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.