Bacon and Bourdieu: When Peasant Food Makes Good

Tuna, Bacon Wrapped Shad Roe, Foie Gras, Spring Onion Marmelade & Blossoms, Creamed Stinging Nettles

Although its moment in the spotlight may be fading, bacon, or its uncured sister pork belly, has enjoyed a lengthy starring role in the larder of the world’s finest chefs. And it has shared the stage with every co-star from ice cream and chocolate to caviar and foie gras, often stealing the show from the more celebrated partner.

But this has to be the most remarkable rags-to-riches story ever conjured by the star-making machinery. For most of its life, bacon has been lowly peasant food, what every husband was supposed to bring home, and every mother cooked for breakfast as a source of cheap protein.

According to one very prominent theory of taste, bacon’s ascent should not have occurred. Pierre Bourdieu, the late 20th Century French sociologist, argued that an individual’s idea of what tastes good is determined by social status rather than sensitivity to aesthetic quality. Good taste is a mark of distinction that sets one apart and confers high status on those who possess it. This refined sensitivity to subtle distinctions is defined against and excludes what’s “popular” and identifies one as a member of the elite, not as a symbol of wealth but as a mark of social knowledge and cultural capital. The middle class tries to emulate these “high-class” manners while the working class is forced to choose “the necessary” and cannot be concerned with the aesthetic.

In other words, according to Bourdieu, taste trickles down from the upper classes; it doesn’t percolate up from below. And bacon is distinctly lower class. To eat bacon as the star of the evening meal would send the wrong message about one’s social capital.

But a taste for bacon, as well as food trucks, macaroni and cheese, street food, etc. have a different cultural history than one would predict from Bourdieu’s model.

In fact there are many taste cultures—ethnic cuisines as well as punk, hip-hop, and alternative music and fashion—that resist assimilation to a cultural elite. Their tastes function as markers of status but have nothing to do with upbringing, money, or education but mark off an “in” group with a focus on authenticity rather than class.

Bourdieu’s theory that taste reflects a symbolic hierarchy determined and maintained by socially dominant groups was articulated in contrast to the traditional view of taste as the product of individual aesthetic judgment. No doubt Bourdieu is right that tastes are often socially conditioned.

But these counter-examples suggest a more complex interaction between social conditions and individual judgment. Genuine judgments of taste can sometimes transcend cultural boundaries and need not always reflect the social position of those who make them.

Good taste is sometimes about tasting good.

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