I often ask my students, when teaching on the topic of culture, if, in their opinion, paella started originally as a dish of the poor or the rich. Having seen paella as one of the most expensive options on the menus of expensive restaurants, they usually say that paella must have been an invention for the table of the wealthy. After all, shrimp and clams, mandatory for paella, are deluxe ingredients.
But not when the dish was first created. Fish and seafood in general was cheap food, since it didn’t need land to be farmed. It grew free and plentiful, with just labor necessary to be harvested – and that was cheap. In fact, paella is based on the concept of “small pieces of different meats and veggies, combined with rice”, which in practice means “any kind of meat, mixed together in rice”: the perfect way to use leftovers. In most cases, paella was the Spanish casserole in which leftovers from yesterday or from the master’s table were put together to make a hearty meal.
This is the concept of cucina povera, “cooking of the poor” or “peasant cooking”, which does not mean fast food, but rather a creative way to use seasonal, local, simple and available ingredients for a satisfying, versatile dish. Today, cucina povera is almost synonymous with chic cuisine, yet it is anything but chic. It is the opposite of opening a fancy cook book to select a recipe and then go buy the exotic ingredients. Those recipes are perhaps accurate, but not the idea and culture behind them: use (up) what you have in your everyday pantry and garden, including leftovers, and use it simply so that its subtle flavors may be appreciated without the need to be boosted with salt or grease.
How did we arrive at the phenomenon of expensive shrimp? Crustaceans, while cheap where they are common (the warm seas), have always been very expensive in colder climates. In those culture, they have been available to the wealthy only and have come to be associated with luxury. After societies in colder climates became relatively wealthier, they were able to follow the signs of prestige of their reference groups and the demand for shrimp rose. That lead to overharvesting and subsequent rise in prices.
However, anyone with a substantial restaurant experience in any industrialized country has noticed that shrimp has become more accessible in more restaurants these days. It could be found on the menu of dining places of mid and low caliber. And not just shrimp, but also other foods considered expensive or deluxe until recently, including meat in general. How come?
It has to do with how luxury works. It is a term associated with high quality, which may be true even if its subjectivity is taken into account. However, luxury is closer to the notion of prestige, status symbol and excess. Luxury is not a necessity, but an extra value. If you have more money, you won’t start buying more shampoo, for example. You may buy a more expensive brand of shampoo, but the difference won’t be comparatively significant. You may start buying more (expensive) clothes, shoes, jewelry and similar.
When the mechanism of luxury is applied to food, it creates some interesting phenomena. On one hand, some food items are expensive for different reasons – costly or difficult production, distance, scarcity. While most of them have their own legitimate value as food, their high cost oftentimes contributes to their status of prestige and luxury and hence higher desirability. When this is the case, food producers can bet that if they find a way to produce those items at a lower cost and sell them cheaper, they will be more likely to sell in higher quantities rather than food items normally considered a necessity.
This is what happens with shrimp – relatively higher wealth in society, coupled with industrialized (though environmentally destructive) farming techniques and more nimble global transportation has led to the lower cost and ubiquitous presence of shrimp in restaurants, as well as to the general overconsumption of meat and sweets and larger meal portions.
Luxurification of food works in other ways, too. While luxury food in the past may have been just food that was difficult to produce or find, or something intrinsically distinctive or symbolic, today, in a society where most food is increasingly accessible and available, efforts are in the other direction: necessity and even everyday food is made to be luxury. The result is a hamburger for $5000 (made of Kobe beef and truffles), world’s most expensive coffee and bagel.
I would call this secondary luxurification, or nouveau riche luxurification, in which people are not acquiring new habits and taking on new products, but rather elevating certain items of their own milieu to a new status of luxury. I am not sure how this kind of luxury will work as a means of distinction. While for example escargot is immediately recognizable as a status symbol for those consuming it, a luxury hamburger needs further specification if it needs to be recognized as such for the benefit of its wealthy consumers.
Maybe this is the democratization of luxury James B. Twitchell is talking about.