‘Posh’ kebabs, ‘gourmet’ burgers ­– cheap food is getting gentrified. But should it be?

Until the late 1800s, lobster was a food reserved only for the poor. So common was the crustacean, people grew tired of it, only serving it up when they little other choice exited. The eventual scarcity of lobster played a large part, but nonetheless a good example of how perceptions towards a food’s premiumability can shift from one extreme to the other.

What happened to lobster is similar to what’s happened in more modern times to burgers, pizza, pie, kebabs, and fried chicken. Though no less common, all these foods have been ‘refined’ for middle class tastes. When at the hands of the big brands, often it’s a case of trying to broaden appeal – an attempt to offer a premium version of what they already do to tempt those thinking quality is lacking. Smaller brands, on the other hand, are brought to life by people who like the format, but ­– often in direct response to larger brands ­– want to improve on it or introduce their own spin.

Wanting to make something more inclusive or simply better, however, can backfire. Earlier in 2018, a newly opened kebab joint (that shall remain nameless) was slated on social media for opening what they themselves called a ‘posh’ and ‘healthy’ version of what they have come to know as the kebab (late night grilled meat and accoutrements folded into flatbread). Awakened to the idea this could be an example of looking down upon centuries of culinary heritage, not to mention a betrayal of their own naivety, the takeaway restaurant since changed the ‘posh’ prefix to ‘modern’.

A faux pas, as you may consider it – one reminiscent of accusations of cultural appropriation towards Jamie Oliver’s ‘jerk’ chicken. This, at the time, led to a debate over whether one should be allowed to name things in accordance with other cultures without honouring them, or if people should be able to cook whatever they want, which then led to confusion over where things originate from in the first place (is jerk indigenous to Jamaica, or does it have closer ties to Latin America?).

Similar questions can be applied to other foods. Why, for instance, is it acceptable to have a street food trader selling Canadian ‘poutine’, but not ‘chips and gravy?’ Does the latter relate to a culture the target audience don’t identify with, and therefore, won’t buy into? Is it okay to take the pie ­– the cornerstone of the workman’s lunch which has kept afloat working pie ‘n’ mash shops for generations ­– and ‘elevate’ it to cost half a day’s earnings for a member of the working class? Or has the pie (or should I say, en croute) been a part of middle class culture for long enough otherwise?

But then, the notion of ‘peasant gastronomy’ doesn’t get any sideways glances. At least, when it’s not aimed at any culture in particular. Hand-raised pies and loaded poutine don’t explicitly allude to one-upping the country or the culture which gave them their inspiration in the first place. It’s a thin rope to tread – tone deafness is one thing, but there’s no hiding from the reality that all things can’t help but be inspired by whatever was before them.

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