot of that is going on. Though given how the average American lifespan is on the decline — and much of that can be contributed to diet and a lack of exercise — spending more on our food, for better food, is not exactly an unwise decision.

    But let’s not also forget that people in the U.S. pay about 8% of their income on food today. In 1970, the percentage was more like 20%. Food has become cheaper to produce, and perhaps there’s more disposable income, but more likely we as a society have been spending more on the crap that fills up our lives and landfills.

  2. Greg Sherwin said it right when he mentioned spent on food. For further reading, try “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Michael Pollan does some good Whole Foods trashing.

    Jay

    P.S. When did the word protein become a substitute for meat or poultry?

  3. [...] Props to the blog wcuk for one of the more thought-provoking posts I’ve read in a while: The Rise of Yuppie Foods « wcuk. It concerns the question of whether the diversification and specialization of common consumable [...]

  4. I think you’re spot-on. I reckon that taste has very little to do with the success of the recent ‘gourmet’ (a word I hate too, thus the quotation marks) movement. In my opinion perception and guilt drive much of this.

    There is the perception that buying local is the right thing to do, there is the perception that Fairtrade does what it says on the tin, there is the percetion that Starbucks is high quality, there is the perception that Whole Foods is significantly different from Tescos.

    As you say, by buying into the exclusivity of these perceptions, consumers innure themselves from the masses – or so they think. Then the guilt kicks in and they feel that they can mitigate that through what they eat and where they buy their food. If it says its organic and fairtrade, brilliant. They’re too lazy to ask the questions that matter: What does Fairtrade mean? Is that labourer on the coffee plantation really any wealthier? Is it sustainable. Once again, it goes back into buying into the perception.

  5. This admittedly touches upon only a sliver of an broad, interesting post, but so be it.
    I can understand why people would assume that “the poor don’t consume organic” but, in fact, they do. As someone who has worked in marketing organic food (for Equal Exchange) for 10 years this came as a surprise to me, too. The studies were by the Natural Foods Marketing Institute (a market research firm) and, I think, by the Hartman group (another market research firm in our field). They found that, in fact, there seemed to be little to no correlation between household income and the consumption of organic foods. Maybe that’s why Wal-Mart (by far the largest food retailer in the US) is adding more & more organic items to their shelves. All the other supermarkets are doing likewise.
    And if you broaden “yuppie food” to include other surging “hip” categories like farmers markets and CSA’s (community supported agriculture) I bet you’ll find no income (or “yuppie”) correlation there either.
    Just another factor to consider.

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