Jacqueline Kennedy brought French cuisine to the White House.
To signal your membership in an “international elite,” you just needed a French chef. Based on white flour, wine, butter, sugar, meat stock and reductions, French cooking has been the world’s quintessential high cuisine since the 18th century. The Mexican government commemorated its 1862 victory over the French with a French banquet. In Japan, the emperor served French cuisine at an 1889 feast for 800. And yes, the Kennedy White House had a French-born chef.
Where are we going? To how food reflects inequality.
Food and Status
If your 19th century Anglo meal included white bread, beef, sugar and tea or coffee, you would have been in the home of an urban salaried worker and eating “middling” cuisine. Moving down the social scale to “humble” food, in the countryside, you would consume porridges and whole meal bread, potatoes in Northern Europe and maize polenta in the South.
Omitting huge detail, our purpose is just to hint at the correlation between what people ate and their social status because it is so very different now.
Hamburgers and Ramen
Summarizing the world’s food, Rachel Laudan tells us in Cuisine & Empire, that we have a group of affluent nations where most people eat middling cuisines and poorer nations where high and humble food remain. Laudan then explains how some of those middling cuisines like McDonald’s hamburgers are global (in more than 100 countries) and classless (former President Clinton and you and I eat hamburgers).
The global reach of the hamburger:
A step down, Ramen is a similar phenomenon. By 2000, globally, 53 billion packets of Ramen had been sold annually. Dried noodles with a beef taste and a vegetable (if you look hard enough), Ramen appeals to Western and non-Western palates and also to Prince Harry.
Our Bottom Line: Global Inequality
Thinking about food inequality took me to Gini Coefficients. Through a scale of 0 to 100, we can use a Gini Index to quantify inequality in a country. The higher the number, the more unequal the distribution of income or consumption expenditures.
Here is a Gini Index sampling from the World Bank. The darker shades represent more inequality:
And finally, some food equality. Including “middling” food, more recent White House state dinner menus have departed from high cuisine. Below, an Obama dinner honoring the president of South Korea in 2011: