Snob appeal

Is it elitist to question the origins of your food?

March 21, 2007

“Aren’t you eating anything?”

The question came from my host. She had invited me to a summer potluck in the spacious backyard of her home, and knowing — as everyone else at the party did — about my work in the area of wholesome food, she had thoughtfully coordinated food for a variety of tastes and preferences. Alongside an enormous chest of sodas and giant bags of potato chips were platters of fruits, veggies, and salads. For the meat lovers, there were warming trays heaped with sumptuous helpings of grilled sausages, burgers, and chicken.

When you don’t know where the food at a party comes from or how it was made, how do you choose what to eat?

Most of the guests were already eating, but there I stood, empty-handed. My hesitation was due, in part, to the fact that I like to know where my food comes from. I’ve learned through painful experience that all foods are definitely not created equal; I once weighed twice what I do now and was plainly unhealthy.

My host was well aware of my background, and wanted me to feel taken care of. Her face, watching me with my empty plate, wore a pained expression, and the plaintive quality in her voice hit me like a sucker punch of five-pepper chili. Several of the other guests, and even the family dog, watched and waited for my reply.

Food snobbery

Is it an act of culinary elitism to question the origin of the steak on your plate? (“Excuse me, dear, but did these barbecue ribs come from a good family?”) For me, the answer is no, and yet sometimes I can’t help feeling like, well, a food snob. I gave this matter some thought recently, while noshing on a few pieces of cave-ripened raw cheddar. OK, I know how seriously snobby that sounds, but I swear, the whole time I was eating, I never once extended my pinkie finger. Eventually I concluded that culinary separatists fall into two distinct groups: elitist and realist.

You can spot the elitist by the size of his wallet and his vocabulary. Driven by ego more than anything else, the elitist wants the best that life has to offer, and he’s willing to pay for it. Unfortunately, the elitist often confuses what’s best with what’s most expensive. He gets lost in the blizzard of food-industry buzzwords and substitutes marketing hype for common sense.

This leads to some interesting sound bites, such as, “I just paid $12.50 for this pint of virgin-pressed goat butter. It’s made from cage-free cows, you know.”

Once you get past the clueless jargon, the flawed logic of the elitist is easy to follow: The more expensive an item of food, the better it must be. Take, for example, some of those new fortified energy drinks we’re seeing on the market. Their primary ingredients tend to be sugar and marketing razzmatazz. When you calculate the price per gallon, some of these drinks cost more than the gas in your car.

Get real

The realist shares some key traits with the elitist. She, too, wants what’s best, but unlike the elitist, the realist relies on common sense to guide her decisions on food. She understands that the price you pay for good food is not just in dollars but in time, in effort, and in cultivating real knowledge about what to eat. She’s learned that you don’t have to be rolling in dough to eat well, but it does help if you’re willing to roll your own dough from time to time.

The realist has done her homework and actually knows the difference between biodynamic and organic food and the food-like substances found in school-lunch programs. She knows that some conventional produce, like onions and sweet peas, are less likely to carry pesticide residue, so it’s not always necessary to pay a premium price for the organic versions of these foods. Better yet, she can grow her own.

She believes that farm-raised meat is better for her body and her conscience than factory-farmed meat. The realist may garden, lobby for farmers’ rights, or belong to a CSA. She’s smart and knows the difference between nutrition science and nutrition marketing.

Perhaps, most importantly, she knows her own body. She’s learned to just say no to foods that work against her physical and emotional well-being and chooses not to support producers who don’t practice sustainable agriculture.

It takes some effort to be a realist, but it‘s effort well spent.

So what happened at the potluck? With a little prodding from me — “Everything looks so good, what would you recommend?” — my host happily pointed out the dishes that were to my liking. I was relieved to discover that when it comes to food, I’m a realist. I went with the veggie platter, some spring water, and a hamburger, minus the bun. It was all real food, and I felt good about eating it.

I didn’t even miss the cave-ripened raw cheddar.

Richard Morris writes and speaks on the topics of healthy and sustainable foods, and runs the website Bread and Money and the blog Free Radical Report. He lives in Virginia, but is moving to a farm in Michigan this summer.

There are 4 comments on this item
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1. by elarael on Mar 25, 2007 at 3:04 PM PDT

Very clear and thoughtful response that will help many navigate socially with respect to their hosts! Thank you. I loved this article!

2. by JudithK on Jan 14, 2009 at 11:47 AM PST

I believe that when you accept an invitation to a party, you are agreeing to submit to the basic rules of social meal sharing, which includes partaking of what the hosts have provided. As you say, your hostess had gone out of her way to make sure that you would feel comfortable eating, so why the hesitation? Why make even the dog nervous? Eating and feeding is already fraught with so many anxieties, why add to them?
Please be careful, not all ‘elitists’ are status or fad driven. I’ve met Italian contadini (farmers) that are complete and total elitists, they won’t even eat what their neighbor down the road produces.

I think being a realist, a practical realist sometimes involves a bit of compromise, and what’s wrong with that?

3. by Jill McKeever on Jan 14, 2009 at 1:57 PM PST

This was a very nice article, right on the fence.
I was worried at first that you didn’t eat anything at the party and made the host sad. But you played it cool and all worked out well.

I enjoyed that you took the time to explain the differences here. I had no idea there was a term for normal folks who eat food that was produced the way God intended. Now I know they’re called, realists.

Thank you for the good read.
Jill McKeever

4. by D on Jul 21, 2009 at 7:09 AM PDT

Food snob? I think so. And let’s just say I wouldn’t invite you to my next get-together. It sounds like your host went out of her way to make you comfortable, and though you did eat something, you made it clear that you were not too happy about it. I recently hosted a friend for the weekend who treated me in much the same way you treated your host. (I spent hours researching a restaurant that would be up to her standards only to spend the entire meal hearing how everything was horrible.) Here’s what I have to say: Either pretend you’re happy or just don’t show up. Your host usually serves Twinkies and Oscar Meyer cheese dogs? Suck it up and eat, or decline the invitation. No need to make a host feel like a failure just because her ground beef came from a farm you don’t like. I understand you’re concerned about your food source—perhaps you should be more concerned about you manners.

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