Are You a Food Snob?

Does a preference for organic fruit and handmade bread hinder efforts to feed the world?


| May-June 2002



Let me start with a confession: Without Kraft Macaroni Dinner, Velveeta, and Miracle Whip I couldn't have made it through college. I don't mean just that I ate the stuff—I manufactured it. My tuition, rent, and living expenses were paid with money saved from a summer job at the Kraft Foods factory in Champaign, Illinois. In one sense, I owe my career and current middle-class comfort to highly-processed, preservative-filled, mass-produced, heavily-advertised industrial food.

So how did it happen that I now find myself snapping up organic radicchio, heirloom tomatoes, and artisan cheese that costs more per pound than I used to spend for a night on the town? Is it simply that my culinary appreciation and ecological consciousness (not to mention wages) have risen since college, or is something else going on? Have I joined ranks with yuppies who think nothing of spending on a single meal of exquisitely prepared food and fine wine what an inner-city family needs for a month of groceries?

Well, not exactly. I still can't tell a Merlot from a Medoc, and the stove in our kitchen is so old that repairmen refuse to work on it. (Luckily, three burners still light, although when we bake we have to prop a chair against the oven door to keep it closed.) So, no wave of guilt overtakes me in the checkout line when I pay a little more for milk without pesticides or a loaf of delicious red-onion-and-rosemary sourdough bread.

I did pay attention, however, when a headline in my food co-op's newsletter recently asked, “Why did you buy the fancy red leaf lettuce when you can buy chopped bagged iceberg for half the cost?”

Mark Muller, the article's author and a fellow member of Minneapolis' Wedge Community Co-op, recounts how relatives question his purchases of natural and organic food. “Have I lost touch with mainstream America?” he asks. “Have I become an elitist—a food snob?”

FOOD REMAINS ONE of the most significant badges of class in American life. Wealthy, educated urbanites who would never permit themselves to poke fun at welfare mothers or immigrants freely make cracks about spongy white bread and Miracle Whip, which were staples in the cupboard when I was growing up. While I am eternally grateful to have discovered baguettes and aioli (both of which originated as peasant fare in France), I'm not surprised at the trepidation (and occasional hostility) many working-class and rural Americans feel toward new and unusual foods.