Soleil Ho recently wrote a great piece for Bitch about what Mikki Kendall terms hipster food gentrification — in this case, she was looking particularly at the rise of collard greens, the latest ‘it’ thing now that the kale fad seems to be waning. As in other aspects of the market not just of hipsterdom but of the world, trends come, go, and flicker, forcing people to constantly adapt to the latest and greatest. If you want to be hip with your leafy greens now, you should be using collard greens, which are the latest thing to make their way onto the plates of the middle class and stylish, in all their glory.
Yet, collard greens didn’t appear from nowhere. This is yet another example of what Marianne Kirby terms the appropriation of poor skills, where something known, utilised, and relied-upon in low-income communities becomes hip and trendy. This appropriation is about more than just taking something from another community and using it at will with no respect to or acknowledgement of its origins. It also turns these skills, and food traditions, into commodities, and when poor skills are commodified, this comes, as both Kirby and Ho among other cultural critics note, at an extreme cost to the communities they’re taken from.
Collard greens are a historically Black Southern food, though of course they’ve been eaten in other communities as well. A good source of nutrition, they were primarily used among low-income families, and they were cheap, more affordable than other greens. They were heavily integrated into traditional cuisine and culinary practices, creating an example of a food that’s been holistically integrated into a culture because it’s both what’s available, and what offers the best nutrition. Any Southern barbecue joint worth its salt will offer collard greens as a side, and you can bet they’ll show up at events like Black church picnics in the South and other events with roots in the poor Black South.
Yet, collard greens have taken on a new cachet. They’ve become a ‘superfood,’ a catchphrase embraced by yuppies who think they can eat their way to health, and they’ve also become something edgy and hip that hipsters eat — these brave new explorers on the food frontiers who miraculously ‘discover’ things like inexpensive, nutritious fruits and vegetables from exotic locales like the backyard gardens of the people they kick out of gentrifying neighborhoods, or offal. Hipster menus are increasingly filled with foods that were once considered discards by the middle class, things that people disdained as soon as they could afford not to eat them.
Consequently, something troubling is happening in the grocery store aisles. As foods get popular with people who have more money, grocery store owners are raising the prices on these foods, secure in the knowledge that they now have a higher-paying audience for them. This, in turn, makes it harder for the poor communities who once relied upon them to afford them. The price of kale went up 25% after it became a hipster food, and this was in a recession, when even many hipsters were struggling to make a living in an economy that was collapsing in on itself. What can collard greens expect?
There’s an immediate, obvious consequence to food gentrification, one Kendall and Ho bring to the forefront of their analysis: when you raise the price of food, you price certain people out of food. In a country where the poverty rate and hunger rate are already appalling, these issues can only increase when food is more expensive. A 25% increase in the cost of basic vegetables is a huge leap for people already relying on nutrition assistance, who now have a more limited set of choices in the store and must bring home less than they would normally. While collard greens, and kale, for that matter, may be nutritious, they are not magic bullets, and existing on less of either of them doesn’t magically bring about good health.
There’s also a cultural impact, as people are forced to change cultural traditions to adjust to the fact that traditional foods are priced out of reach, or can only be eaten on special occasions. In a country like the US where people often want to insist that everyone is the same, there are in fact a huge number of vital, thriving subcultures, each with their own history, roots, and traditions. People of colour inhabit a huge array of these subcultures, creating important social and community networks as a result of their common social, political, and cultural experiences. They’re also more likely to be poor, and in a world where food makes up an important part of your cultural traditions, having those traditions taken away from you can be devastating.
Food gentrification pushes people towards not just unhealthy eating patterns where they struggle to find something they can afford to eat, it also has an oddly homogenising effect. When only the wealthy and middle class can afford the formerly unwanted foods like collard greens, poor communities are forced to choose from a limited array of commercial food products, eliminating decades and sometimes centuries of their own traditions. People should be able to afford the foods that suit their cultural traditions as well as personal preferences, but this shift in the way food is marketed and consumed makes it impossible for many low-income communities to do just that.
As hipsters have steamrollered over so many of this country’s marginalised communities and subcultures, they seem blissfully unaware, even as they smugly talk about making ‘authentic’ foods true to their cultural roots. Hipsters are tearing at the cultural roots of this country even as they claim to be preserving them, and their disdain for marginalised cultures is obvious in the way they interact with them — or, rather, the way they don’t interact with them, because to do so would be to confront the reality of their relationship with the communities they steal from.
Kale plant by Amanda Woodward, Flickr.