Sunday, June 12, 2011

Food and Its Discontents

The reason why the emerging field of "gastro-anthropology" is so often laughed at is because societies look at food as one of two things:
1. basic sustenance
2. a source of pleasure
Why study it, then, right? You either need, love it or both.
But food says so much about us as people and communities, our traditions and heritages. Besides, as far as sociological development goes, there is something telling about the food establishments that come to shape our city neighborhoods.
You guessed it, boys and girls, the topic on my mind is the urban buzzword du jour: gentrification.

I've been thinking about this more and more, especially since I live in Brooklyn, where swaths of the cityscape have uber-cool cafes and vintage shops blossoming amidst some characterful grit and grime. Williamsburg has become a national poster child of the G-word, and its "successes" continue to spread south. My neighborhood of Sunset Park seems to be relatively free of organic-obsessed tattooed hipsters, but I have a nasty feeling that it might be headed in that direction regardless.

But this phenomenon hit me a little further afield, when I took a trip over to Astoria, a district of Queens that has been up-and-coming for a while now. And though it seems like it is taking forever for it to finally "arrive", there are some noticeable changes that are taking place as we speak.

The other morning, I met up with Ellen at the Queens Kickshaw: a cafe on Broadway that specializes in great coffee and artisanal grilled cheeses. Yes, that's right: artisanal grilled cheeses. Sandwiched between bodegas and nail salons, its industrial-cool feel seems slightly out of place. When I asked for a latte with skim milk, I was told they only had, "Delicious, whole organic milk." I have to say, the latte was delicious. So was the gouda grilled cheese with caramelized onions, served with a side of Napa cabbage slaw. But I felt strange paying $8 for a sandwich and $4.50 for coffee in a place where that could buy a three-days' worth of groceries.

What does this mean for Astoria? Higher rents? People moving out? Who is going to pay eight-frikkin'-dollars for some cheese between two slices of toasted bread? (Delicious as it may be). And why is it that I get delight from grabbing breakfast in an "avant-garde" part of town? (A large part of its appeal, I'm sure). Who is this for? Who is living here that wants a piece of this action? How do the Hispanics and Arabs who dominate the cultural scene feel about it? Or do they not notice it at all?

This brings up a question of ethics, heavily intertwined with food. Can food actually precipitate gentrification? What actually comes first in this chicken-and-egg situation? And should we more thoughtful of the institutions we support? Or is this just the natural course of things?

So many questions. Too few answers. But this is a reason why I think gastro-anthropology is such a wonderful field of study. When coupled with economics, there's some thing to be learned from my day in Astoria, I'm sure. The trend of food establishments that start up in different parts of a city can tell much about the type of people moving in and out and a lot about identity construction among these micro-societies. What does a delectable grilled cheese say about a Queens Kickshaw patron?

I can't answer on a bigger scale, but as for this one patron, I have to say: as soon as I get past a small feeling of guilt, I'm left very, very satisfied.

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