Monday, June 18, 2012

The myth of the "elite" diet

One reads a great deal about how these days, "we" (as in, the author and those like the author, in the author's estimation) care where our food comes from. How well-educated, high-income or high-cultural-capital Americans are living off kale and turnips, while "they" down fast-food, processed meats, etc. See for example Elizabeth Cline, in a story about "fast fashion" I may respond to some other time:

Over the past decade, image-­conscious American consumers have adopted two contradictory impulses. When buying food, they will pay a premium for the sustainable and artisanal, and they are careful to always recycle the glass jugs that their farmers’-market milk is sold in. It is fashionable to eat this way—even as a whole category of actual fashion is treated as disposable, with no thought given to craftsmanship or provenance.
While it's certainly true that something "artisanal" will cost more than its styrofoam-packed equivalent, my anecdotal - but like heaps of anecdata - sense is that a) very few people, even in the class purportedly doing so, are eating this way, and b) even those who are are doing so for a tiny % of their food consumption, a few garlic scapes picked up at the farmers market, and it ends there.

I mean, there are some differences - such as, voluntarily stay-at-home parents probably do home-cook more meals, and it takes a certain household income to have that set-up - but my point isn't that everyone across the nation eats identically. Rather, it's that there's now this myth that the "elite" is eating in this farm-to-table manner, something above and beyond home-cooked, and that this is who the "elite" is thinner, healthier, whatever. That the secret is local/seasonal produce. When this is not something anyone but hippies was attempting until approximately five minutes ago. Basically, I suspect that what was true when I was a kid - wealthier people eating fancier-seeming but often nutritionally equivalent foods as everyone else, but in smaller portions because of the far greater pressure to be thin - is, in my experience, still the case.

And I love a good farmers market, wish there were more of them, wish this were a viable way to shop for food and not a Thursday-afternoon procrastination. But the impracticality of shopping at these - which, even if held at convenient times, are cash-only and time on top of trips to the supermarket - combined with the fact that even in spring and summer, even Whole Foods isn't selling more than a couple local fruits and vegetables, should be enough to tell us that exceedingly little of what's consumed even by the class in question meets such qualifications. Growing your own food, unless this is really a big part of your life, probably means that you can garnish some dishes with herbs from your garden, or toss in the odd home-grown tomato. While gardening probably correlates with better food habits overall, I seriously doubt that the actual food consumed from the backyard is making a significant nutritional difference in many lives.

But back to the trove of anecdotal evidence. By all accounts I ought to know a great many people who eat in this manner, given that at this point most everyone I know is a grad student or postdoc, some professors, given that I did that recent-college-grad-in-Brooklyn thing. And yet, virtually no one I know does this. Not no one at all, but close. I can think of two people who stick with frozen pizzas, many more who eat along those lines.

The only possible counterargument I can come up with is that the people I know tend not to have kids, and that maybe this manner of eating is something that arrives when you realize that your baby will thrive only on a kale-rich diet. But it seems just as likely that having kids would make it that much harder to find the time to make separate grocery trips for locally-grown vegetables.

Anyone with data, anec- or otherwise, by all means.


PG said...

Aren't the people you know culturally elite but economically not exactly among the 1% or, for grad students, even the 25%? More importantly, aren't they all working or studying most of the time?

I'm trying a $16/week farm share right now because they deliver to the building where I'm working, and they seem to manage more than a couple of local fruits and veggies. It's an educational experience: we're learning to identify rhubarb, chard, purple cabbage, etc. If I were staying at home full-time and not using that time to study for the bar, I probably could eke out an existence on what the farm sells, plus some cooking oil, salt and pepper. I'd probably become bitter and angry through loss of meat, ice cream and chocolate -- it's not my conception of The Good Life -- but it's possible.

Phoebe said...

Re: the first point, I did grow up among a great many 1%ers (one of which famously served us Pop Tarts on a silver platter after a sleepover), and plenty of grad students have high-earning spouses. This isn't (always) about people not having enough money to buy better-quality ingredients.

"More importantly, aren't they all working or studying most of the time?"

Of course! Which leads me to wonder who, outside of a minority of stay-at-home-parent homes, is doing this. Am I missing some population? This isn't 19th C France, there isn't an idle haute bourgeoisie. While I don't doubt that of the people who eat in this way, most are "elite," it seems such a small % of this population doing that at all, and of the few who are, such a small % of their overall diets.

Which leads me to your third point, re: the CSA-type box. Not knowing its exact contents or your exact nutritional requirements, I can't say you're wrong that you could "probably could eke out an existence on what the farm sells, plus some cooking oil, salt and pepper." I do know that when I had access to great Saturday farmers markets (Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, Union Square if I was willing to take the subway for groceries), I'd still end up needing to go to the supermarket for rice, pasta, grains, cheese, etc. There might be one delightful all-farm meal of fish, asparagus, and potatoes, but the rest of the week? Even if the contents of a CSA box or farmers-market stand add up to something technically nutritionally balanced, we need to, as they say wrt condoms, look at actual use, not perfect use. People are still picking up their staples at the supermarket.

jim said...

When we had a CSA share, during the summer months it was true that some component of most dinners was farm-to-table. But the rest wasn't and no lunches or breakfasts were.

Phoebe said...


I suspect that's typical. Once we factor in that few are even using CSAs or similar in the first place, the % of farm-to-table food starts to look incredibly small.

Also, re: CSAs specifically, they involve a real rethinking of how we eat. Normally, when you're an adult and not a guest in someone's home, you get to decide what you and don't feel like eating. Even someone with a healthy diet is bound to have preferences. (No zucchini, thanks, if I can avoid it.) One might argue that we need to get past our entitled, modern ways, and to eat whatever a nearby farm happens to have grown, not whatever we happen to prefer. And with many foods we think we don't like, it could be that we just need to try the farm-fresh version. (The classic example: peas.) But the you-must-eat-anything requirement has to set the bar higher still for participation in this type of eating, even among those of a milieu to have heard of it.

PG said...

Of course! Which leads me to wonder who, outside of a minority of stay-at-home-parent homes, is doing this.

Well, if this had been something my family cared about, we probably could have come close to managing it. My parents worked, but my grandmother lived with us most of the time (and grew a lot of her own vegetables and was a vegetarian). When my mother's sister moved to our town, our households frequently shared food. I don't think we could have grown and harvested basmati rice or made cooking oil or flour, but otherwise we were in a rural area with plenty of farmers. If my grandmother had learned to drive, she could have gotten whatever she didn't grow or make at home. (The Indian women of her and Mom's generation all make their own yogurt, desserts, etc.)

Between modern kitchen equipment and my grandmother's labor, my mom basically replicated the diet that we would have had in India. The farm-to-table trend doesn't seem to have made it over there yet, however, so when we visit family who have become successful, the great thing is to go out to restaurants or have meals catered, and the more faraway the sourced ingredients the better.

Phoebe said...


But the question was not whether it could be done, or even whether it should be done, but whether it is done. Obviously humanity made it quite far prior to the current supermarket system. The issue isn't whether, if farm-to-table were a family's first priority, they could manage it. It's that this is not a priority at all, I suspect, for the vast majority of those in the class purportedly eating this way, and that for the minority that is so inclined, what this means is growing/farmers-marketing/CSAing a bit of this and that every now and then.

What I was asking, both in the post and in my response to your first comment, was whether you think there is some great subset of the "elite" doing this that I overlooked.

PG said...

Right, I guess what I meant to say is that I think there are people who may well be coming close to farm-to-table, but they may not actually be in the demographic with which the term/ movement is associated.

Phoebe said...


Indeed there might be, and the food movement asks us to emulate how people ate in the past or eat in other countries. (Again, Pollan, "Food Rules.") While the "Frenchwomen" thing sells, our assumption that Americans are the supreme eating-habit morons does imply that other cultures, too, have something to teach us. Why not India/Indian-Americans?

But to bring us once again back to the question at hand, it seems like a pretty big deal if 'the way yuppies eat' is not, in fact, how yuppies eat. The conversation, I'm saying, is based on a false premise. There are socioeconomic differences in weight and health, but the role of farm-to-table in all this is minimal at best.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, I would add, and I bet you've already thought of this, that what you refer as the myth of how the upper class eats is not harmless: it leads to more social condemnation of fat people, because, hey, they could be thin like me but they choose to eat fast food instead. (and I think of the farmer's market beets I had last week, not my typical diet.)

Tyler Cowen, like everyone else in the George Mason economics department, has the balls to take this line of thinking to its logical conclusion. In his new book An Economist Gets Lunch, he literally says that if obese people shopped at the Chinese supermarket, thus eating more greens and fewer chips, they'd become thin. But they don't. Therefore, they must want to be fat. Typical arrogance of the guy who knows what it takes to lose five pounds and assumes the same strategies will be enough to lose 100 pounds.

Phoebe said...


I'll admit I hadn't thought of this post in those terms. Just more generally, that if we're attributing relative slimness of yuppies/elites to a certain way of eating, when in fact they're not eating that way, we're missing the real reasons some socioeconomic groups are thinner than others.

As for whether this error "leads to more social condemnation of fat people," maybe? If the reason the rich (or the French) are thin is that there's more fat-shaming, specifically preemptive fat-shaming that gets you before you've even had a chance to become overweight, then it does become more difficult to suggest that the American poor/middle class emulate the rich/French. It's much more charming and delightful to suggest farm-fresh produce.

PG said...

While the "Frenchwomen" thing sells, our assumption that Americans are the supreme eating-habit morons does imply that other cultures, too, have something to teach us. Why not India/Indian-Americans?

The Frenchwomen thing seems to sell best not only because it's assumed French people are genetically similar to white Americans, but also because they are eating food we find desirable. After all, the whole idea of "Frenchwomen Don't Get Fat" is that you can eat chocolate, cream, pastries, meat, alcohol, etc. -- just in smaller quantities because (a) you only eat the best, which means you rarely find it (and can't always afford it); and (b) you have self-control to eat small portions. And I guess you've mentioned a (c) only eating certain things at certain times of day in certain settings.

But if you go to France without being French, I don't think weight loss is all that likely, because you're in an environment that has lots of what fattens you up at home, and you're not carrying around the qualms against eating a pile of substandard chocolate croissants at 4pm while sitting in traffic.

In contrast, when Americans actually lose weight in countries like Morocco or China or South Korea (which does seem to happen a lot), it seems to be partly due to a near-absence of items that we consider fairly standard parts of the Western diet: no pork and little alcohol in Morocco; less meat, dairy and sugar in East Asian countries. Even if you're staying in the tourist areas of Marrakesh, you have to try really hard just to get a beer because there's a law against consuming alcohol within sight of a mosque. (And the mosques are very tall.) Ice cream in China is very expensive; it's mostly assumed to be for the foreigner market. And even in the U.S., the Chinese supermarket that Cowen recommends will be full of stuff that's unfamiliar and even disgusting to the average American.

So the potential non-Western models of healthier eating are based not on conscious self-deprivation, but on an overall social context of deprivation in which people don't eat some things much, not necessarily because of their wonderful self-control, but because meat and sugar were too expensive, lots of people are lactose-intolerant, and alcohol is religiously forbidden. Obesity rates are shooting up among the middle class in those societies because they now have access to Western foods and don't necessarily have a strong social bias against obesity. (It's just in the last 20 years or so that Bollywood actresses have been expected to be slim; if you watch old films, the women are not merely "curvy" but verging on overweight.) But even taken to the U.S., if you were raised not to drink (much) alcohol, or not to have meat/fish at every meal, and you're still carrying those lactose-intolerant genes, it may take a generation or two to assimilate to the Western diet.

I wonder why this seems to be different for many Latino immigrants, particularly those coming from Mexico. They seem to assimilate quickly to eating at American restaurants even though there's presumably a context of food deprivation for them as well. It's probably some manifestation of the class difference between immigration mostly by low-skilled workers (often immigrants that the government hasn't chosen) and immigration by people who are cherry-picked as useful high skilled labor.

Britta said...

When I'm in China for a period of extended time I always lose weight, and I'm not sure why. Chinese restaurant food is way better in China but just as greasy as it is in the US, and I eat out in China almost every day, at least 2 meals a day. It also includes copious amounts of white rice and noodles, also which are supposed no-nos in the diet book. I also eat ice cream every day, baked goods (even though they're kind of gross), snack foods (shrimp flavored chips, etc.), and drink lots of beer. I don't know if I pick up some sort of gut flora, or that even though I eat more objectively less healthy food, I somehow eat less? Maybe chopsticks make you feel like you're eating more than you are? Is it the lack of access to cheese? I'm not complaining, but I've found it kind of strange.

Also, when I spent a summer living with a Breton host family eating 5-course lunches and 3-course dinners every day, I most certainly did not lose weight and probably gained some, even though my host family certainly had many 'qualms' about what to eat or not eat and when.

Anonymous said...

We lived in Santa Monica for a year and I was active on a mainstream mommy forum there. It was easy but expensive (but not as expensive as where we usually live since CA is close to the source) to get that farm fresh artisanal diet, and we loved it. Even without belonging to a CSA. Other women were also pretty heavy into the organic etc. diet, to the point where one did not dare offer anything non-organic to guests, especially to the children.

Once we had a kid we switched to organic (limited choices at the grocery store) and have a CSA during the season. We're both working parents. We didn't care so much before kids. But once you've been through what processed food can do to poo... I'll just leave it at that.

Phoebe said...


When you say you had "that farm fresh artisanal diet," I'm curious - was this literally everything you ate? Everything you cooked at home? I ask because there have been times when I've had access to great farmers markets, but even if produce, milk, fish, and eggs all came from there (which would already be an unusual week, and season-specific, this having been NY), there would still be so many things I'd eat in a given week (most, really) that had no such pedigree.

My suspicion then isn't that no one eats farm-to-table at all. Just that this isn't something done by anything but a tiny minority of those of the class purported to have unanimously embraced it, and that those who have embraced it still, when it comes down to it, are heavily supplementing farm-fresh with other food. Not necessarily Doritos, but rice, pasta, etc. (That said, if there's any pocket of the country actually eating this way, mothers of young children in California would make sense.)

But local, of course, isn't the same as organic. It's not hard to picture how one might go about only eating organic, because this is a label stamped on many foods at the supermarket. At Whole Foods, it's almost always going to be an option to pay a bit more and get that variety. If you were really committed to buying only organic, and only eating in other households/restaurants that had made the same, you could reach close to 100%. People who keep kosher do this, and it effectively means restricting your social life to those who follow the same rules you do. But it would be feasible in many locales.