Saturday, November 28, 2009

U.S. conservatives think pasta is "ethnic"

Everybody loves Italian food, but in this land of two Americas, there's a huge gulf in how we perceive it.

If you're liberal, you probably see pasta, pizza, focaccia and pesto as part of your everyday arsenal of food choices.

But if you're conservative, eating angel hair pasta with pesto is a walk on the wild side -- almost like admitting you once had a gay fantasy.

It took a summer-long poll from to explain something about San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood I had never understood.

The poll, described here, correlated people's political beliefs with the foods they like. Some of the results are intuitive: Is anyone surprised that liberals like veggies on their pizza while conservatives want meat? (I like anchovies, which fits as I discovered on that I really should be a libertarian.)

Asked their favorite "cuisine," liberals named Chinese, Japanese and Thai. Conservatives said Italian.

Suddenly I understood why in North Beach vendors sell t-shirts with giant letters proclaiming that the wearer has eaten Italian food, making various puns about the experience (i.e., "Don't kiss me, I just ate Italian food"). For years, I was bewildered by these (as I was by most North Beach restaurants). Who takes a vacation to San Francisco to eat indifferently prepared spaghetti swimming in a bowl of red sauce, then buys a tote bag to brag about it back home? Don't they sell pizza in Peoria?

Now I understand. To liberals, Italian food is so commonplace that it's not even a separate cuisine anymore. But for people who are truly conservative -- Billy Graham followers, not Mitt Romney economic Republicans or Sarah Palin dummies -- anything beyond meat and potatoes really is exotic.

This will not be news to those of you with conservative family members. You might want to watch their diet for them: turns out 63% of conservatives eat fast food a few times a week, and 30% eat fresh fruit less than once a week.

It got me to wondering about the way conservatives think about food. I confess that while I have Republican and Democrat friends, I have maintained no friendships with true conservatives; they live in a different world from me. So I have to look at the poll for guidance.

Here's a theory, and it is just that. True conservatives believe we should deny the urges of the body, particularly urges to pursue pleasure. Conservatives believe strongly in shame, and think its absence is what's wrong with this country.

Spending too much time, effort or money on food would be shameful. Hence the popularity of convenience foods.

But it goes deeper than that. To make a dish like green curry, with its complex blend of flavors, is creating temptation. Meat loaf, on the other hand, is fulfilling. It does the job food is required to do, without excessive ornamentation that could arouse impure thoughts of greed and gluttony.

This would explain another philosophical question I've always had: why do people look so much larger at conservative events than liberal events, given that conservatives are aware that gluttony is a deadly sin? It's not gluttony, it's purely diet -- and the diet stems from attempting to avoid foods that would stimulate gluttony.

What makes this interesting is that while liberals are a messy group who never agree on anything (including that statement), true conservatives tend to present a very united front.

That means that smarter minds than mine have already considered these philosophical questions, while in the employ of Kraft and ConAgra and McDonald's. From now on, I'm going to look at food advertisements differently, thanks to this poll. There's a natural tension -- ad agency people are definitely not social conservatives (remember, I'm not talking about Republican vs. Democrat here), but if they do the best for their client, they'll reach out to the social conservatives who buy macaroni and cheese in a box, or eat Big Macs four times a week.

Deep thoughts for a Thanksgiving weekend. I'll conclude by saying, wow, Americans of all belief sets have lousy taste in cheese. Conservatives like Velveeta -- that's not even cheese -- or Colby, which I believe is half cheese, half orange wax. Liberals aren't any better: brie? That's such a cliche, it's like naming as your favorite wine the one you were served on an airplane last week. The cheese industry has a lot of work to do in this country on both sides of the great divide.


Jack Everitt said...

Most Americans prefer the blandest possible cheeses. They view cheese as Dead, shrink-wrap it and keep it as cold as possible. Oh hell, let's put it much more bluntly, They Fear Food. (Yes, conservatives in particular.)

This is a shame, as top American restaurants and cheese stores offer the most diverse and interesting assortment of cheeses in the world. Those savvy about cheese love the incredible variety of smells and tastes you get from artisan (and some industrial) cheeses...much more diverse than any other category of food or beverage.

W. Blake Gray said...

Jack, you are so right. I rant all the time, watching TV commercials, about the bizarre things Americans fear -- spring water, for example, as opposed to "clean" tap water from Dasani. Unpasteurized-milk cheeses from France, as opposed to Velveeta. Everybody fears the 1 in 1 million chance of some exotic infection, but doesn't at all fear the overall harm to the immune system of a sterile lifestyle.

Tricerapops said...

a very interesting post. i went to college with a number of kids who were from well-to-do, conservative backgrounds in the mid-west, and sometimes their choices in the dining hall reflected what you mentioned.

i chalked it up to a culinary upbringing that was rather 'bland' (myself having grown up in California, and subject to its bounty), but i learned from them as well (i had no idea corned beef and cabbage was such a big deal during st. patrick's day, as an example). your post raises some interesting points however...

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks, Tri. College is a great time to start expanding your food horizons. In my first semester I discovered tacos (I'm not from California), barbecue pork ribs, and bagels and lox.

You raise a great point about background. Hunch didn't take age data from what I could ascertain, but generally Internet poll takers are probably younger than the general population, which would make a huge difference in culinary experience.

Evan Dawson said...

Fascinating and astute stuff. My father, a life-long fiscal conservative, told me last week: "Food is fuel. That's it. There is nothing to get excited about when it comes to fuel." Most of his fuel used to be alive; he eschews fruits and vegetables.

Regarding cheese, I would have said beemster; also a bit boring, no? But I'm a Libertarian, so I'm too mercurial to pin down!

Anonymous said...

Well I couldn't stand it any more, my late father was a C would try any food. Thankgiving for us when I was growing up was to head to SF, Calif. for the car show and then to China Town were we eat in places like Tommy Toys and every were else. If there was a new place in this little town no matter what kind of food it was, lets go try this place. The people in the restaurants loved him because he want to know what was is in it and how it was made. If I brought something over he would try it and most times ask if could I leave what I had left. That's what I am Left and we had some great debates and before he died he told me he could no longer be an R because of all the hate and that they had taken away his rights for the FWOT (Thanks Jim).

Lisa said I should leave this weekends dinner menu here and he would've love this with all the time the parents spent in Monterey and Santa Cruz.

My cousin normal does dinner for me on my birthday but I invited her and husband to my place.
Wine SB is Honing
C is Chappellet/Heitz/Ruthford Ranch
Cab/Cab Frac will Heitz 99 Martha Vineyard or Cab F from Chappellet/William Harrison
The pie comes from Gizdich Ranch in Hollister, Calif.

Menu for Dec. 6, 2009

1. 4:00pm Abalone served with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc.
2. 4:40pm Crab Cakes served with a crisp Chardonnay.
3. 5:15pm Spinach Salad with egg, bacon, artichoke hearts, and Mustard Oil dressing. Served with a crisp Chardonnay
4. 6:00pm Salmon grilled then baked with a Mustard coating. Red wine Chefs choice
5. 7:15pm Apricot Pie served with Ink Grade Port

Disclaimer: If any of the above cause you discomfort please take it up with any Management person you might find that cares what you think.
Disclaimer: Chef not responsible for you being late to the Theater if times of courses aren’t meant.
Alway enjoy the conversation here.

Lisa said...

Hello to Blake (and jo),

This is provocative, Blake, but I'll play devil's advocate on a few topics. First, you attribute the avoirdupois of yer average Republican to "diet -- and the diet stems from attempting to avoid foods that would stimulate gluttony." Perhaps it could be argued that the utter blandness of the diet encourages overindulgence to reach a state of satiety, but I would chalk it up to simply gluttony.

One can get fat whether eating vegetarian or meatloaf -- it all depends on caloric intake (and output). I believe most of us are fairly inert, so calories do matter.

Per your take on fast food ("Spending too much time, effort or money on food would be shameful. Hence the popularity of convenience foods"), I'd say it's rather a sad commentary on a too-harried society. Both Republicans and Democrats avail themselves of the stuff, and it is often the poorest cohort who rely on it as a staple. It is a relatively cheap way to fill the belly.

Eating well costs dearly. Veggies from Whole Foods are not for the Tyson chicken plucker. The food the poorest cohort relies on is often cheap carbohydrates, often laden with HFCS -- a toxic mix far as obesity goes.

Food adverts are fascinating, as is the bifurcation of demographics shopping at the big box retailers. Walmart now has chevre along with Velveeta, and Green and Blacks alongside Hersey's.

Will half the Clientele resemble Claireece "Precious" Jones and half Dean Ornish? Only time will tell.

But really great cheese cases may never come to a state near me.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for the comments guys.

Jo: I love, love, love apricot pie. Don't see the Port pairing though, I like it with coffee.

Lisa: Absolutely money has much to do with it, but not everything. Check out Evan's comment. I've heard that sort of thing myself. That attitude toward food has nothing to do with one's finances.

Re cheese: May I recommend direct shipping? You can't get the interesting imports, but there are good domestics that do. Check out Cowgirl Creamery.