Staying 'classy' over food

Trader Joe's comes to Portland
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  January 5, 2011

As many problems as there are in society over racial and ethnic hang-ups, I've long maintained that the bigger separator of people in this country (and probably most nations) is socioeconomic class. Rarely do I see the effects of class-based hypocrisy reflected more clearly — and the examples of how similar middle-class and working-class people are — than in grocery carts. This is a lesson that was reinforced for me thanks to the arrival of Trader Joe's in Portland.

Now, I should mention before I go on that I'm a "straddler," as is my husband. Born and raised in struggling working-class environments, we both went on to get multiple degrees and enter the white-collar world. Still, I will a couple times a year kick back with a glass of grape Kool-Aid and a fried bologna sandwich on Wonder Bread because it's the comfort food of my youth. In the past decade or so since I officially moved up the class ladder, I have worked hard to change my palate, but left to my own devices I can eat the shit out of fried whatever, smothered in gravy with a side of bread product and a limp green vegetable.

I know now that such foods are bad for me, so I rarely eat them; they are now officially treats. I literally have willed myself into liking sushi even though I sometimes ask myself: Is this really good? But in graduate school I learned to eat it since not doing so made me stand out even more.

The arrival of Whole Foods in Portland and the hullabaloo around that among hipsters and soccer moms was a reminder to me of the nature of class and food, but Trader Joe's has been a much better and clearer example to me.

Because first off, what struck me was how much Trader Joe's physically and fiscally reminded me of Aldi, the no-frills grocery store where folks short on cash shop (think Save-A-Lot on Saint John Street, but with even fewer brand-name products). But while food is as much about comfort as nutrition — and while Aldi and Trader Joe's are both about value shopping — certain food choices are seen as less enlightened and if you are high enough on the class ladder your junk food and bad nutritional choices are seen as "better."

Take Cheetos versus Pirate Booty, for example. I will take a damn Cheeto or Cheez Doodle any day over Pirate Booty, but now that I no longer am a card-carrying member of the working class, I feel honor-bound to feed my kid Pirate Booty lest I be judged harshly by other parents.

I often like peeking in people's carts at grocery stores — my maiden voyage into Trader Joe's a couple months ago was no exception. I found myself thinking that most of the patrons (myself included) had quite a lot of processed food items in their carts. These are people who by and large would never be caught in Wal-Mart buying some off-brand frozen burritos yet in the right and proper setting, buying such things is a sign of how hip you are.

Take the famous "Two Buck Chuck" wine at Trader Joe's. How many of the same folks I saw grabbing up whole cases of that would be caught dead with even one bottle of Ernest and Julio Gallo? Not many.

So like most things in America it comes down to class. Even our taste in junk food is segregated and those who might sneer at a person with a cart full of Oreos and frozen Banquet Fried Chicken greedily snatch up peppermint Joe-Joes and frozen Mandarin Orange Chicken that aren't any better for the waistline or lipid count.

I judge neither camp, since I'm wedged in between them, but I do find the double standard interesting, even if I try to avoid practicing it myself.

Shay Stewart-Bouley can be reached

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