Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Parmesan?

Is there any difference between using cheddar cheese or parmesan with Italian food? It is hard to say no – though the reasons why are complex and may be seen as a matter of culture or pretension as well as practicality. ‘Authenticity’ might have something to do with it – but even this can be read in several ways.

Next: is it better to have a block of cheese rather than a tub of ready-grated powder? Once again, it is hard to disagree on taste (those in the know will realise that the ready-grated dust often comes machine-crushed from the rind-ends and rejects, possibly not even parmesan at all…) – but being “in the know” is as much a social as gastronomic position… And is it better for that block to be freshly cut from a round by a cheesemonger, than shrink-wrapped from a supermarket? Experience says yes again (and once you know what happens in the packaging process, it is no surprise…). At each stage, as we refine our sensitivity, it is difficult to argue against raising our game, though it may come at increased cost. A matter of self-evident freshness and flavour it may be, but that is not necessarily enough to deflect potential accusations of food snobbery…

Those who never make such journeys will never know that, once tried, something like this becomes quite literally a simple matter of fact – but it still may not be enough to stop them from condemning others for discerning in ways that they do not consider important.

What applies to cheese can apply to anything else where degrees of discernment are possible – and with it, inevitably, come the social inferences. Those who discern will, in some places be attacked for their elitism or condescension. In others, evident good judgement may be more a matter for admiration and respect. In some places such views may be associated with social pretension – but in others it might not even enter the equation. As well as individual cases, this polarisation can also been seen in wider public opinion: the art gallery built a few years ago in my local town was widely criticised as a “waste of money”, rather than being welcomed as a rare opportunity to bring something special to the local community.

The more prevalent status-seeking is, the greater is the risk of perceived snobbery, because anything that raises one’s game risks being seen as socially pretentious even if it is not intended that way. As a Briton, I have repeatedly noticed the comparatively low level of preoccupation with social class that seems to prevail in certain other European countries that I know well, compared with my own where it seems such issues are never far beneath the surface. There seems to be more acceptance of people’s right and ability to express their own taste, and less assumption that doing so is simply an exercise in social badging.

It can be seen in subliminal national habits: for example, emphases in advertising are not the same everywhere. In some places, products are promoted on their social cachet, and in others more on their aesthetic desirability. Claims of exclusivity, showing off or ‘getting ahead’ seem to feature less strongly in marketing in some countries I know, than others. In some, shop staff seem more willing than elsewhere to venture personal opinions – which is perhaps easier if you are commenting on the item rather than the buyer. In the UK, going into the ‘wrong’ shop, restaurant or hotel can still risk being a socially intimidating, even humiliating, experience…

The implications of this are significant, and amount to how much of one’s life one is prepared to have dominated by the need for external approval. Where great, this suggests to me a life that is insufficiently rich in its own experiences and insights to be self-justifying – and it may explain the railing against those who do better: inverted snobbery at work again.

To buck social approval can require strength of mind – and a knowledge of what to do instead. It is a matter of having a “growth mindset” – of being motivated to explore one’s own horizons rather than yielding to the limitations of herd rule. It can be a path to personal independence through increasing complexity of understanding, and thereby informed judgement. The fear of criticism diminishes as confidence grows, though all but the most determined will probably concede that there are probably limits beyond which it would still be hard to go. Many British men still have ‘issues’ with wearing pink – and in many cases, dressing with visible care at all. Yet ultimately, what marks those who scrub up perfectly well but mostly do not bother, is not the visual effect but the personal ease with which it is carried. What characterful people have in common is the confidence to do (and be) their own thing.

The real journey to discernment is neither pretentious nor self-indulgent – the two criticisms often levelled at people who undertake it. It is not about foot-stamping when we cannot have ‘the best’. Rather, it is about informed decisions when compromise is necessary – but not accepting it when it is not. It is an earnest desire to know, to live life to the full, to do things well – and to learn to appreciate such good things as come our way. It is about taking the trouble humbly to do nice things for others too, not just trying to impress them. It is as much about avoiding poor choices as making nit-picking ones.

A risk is that the more one discerns, the more intolerant and dissatisfied one can become – but it is also possible to see discernment as a form of mindfulness, even gratitude for being alive, since it involves savouring experiences rather than taking them for granted, knowing and appreciating their real nature rather than worrying about the social consequences. The only alternative is to live devoid of such rewarding experiences. They can be found, after all, in the most unlikely places, not just the currently fashionable ones, because it is ultimately more about how than what we like.

This is not something that British culture at any level encourages us to do: to yield to the innocent appreciation of sensual pleasure, quality and self-affirmation. Sadly, we do not educate for this: even school lessons about food are “Food Technology” – focused on careers, business and money-making, rather than the simple enjoyment of an essential that would be more beneficial to more people. I wonder how many parents educate their children in such things. The French for one, do (or did) it differently…

The same philosophy can extend to growing our personal skills, qualities and behaviours – something else that distinguishes self-developers from those seeking social validation, where only the outward appearance and marketability matter. The acid test is what people do when no one else is looking – for one’s quality of life does not require any audience but oneself…

Achieving such complexity does require effort – but the rewards are proportionate. This is why some will indeed make considerable efforts for a piece of fresh cheese, a certain cloth, specific music or company, when others may not. It is why they may be concerned with issues of authenticity and the minutiae of fine distinctions. It is why their language may appear obscure, and sometimes even intolerant. It is why they may choose sunglasses that others then misjudge.

Sadly, misunderstanding seems widespread. The Good Life seems to be regarded as a matter of wealth and prestige. Good things are treated as the preserve of the privileged or greedy rather than a valid and pleasurable part of any life. Treating life as an economic rather than creative experience is partly to blame.

Again, this does not seem the same everywhere: it is not only the aristocratic French who care about good wine or food, not only affluent Italians who dress well. Here, by contrast, it is more usual to encounter murmured, self-deprecating disclaimers about a lack of knowledge of the niceties. Stodgy conformity trumping individual character.

Those other countries seem to have greater consensus about what makes for a good life – and the acceptance that it is, at least in theory, generally desirable. This is only possible when it is not treated as a social marker. This often seems painfully different in the U.K., where such preoccupations are often treated with scepticism or ascribed to social cliques.

The resultant “not for the likes of us” thinking can become self-fulfilling. Given the misperceptions about the function of good quality, it is perhaps not surprising that Britain has relatively few of the desirable product-lines that come from France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia. Such high-quality British brands as do exist – from Jaguar to Burberry – almost always come with indelible aristocratic associations – but then, almost anything of quality sold in Britain normally comes with at least a faint whiff of social superiority attached – while the rest settle for indiscriminate ‘convenience’ as a way of avoiding harder choices.

The truth is, much of the British population remains eternally confused by a system where every action potentially has social before aesthetic connotations. In such a minefield, where any overt decision potentially entails disapproval from one quarter or another, it’s just easier not to bother…

It is, however, easy for others to fill such vacuums – most obviously commercial operations, for whom genuine diversity presents a supply problem. Taste is much more marketing-led that is often thought, and it is all too easy to steer the thoughts and behaviour of compliant people who have few strong ideas of their own.

This is where the silent oppression of the majority comes most forcefully into play. The collective failure of assertiveness to insist on high standards and reject low, makes it all the more likely that those who do try do differently will be ignored. The more homogenous society becomes, the more they will both stand out, and perhaps attract disapproval or misunderstanding. In a society where social judgement comes first, producers may even provoke such comparisons: it is easier to appeal to the market’s snobbery than its discernment.

Yet those who do make the journey may come to realise that social display and aesthetic value are not as interwoven as they can seem: access to quality is not always a matter of (high) cost: you can be discerning about potatoes (and the consequences of failure to do so are instantly noticeable…). Truly good eating is probably more dependent on simple, good ingredients than complex recipes. The ingredients give the authentic sensory experience; while they can certainly delight the eye, fancy dishes are more often about display. The real enemy, however, is once again the (overpriced) taste-free processed ‘convenience’ food that, judging from what one sees at the checkouts, many still accept as their lot. As with food, so with much else; the worst deceit of all is mass-produced items masquerading as artisan products – an increasingly common deception into which we might read a lot.

Judgement of good quality depends on setting aside social pressure; those who seek status-display often fail to see this – there are more than enough examples of grotesque taste to show that wealth does not buy good judgement. The person who strives even occasionally to attain something above their norm will perhaps appreciate it more than one who takes “the best” utterly for granted. ‘Luxury’ – inasmuch as it is a desirable quality – is a relative, sensory experience, and having excess of it only brings accustomisation and complacency.

I believe that it is worth striving to fill one’s life with good experiences. Seeking the good in every aspect of daily life need be neither showy nor greedy – but what it does do is remind us of the value of each day. Life can be difficult enough for it hardly to be sinful to celebrate and take pleasure in its good side. Things of substance tend to bring longer-lasting satisfaction that those that are insubstantial and shoddy. Carefully chosen things are more likely to endure, are less likely to bring disappointment or boredom, and can lastingly shine back to us the identity and story of our own lives.

Ignoring this suppresses the quality of life through the rejection of pleasurable things because of their social connotations but equally, the assumption that Quality of Life is something that can be bought, rather than achieved through personal growth. Instead of despising or sniping at others, it might be better to claim a slice of the action for ourselves. Every life is a potential work of art; what each needs is a good artist.

Elitism is often seen as an undesirable quality; certainly, its outward expression can be abrasive, divisive and insulting. Material display is often little more than a show of greed. It seems a particularly sore point in mainstream Britain, though this is not so surprising when there still exists an elite that keeps many of this nation’s best things to itself, with an unspoken code to exclude the rest. Those who are, or who aspire to be, part of it can elicit sharp disapproval. Most people do not spend their time openly sneering; they are more likely to draw private conclusions – and continue to self-exclude. This kind of self-deprecation only makes it all the easier for real elite to prevail: their existence relies on the collusion of those who are excluded to perpetuate it. The only way to combat it to refuse to be excluded; the thing to question is not whether good things exist, but whether they necessarily can only belong to a minority.

There remains, however, a dilemma for those on the receiving end of inverted snobbery or minority discrimination: should they ignore it, or capitulate? In the end, it is probably a non-issue: if you have learned deep appreciation, it is not something you will easily give up. There is no other course than to take the hit in the name of the democratic rights of all minorities.

I strongly disapprove of both social elitism and plebianism – but I have a great deal of sympathy with learning personal aesthetic discernment, which has the potential to enrich any life that allows it. We can all go on the parmesan journey, even if only occasionally. Aesthetic self-fulfilment is much less a matter of money than this Affluenza-riddled country seems to think. It can be found in something as simple as perfectly ripe fruit or a beautiful sunset. It can be found in our own qualities, not just in the things we buy.

It should not be an elite, minority preoccupation.

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