Commentary Media

A Bad Aftertaste: David Brooks, Class, and the Politics of Food

Cynthia Greenlee, Christine Grimaldi & Tina Vasquez

While Brooks seems to think his insensitivity derives from choosing a tony sandwich joint beyond his friend’s culinary vocabulary, there’s much more insensitivity to unpack.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently had lunch with a friend. Nothing unusual about that—except that he wrote about it. In one throwaway passage, Brooks managed to sneer at his acquaintance’s food preferences, education, and both Italian and Mexican cuisine (or at least their Americanized versions).

In the July 11 op-ed, titled “How We Are Ruining America,” Brooks wrote about the gaping divide between the upper middle class and the rest of us, exploring how wealth and education have been passed down and accrued in a massively successful exclusion experiment that’s unfolded for the benefit of privileged households. But it’s the “informal social barriers,” Brooks wrote, that do the daily—and what he suggests is the more damaging—work of keeping the have-littles, the have-a-little-mores, and the have-a-lots (and their descendants) segregated in their own lanes and class strata.

Enter Brooks’ confessional moment:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Three Rewire staffers were struck by this moment—and by the message of the column in general.

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Cynthia R. Greenlee, Senior Editor

Brooks, who also teaches at Yale, is right in identifying that supposedly harmless social markers can be insidiously dangerous. Perhaps he’d remember the old Good Times episode where bright and funny Black teenager Michael scored low on an intelligence test he refused to complete because he saw that the questions were biased. One asked students where you would put a tea cup: The answers included “saucer” and “table.” Michael chose “table—because in his household, there weren’t saucers or china. Not knowing the language—or the customs—of the upper class can put what Brooks calls the “lower 80 percent” at critical disadvantage in conversation, competition, and life.

I won’t quibble with that. But Brooks’ belief that such cultural exclusion may be more important than structural barriers shows how disconnected he is from that other 80 percent. Sizable numbers of U.S. residents can’t be “class-mobile” because, for example, banks believe they and their neighborhoods are risks, and won’t finance their homes or dreams; many can’t access higher education due to cost, or a better life without living wage policies, comprehensive child care, and health coverage. The social exclusions that Brooks discusses are not more insidious than systemic ones: They are different, more quotidian expressions of structural inequality carried out by soccer moms and other unofficial gatekeepers.

Furthermore, while Brooks seems to think his insensitivity derives from choosing a tony sandwich joint beyond his friend’s culinary vocabulary, there’s much more insensitivity to unpack. First, friends don’t talk about friends this way. There’s the bare violation of pointing out his friend’s limited education (which, by national standards, isn’t that unusual; only a third of U.S. residents have a college degree, according to 2015 Census data).

Then, there’s the assumption that her education is the culprit behind her discomfort. We don’t know why her face froze; perhaps, she was avoiding salty cold cuts or was brought up short by the sticker shock of a fancy Gotham City sandwich. And Brooks does a fair amount of assuming about the tastes of those who have finished college: Most college degrees don’t come with a prerequisite course in Italian Lunch Meat 101, and, indeed, the mass-produced cafeteria food on most college campuses is not designed to stimulate adventurous eating.

The story is being told about her, not by her or with her, and Brooks has made his friend an unwitting representative of less-educated U.S. residents.

Now, Brooks doesn’t share anything about his friend’s political tastes or socioeconomic status. I won’t make the mistake of presuming the friend’s race or wealth. But the implication is clear in Brooks’ hierarchy. There are People Who Know Mortadella When They See It and then there are the Others; let’s call the latter the Baloney/Burrito Eaters. It is this presumed, artificial divide—echoing the wider media conversation about “elites” and the working class—that Brooks blames for the downfall of the United States.

It’s not surprising that politicians and pundits alike use food metaphors to describe this hyperpolarized country and its politicians—a tactic that produces mixed results. Food has long been a cultural signifier. Some commentators use it to argue “food brings us together;” others point to the stark disparities between those who work in the low-wage food service sector, those who pick our strawberries, and those who can afford to eat organic. We use metaphors about who gets a “piece of the pie” to talk about access to resources and influence. President Donald Trump generates and attracts food talk and metaphors. Who can forget this Cinco de Mayo tweet, extolling his love of a Trump Tower taco bowl and “Hispanics”? Or that he considered New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie worthy of only meatloaf—a low-key fat joke and an obvious snub that was the side dish to Trump’s denial of a plum political appointment to the Garden State politician. Or that Trump orders his steak well-done, no pink but with ketchup.

Just as Brooks drew questionable links between his chum’s schooling and palate, many outraged meat lovers regarded Trump’s steak orders as a dismaying prophesy. The most powerful man in the the country, with chefs at his disposal in the White House and his many real-estate properties, prefers dry, gray beef. The country had landed in the wrong hands, they declared with a hint of food elitism and hyperbole. Maybe it’s easier for many of us to deal with this country’s political corruption and dysfunction by talking about beef, deli meat, and faux-cheese puffs.

Christine Grimaldi, Federal Policy Reporter

As someone who grew up on antipasto platters that preceded even Americanized summer barbecue fare, Brooks’ description of Italian deli meats as the cuisine of the elite rang hollow, considering how many people of Italian descent would cringe at his formality. The Italian-Americans and American-Italians clustered around New York and New Jersey still use variations of their ancestors’ dialects from the poor southern region of the homeland. What Brooks calls capicollo, they would call gabagool.

And while it’s delicious, it can be pretty lowbrow. Meadow Soprano, the daughter of the eponymous gangster on HBO’s The Sopranos, once told her grandmother, “Don’t eat gabagool, Grandma. It’s nothing but fat and nitrates,” as her father’s paisanos beckoned for the packed tray.

Perhaps Italian food seemed like a safe choice to take a friend with merely a high school diploma, given the cuisine’s assimilation into white American culture. Italian immigrants were seen as the “other” when they arrived in droves in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and they challenged authority at the forefront of activist movements, as historian Jennifer Guglielmo wrote in her book, Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. That changed by the 1940s, thanks to what writer James Baldwin called the “price of the ticket.”

“Many joined efforts to keep people of color out of ‘their’ families, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces,” Guglielmo wrote. “Embracing whiteness meant the ability to avoid many forms of violence and humiliation. It meant preferential access to citizenship, property, higher wages, political power, and social status, among other privileges. It also meant, as Baldwin noted, that Italians had to ‘look with loathing upon everything native whites loathed.’ Many did so by embracing ‘the delusion of white supremacy’ as it was enacted all around them, through violence, segregation, and other forms of disassociation.”

Sound familiar? Baldwin’s “delusion of white supremacy” is on full display under President Trump. Hate crimes rose 20 percent in nine metropolitan areas. Hate groups increased for the second year in a row as Trump “energized” the radical right, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Yet, many Italians have stood by their man.

“White voters who identify most strongly with their German or Italian heritage strongly support Trump, whereas those who self-identify as Irish, English, or Scottish are more evenly split between Trump and Hillary Clinton,” according to a pre-election BuzzFeed News poll.

Look no further than Trump surrogate and notorious racial antagonist Rudy Giuliani, the New York City mayor who once defended undocumented immigrants. Giuliani claimed that Trump sought his counsel on a Muslim ban, including “the right way to do it legally.” Months later, Giuliani downplayed his role, as the unconstitutionality of the Muslim ban became all the more apparent.

Whitewashed Italian food must have seemed safe for Brooks’ friend, who became a populist stereotype in his retelling. But in the end, it was apparently too unfamiliar for her. So, in one of the great little ironies of Trump’s America, he turned to Mexican food instead.

Tina Vasquez, Immigration Reporter 

In one seemingly innocuous paragraph about food choices, Brooks positioned Mexican food as the ultimate Food of the People, the one cuisine approachable enough for all Americans to embrace—even those with high school diplomas and no frame of reference for European cold cuts.

Brooks goes on to write, “American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.”

Like many white journalists, Brooks is writing about class disparities without mentioning race. But perhaps the most frustrating implication is that those outside of the upper-middle-class don’t know how to read these cultural signifiers. Those of us who are people of color without college degrees and who grew up or continue to be low-income learn very early on what cultural signifiers are. They mean that something is not intended for us, even if it was—as is often the case—created by us.

Cultural signifiers look like loncheras in Los Angeles slinging $1 tacos de lengua in Latino neighborhoods for decades, and being criminalized for it and referred to as “roach coaches.” But when white Americans “discovered” food trucks and sold overpriced gringo-ized Mexican-inspired fare, it became hip (not to mention big business). A cultural signifier is when Starbucks opens in a predominantly Latino neighborhood and sells “hibiscus iced tea.” Those uneducated folks Brooks pities know these encroachments and outright theft are signs of impending, full-scale gentrification, and that white folks weren’t aware agua de jamaica was already a thing.

When attempting to illustrate what he means by a cultural signifier, Brooks refers to himself as “insensitive” for making the great mistake of taking a lowly high school diploma holder to a gourmet sandwich shop, not realizing his line about Mexican food signifies to the rest of us what Brooks thinks of Mexican food: It’s pedestrian.

But you see, it’s not. Non-Latino Americans want it to be; they need it to be. Here in North Carolina, where it’s not uncommon to see Trump stickers on parked cars outside of Mexican restaurants, white diners in particular order the ever-popular “ACP,” never having to pronounce “arroz con pollo” or know that the cheese-sauce covered version they love does not resemble the real deal, a dish that sounds deceptively simple but requires great skill to make well. Tacos, another seemingly simple dish, have become synonymous with ground beef, sour cream, and cheese, erasing the beautiful complexity of meat on a tortilla, always served with raw onion, cilantro, and lime—the aromatics, acid, and herbs that any professional chef will tell you takes a dish from good to great.

“It’s too easy to say Mexican food is an all-American food: To say as much is to ignore the tortured relationship between Mexicans and their adopted country,” Gustavo Arellano writes in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. “But Mexican food is as much of an ambassador for the United States as the hot dog, whether either country wants to admit it or not.”

Maybe Brooks was saying that nothing is more American than Mexican food. After all, Latinos have been the largest ethnic minority in the country for more than a decade, and salsa long ago surpassed ketchup as America’s favorite condiment. In implying that Mexican food is very American—while still denigrating it—Brooks typifies the attitudes about education, class, and difference for which he belittled his friend.

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