What Happened to the American Middle-Class Meal?

Wither goes our economy, so too goes our cuisine

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Steven Valenti / Waterbury Republican-American / AP

Living in a big city, as I do, it isn’t hard for me to spend a lot on dinner. One big meal, and you can find yourself over $200 poorer, just for two people. Of course, it isn’t hard for me to spend very little on dinner either. I got fried pork chops and pork fried rice sent to me from the local Chinese takeout last night, and the whole meal cost me something like $9. What is hard to get is a meal for $50 or so, and that seemingly innocuous fact speaks to an insidious trend not just in the food world.

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Michael Whiteman, the restaurant-industry guru who sends out a list of coming restaurant trends each year, calls this “dumbelling.” When Whiteman (whom I know well) first wrote about the trend, he had fast food in mind — in particular the simultaneous drift toward “premium” items on one side of the menu, and ultra-cheap “value” items on the other. At McDonalds and other burger chains, the marquee burgers are edging upward to $6 or even more; meanwhile, unspeakably gnarly $1 burgers occupy the bargain basement. It’s not just at McDonalds that this sinister tendency plays out; dumbelling is happening in the culture as a whole, with a Funyun economy existing for the poor and an heirloom-tomato one for the prosperous.

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Consider the state of our restaurant life. And when I say our, I mean we as Americans, not just the coterie of effete gourmands I tend to eat with in New York City. As I noted here a little over a year ago, the gradual disappearance of family-restaurant chains — the Friendly’s and Ground Rounds of the world — while far from tragic from a culinary perspective, is a major loss to our society. Being able to eat out, even just once in a while, has for at least three or four generations been part of the birthright of most Americans. And eating out should mean eating a decent meal, with silverware and a server to bring you your food. One reason so many of us are smitten with Chipotle, aside from its sustainable-food aspects, is the space it occupies between fast-food and traditional restaurants. But on the other hand, Chipotle, despite its high quality and moderate price point, is still a cafeteria-style burrito place.

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It’s not hard to see how dumbelling happens. As our economy, and the culture it produces, swirls downward in its spiral, centrifugal forces are produced that separate out the extremes. On television, we are seeing some of the grossest, tawdriest content in living memory, thanks to reality shows like Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, Toddlers and Tiaras and the like, while at the other end of the spectrum, premium cable generates masterpiece and masterpiece, from The Wire to Homeland. In our politics, hardly any consensus exists at all; extreme ideologies exist in insulated vacuums. And, of course, it’s no secret that there are more millionaires and more paupers than at any time in American history.

As for food, there has never been a time when Americans were more exposed to the best that world cuisine has to offer. And there has never been a time when our food was worse. We are embracing a new high-minded aesthetic of local, heritage products, cherished for their flaws and artfully prepared by chefs of unprecedented skill and commitment; and we are finding new ways every month to get fatter and unhealthier, consuming tacos made with Dorito shells or arming bacon explosions. It’s the tweezer or the tongs, with less in between all the time.

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Writing the above paragraph, I was put in mind of the famous opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” But maybe the truly relevant book isn’t A Tale of Two Cities but The Time Machine, with its vision of a nightmarish future in which the two classes of society, the delicate Eloi and the brutish Morlocks, have diverged so completely that they don’t even look the same anymore. Are we headed for bifurcated future ourselves?  I know that the $50,000 home, the $10,000 car and the $25,000 college education have vanished. But does the $50 dinner have to go that way too? My inner Morlock hopes not.

41 comments
porkx
porkx

Order that unspeakable $1 mcdouble with lettuce, tomato and "special sauce" instead of ketchup and mustard and you got yourself most of a big mac.

HiramJGoldstein
HiramJGoldstein

Try going to a city that hasn't chased out the middle class, like Louisville, Indianapolis, Dayton, Minneapolis, Nashville, Little Rock or the literally hundreds of places in America where you can find restaurants like Frisch's, Olive Garden, Bob Evans, Cici's, Johnny Carino's, Cracker Barrel, etc. Manhattan is not the same thing as America.

william.peck1958
william.peck1958

Well, I certainly hope the author got wine with that meal, but likely it was a glass, not a bottle. $400 for sure if he got a bottle.

Let me guess - the author is a Democrat, and whines about the rich Republicans.

Like the others here, I agree the author needs to get out of his bubble. I mean, seriously, $100 for one person ? Why don't you come to Bel Air, MD, and you can eat at Red Lobster for $50 - for TWO (and that includes SALAD for both, but only 1 dessert (which we shared).

speechlesstx
speechlesstx

$200 a meal for two? Seriously? I fed 12 last week chicken spaghetti, salad, brownies and made from scratch peach cobbler for less than $50 and had enough leftovers for days. And in addition to all those other family friendly restaurants mentioned, ever been to Cheddar's? The place is packed every day, good food and most under $10 a meal.  Put back the Kobe beef and truffles, dude.. $200?

FrancoisCuttleFish
FrancoisCuttleFish

I think the real question is what happened to the American magazine editor. 

Lets suppose that it was possible for the author to miss the interminable ads for Chilli's, Applebees, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Golden Coral etc etc etc. Doesnt the penny drop for him when he drives down the street and sees all these CHAIN RESTAURANTS not to mention Chinese buffets? Does he think they are empty? Does he think they charge $200 a meal?

Michael Whiteman ought to call up and get his name taken out of this article. 

JonathanMartin
JonathanMartin

Luckily, history has shown that the richer western diet is actually much worse for us than the simple food that God has given us. So, although I'm not at all advocating for a two-class society, if that were to happen, the poor people would probably be in better health from being given only basic stapples like bread, lentils, and vegetables, while the elites would be slowly killing themselves off with degenerative lifestyle diseases from eating escargot, lobster and all the other junk they eat these days.

Sunny3Brook
Sunny3Brook

What an elitist snob! How laughably out of touch you seem with millions of middle-income Americans who live perfectly content lives in homes worth $50-100K, have never spent more than $10K for the used cars they drive, are equally well-informed and prepared for productive occupations without an extravagantly-expensive ivy league education, and who rarely blow even $50 on a meal for two. Get out of your bubble and experience the real world. I can't speak for NYC, but I can assure you the American middle-class meal is alive and well throughout MOST of America. Restaurants only charge $200 for a meal for two as long as they are well-supplied with pretentious fools willing to pay through the noses they hold aloft for the deluded self-satisfaction of societal superiority.

_bcarr
_bcarr

Dumbbell has two Bs.

ShefaliO'Hara
ShefaliO'Hara

I live in Austin, Texas. We don't eat out a lot, maybe once a week or so, but we don't have any problems finding reasonably priced places which have silverware and hospitable servers and a decent atmosphere. However, we often go for ethnic cuisines. For example, last night my husband took me out for Persian Food. Total cost including tip was under $40 for a very nice dinner. We also enjoy going out for Greek food, Ethiopian, Eastern European (Hungarian and Czech), Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. All of these are locally owned family run restaurants with delicious food and great service and all are reasonably priced (between $30-$50 for dinner for two). I used to live in New York City and even there, if you are willing to go out to the boroughs and keep your alcohol consumption to moderate levels you can get a nice family meal for reasonable prices. Last time I was visiting there, we ate sit-down dinners with silverware and tablecloths at a Brooklyn deli and a Queens Nepali restaurant for under $50 each. We did splurge at Russian Tea Room... won't mention how much THAT cost! :)

CWSB
CWSB

When I grew up in the 1950s,  my mother put delicious, simple food on the table.  She went to the local super market,  bought a chicken fryer or lamb or a roast beef or fish and what a meal!  It was easy because the quality of the product was terrific.  Over the years,  the food industry has stopped providing good quality and tasty products.  Why do you think we are all over heritage raised meat or poultry?  and, what a hit to the pocket book that is!  The proliferation of flavor enhanced food and food products makes my point.  I long for the days when shopping for a meal in a market - who needed farmers markets and organic? - yielded a reliable (if you could cook)  delicious memorable meal.  My mother loved to eat.  She wasn't fat,  just happy because she savored the food she prepared and lived in the joy of feeding her family.  When she got older,  her appetite became less.  She thought it was old age.  I'm not so sure.  The food provided by  today's corporate America finally brought her to her knees and she lost interest in eating.  She was hungry but not satisfied.  Ditto at our house.

JCC
JCC

Yeah, I'm not entirely sure where the author is going with this... or coming from, really. Here in San Diego, there are plenty of chain restaurants, fast food chains, and trendy foodie places downtown. Three major supermarket/grocery store chains, and enough taco shops to last go from one end of the county to the other and never be more than 2 miles from one.If you're spending $200 on a meal for 2, that's by *choice*, dude. Applebee's has a great 2/$20 special, and whatever you think Chipotle represents, it's only one particular kind of mexican dish... and by far not the most popular here.So basically.... complain much? Get out into some place besides LA and NYC and you'll find the situation is perfectly fine.

thinkforachange
thinkforachange

I think that the author has missed something very obvious.  Aside from a lousy economy, time costs have gone up for those who have kept their jobs.  This is why so many supermarkets now offer prepared foods, including high end ones like Whole Foods.  This is big business and has likely come at the expense of the chains the author mentions, if this is even correct.  My advice is to think before you write and to get out of your NYC coccoon from time to time.

MsEBL
MsEBL

The trend you describe is true, however it is not as bad as you make out.  Middle ground restaurants still exist.  Lots of towns have local places, that are in the fifty to one hundred dollar price range for a family of four (and I can even find you some outstanding places in most big cities, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles).  Chains like Applebees, Olive Garden, Claim Jumper, etc., are still doing brisk business.  

JohnChoate2
JohnChoate2

I think this is a New York thing.  Plenty of cheap sit-down restaurants in most cities and towns across America.