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When Is A Sandwich Not Just A Sandwich?

Condensed symbols, cultural elites, and Italian salami as a barrier to social mobility

A lot of people are ragging on David Brooks today for this passage in his column about how elite culture effectively closes the door on non-elite Americans:

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.

Ha ha! Get a load of that David Brooks! they say. But here’s how the column continues:

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. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

In her thorough book “The Sum of Small Things,” Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information.

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

Brooks is right about that, and it was good of him to use that example, however trivial it might sound. The fact that so many snarky commenters don’t understand why something as small as this matters reveals their insensitivity to the phenomenon.

A few years ago, an older working-class woman had done a special favor for me, and I wanted to show her my gratitude. I took her out to a restaurant that wasn’t fancy, exactly, but it was a definite cut above Chili’s. To me, this was my way of showing her my gratitude: to take her to a place that was out of the ordinary. At the table, I was distressed to see her obviously struggling to enjoy herself. She appeared anxious and uncomfortable, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Later, her daughter told me that as grateful as her mother was for the invitation, she was a nervous wreck at the restaurant. Her mom saw unfamiliar words on the menu, and felt stupid. And she thought everybody in the restaurant was surely looking at her, and seeing that she didn’t belong.

I felt bad about this. I thought I was being generous, but in fact I had put my guest on trial — or at least that’s how she felt. I hadn’t thought about that experience in years, until I read the Brooks column. I can’t remember what, exactly, was on the menu that was so intimidating to my guest, but it never occurred to me that anything on that menu was weird. Mind you, I was raised in a working-class cultural environment, but I’ve been out of it culturally for so long that I’ve lost the ability to perceive how trivial words and things like soppressata and Pomodoro are, to some people, fingers pointing at them telling them they are lesser.

One one level, that’s stupid. What’s wrong with trying new things? Soppressata is the name of a kind of Italian salami. Pomodoro is a kind of tomato. These are not exotic things, and arguably less exotic than the comforting Mexican food Brooks and his young guest eventually had. The point is, Brooks’s young guest was freaked out by salami and tomatoes in a way she wasn’t by enchiladas and refried beans. Though the young woman might have been of Mexican background (Brooks doesn’t say), in a place like Texas, say, Mexican food is ordinary cuisine even working-class white people. When I was a small-town Southern kid in the 1970s, Mexican food was impossibly exotic. Today, a Tex-Mex restaurant is one of the most popular places to eat in that town.

I’m really sensitive to this stuff because for years I had to live with the disdain of some members of my Louisiana family for my allegedly fancypants and inauthentic tastes. It was all class anxiety on their part, but they found a way to put the knife in emotionally over these things. They were reverse snobs, and were at times really mean about it. I don’t believe that is excusable. That said, the fact that I was far more comfortable moving in cosmopolitan settings, and had more cosmopolitan tastes, meant that I had doors open for me, professionally and otherwise, that they would not have had.

Much of this is just normal sociology. Every society has its codes of behavior. A New York City lawyer who relocated to small-town south Louisiana would find himself totally at sea, culturally, until he learned the local ways. I remember once in the early 1990s returning from a trip to France and visiting my parents to tell them about it. I mentioned that when I arrived in Paris, the Dutch friends who were supposed to meet me had left a message at my hotel saying they had to cancel.

“What did you do?” said my dad, with tremendous concern.

“Checked in and spent the next few days exploring Paris on my own,” I said, as if it was no big deal. Because it wasn’t.

My father was visibly astonished.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Said he, “I would have just sat there in the hotel until it was time to go back to the airport.”

He wasn’t joking. He was serious. I admit it was gratifying to my twentysomething self to discover that there was something I could do that my omnicompetent father could not. If you dropped my dad in the middle of the swamp, he could easily find his way out, and deal handily with any obstacles (snakes, gators, etc.) that put themselves in his path. But he would have been paralyzed in Paris. You put me in that same swamp, and I would have been hard-pressed to find my way out, not only because I lacked the skills to do so, but also because I would have been just as paralyzed by fear of the unknown as my dad would have been in Paris.

What David Brooks wants us cosmopolitan types to consider is that a massive number of our fellow Americans feel the same way about the world we move in as my late father felt about the idea of making one’s way alone in Paris. And they feel the same way that we would about finding our way through the swamp back to civilization.

To be sure, some of this is on them. A few years back, Will Wilkinson wrote a good piece about country music and the psychology of culture war.  He talks about social science findings that conservatives tend to be “low openness” individuals — that is, people who are much less willing to try new and unfamiliar things. As a libertarian who was at the time listening to a lot of country music, Wilkinson said this helped him understand both the psychology of country music and its appeal. Excerpt:

My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. If your kids don’t experience the same meaningful things in the same same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you’re able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one’s own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one’s children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. And what kind of monster would want that?

This makes a lot of sense to me, because I share it to a great extent. I guess I’m one of those odd-duck conservatives who is open to a relatively wide range of experience, even as I manage to fold exotic experiences into a conservative outlook. Hey, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian for reasons that are deeply conservative, and my folks never gave me anything but respect and support in that. But Orthodoxy is extremely weird by their standards, and if they hadn’t gotten used to their son being a weirdo already about religion, it would have been profoundly unsettling to them. When I converted to Catholicism in 1993, my dad was shocked by it. Catholicism isn’t that exotic to south Louisiana Methodists, and he wasn’t much of a churchgoer anyway, but it unsettled him for the reasons Will Wilkinson evinces above.

The point is this: in our time and place — in liquid modernity — a man who can make and accommodate those kinds of radical shifts in perspective is a man who is enormously advantaged professionally over a man who cannot. More prosaically, a man who can walk into a gourmet sandwich shop and roll with it is enormously advantaged over the man who cannot. This is the real meaning of the David Brooks anecdote. Don’t laugh at it.

What can be done about it? For starters, the people identified by Chris Arnade as the “front-row kids” — people like me, and most likely people like you —  need to become a lot more aware of the privileges that our cultural formation grants us. This, from Brooks, is very true:

The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.

Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else. We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.

The lesson is not to resolve to by Lady Bountiful and to take working-class person shopping at Whole Foods. It’s rather to begin by realizing not only how our front-row culture excludes the back-row folks (of all colors!), but also how our own lack of awareness of that fact, and our own self-congratulatory morality (we are so much better than the Deplorables™), only makes the problems worse.

This, by the way, is why I have a very short fuse for front-row pretenses to “diversity,” which are usually only skin deep. The white man who only has a high school education, and who lives in a trailer park on the outskirts of Bunkie, La., will never enjoy the privilege of, say, Jerelyn Luther, the black Yale student whose name lives in deserved infamy as Shrieking Girl.  The refusal of the front-row Establishment to recognize the reality of class privilege, which is in large part cultural privilege, is a major barrier to meaningful reform. The way front-row kids in power assuage their status anxiety is by hiring more diversity deans, which is a lot easier than confronting the complexities of class.

The soppressata sandwich is a condensed symbol — shorthand for an entire worldview. In this sense, there are soppressata sandwiches everywhere in our culture. What strikes us front-row kids as just a sandwich appears like land mines to back-row kids. Sneer at David Brooks’s little story all you want, but it’s not a laughing matter to people who experience things like that as impassable barriers.

One last thing. Brooks’s column took me back to the autumn of 1988. I was 21 years old, and just arrived in Washington, DC, to do a one-semester internship with a political consultancy. I was thrilled, but also scared. This was Washington! It’s one thing to be a tourist, but me, I was going to be working there, within the system. On one of my first days in the city, I saw a flyer in my Capitol Hill neighborhood advertising an after-work get together at Eastern Market for young people working on the Hill. I was desperate to make friends, so on the day of the party, I walked over.

As I neared the entrance to the market hall, my legs suddenly felt very heavy. I could not bring myself to walk through the door. I was overcome by social anxiety. I thought that my clothes were all wrong, that everybody on the other side of the door had gone to or were going to fancy colleges, and that they would instantly spot me as a fraud who didn’t belong there. I paced around outside for about 20 minutes, trying to screw up the courage to walk through the door. I couldn’t do it. Finally I gave up, surrendering to my status anxiety, and walked home with my head down, hating myself for my cowardice.

Only four years later, I returned to Washington to work as a journalist. What a difference four years had made in maturation and social confidence. I once again lived on Capitol Hill, and when I walked by Eastern Market, I remembered it as the scene of my humiliation. I had to laugh at how groundless my fears had been. Of course my clothes that day had been perfectly fine. I looked like everybody else, and most people inside that market hall had been pretty much like me. But I did not see that until years later. The manacles binding my legs that day had been forged in my own mind. But I experienced them as real, and the sense of rejection and humiliation I carried with me on the long walk back to my apartment on A Street, NE, carrying a burden of self-doubt and self-loathing, hurt like hell.

Yes, it was self-imposed, not yoked to me by others. But it was quite real at the time. Had I known someone going to that party, and had they taken me by the hand, so to speak, and led me into it, my experience that lonely fall in Washington might have been much different. Certainly I would have been forever grateful. It’s something to think about as we ask ourselves what we can do to break down those barriers. If we ask ourselves, that is.

UPDATE: Dancer Girl (who, if you care, is an African-American lawyer) comments:

Thank you so much for writing this. I am furious with my fellow liberals who are dragging Brooks through the mud and pretending that he doesn’t have a point. I have been blessed – a word I use advisedly – with access to the elite culture he describes, so I know that the Italian names for those gourmet sandwiches are meaningless signifiers of place and price, so when I’m in those places, I know that it’s all ridiculous posturing, I pull out my wallet, pay, and I don’t think twice. But I don’t come from that world. My branch of the family is college-educated and middle class, but our tree, by and large, is high-school educated and working class. If I took one of my cousins into one of those shops, some would be discomfited by the “fancy” names and high prices, while others would mercilessly slay me for my pretension in choosing the place. That does not mean they are less intelligent; many are smarter than I am, with my multiple degrees. It simply means I have an ability to walk into that culture which they do not possess, and Brooks’ sandwich shop was a metaphor for that experience.

Honestly, the virtue signaling of his critics has been extraordinarily disappointing today. I think the substance of his column is off – cultural barriers are not more important than structural ones when evaluating inequality. But that particular example resonated for me because I knew it to be true. And many of the people mocking him probably have few to no intimate relationships with anyone whose class status might reveal the validity of his point.

UPDATE.2: Reader Annie:

Years ago I was employed in domestic service by a wealthy, prominent lawyer and poet in a cosmopolitan area. One morning her car wouldn’t start and so AAA sent a mechanic.

He was Nepalese, which sent my employer into rapture. While he looked at her car she cooed to him about how amazing and inspiring she found his culture. He was pretty focused on his work. Eventually she asked him some questions about his life as an immigrant and if he was still in touch with his roots. He finally responded to her with a bit of enthusiasm, saying Oh yes, the Church was still dear to him and his family and their life revolved around it.

When she realized he was Christian her face dropped in ruined hopes and she walked away bored. His value as an exotic artifact to stimulate her enjoyment of her love of diversity was shattered.

It is astounding and amusing how the cosmopolitan class has bound itself to codewords and gate-keeping rituals while claiming to decry those very things.



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