More on Cuisine and Social Hierarchies


Last week I was musing about the claim, often made by social scientists, that tastes are a reflection of social class or moral conviction rather than an independent aesthetic response. If taste is nothing but a reflection of social class, then an interest in fine cuisine is nothing but an upper class conceit.

However, if food historian Jean-Francois Revel is correct there is more continuity between haute cuisine and traditional popular cuisine than the taste-as-upper-class-conceit thesis will allow.

In Culture and Cuisine: A Journey Through the History of Food, Revel writes:

The history of gastronomy is nothing more nor less than a succession of exchanges, conflicts,quarrels, and reconciliations between everyday cuisine and the high art of cuisine. Art is a personal creation, but this creation is impossible without a base in traditional craftsmanship.

Revel goes on to write:

There would be something immoral about treating the subject of cuisine as if money were all it takes to consume good food—it is among the poor peoples of the world that this author…has on occasion eaten exquisite dishes: the barbacoa of the Indians of Mexico, a young goat cooked slowly beneath warm earth, or mole poblano in the same country, or, yet again, caponata in Sicily.

The cuisine of the less-well-off is linked to the soil and climate of a particular region and is based on skills and flavor combinations that have stood the test of time. Chefs of fine cuisine must innovate and go beyond traditions, but those who ignore traditions entirely engage in “pointless complication” and seldom create anything “really exquisite”, according to Revel.

So if Revel is correct there is typically a great deal of continuity between fine cuisine and ordinary cuisine and that entails that the taste associated with fine cuisine is not merely a reflection of class distinctions.

Innovative chefs routinely claim that a solid grounding in classical techniques is essential to their art. I suspect Revel is right about this.

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