FOOD FOR THOUGHT - January 12, 2005 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive
What exactly is “gourmet” food? By the book, gourmet food is characterized by high quality, accurate preparation, and artistic presentation. Let’s tease apart that definition.
High quality. Hmmmmm. So if my hamburger meat comes from 100% USDA prime chuck, from a steer that grazed in a pristine meadow, is my burger gourmet? No, not yet. It has to be prepared with utmost dexterity. OK, so if I season it perfectly, and flawlessly sear it to precisely medium-rare, is it gourmet yet? Oops. Almost forgot. Artful plate presentation. OK, so then I position it on beautiful china on a bed of decorative greens, maybe with some edible flowers around the edge of the plate. Now, is my burger gourmet food? Of course not. But why? We followed all of the criteria?
Because hamburger meat, regardless of quality, preparation, or presentation, is a common item. I submit that what deems a food as “gourmet” is more related to its availability, price, public perception, and clever marketing techniques. In essence, gourmet food has less to do with the food itself and more to do with the sometimes arbitrary forces in the external environment.
Many foods are indigenous to circumscribed areas of the globe and/or are only in season during specific times of the year. Thus, no matter where you are, there will always be some foods that are unobtainable. Moreover, these elusive victuals are less likely to be embraced by the general population since they rarely become a dietary staple. They are prone to be conceptualized as “gourmet” because of their limited accessibility and foreign origins. Yet in their native lands, they may be a simple and unexalted food.
Take the grain quinoa for example. Unless you’re a foodie, or of Latin descent, you probably never heard of it. Quinoa is a highly nutritious and tasty grain that has been grown in South America for thousands of years. In fact, it has always been a subsistence crop for poor, rural Andean families. Astute purveyors have touted it as a “super-grain,” and market it as a gourmet item with a considerably inflated price. In America, it is usually only found in extravagant restaurants. This would be like some local villager in Tibet paying over $100 for a meal that included hot dogs.
Undoubtedly, price is a clear differentiator between pedestrian and gourmet food. Sometimes the price is arbitrarily inflated because the item is being marketed as “gourmet”, as in the previous quinoa example. Other times the price is high for legitimate reasons, e.g., white truffles. White truffles are rare, in season for only three months, are in high demand, cannot be cultivated, and are labor intensive to harvest. But the reasons a food is expensive are superfluous. The high price, justified or not, immediately separates it from the common man and hence, the common palate. If potatoes suddenly cost $200 an ounce, (like fresh white truffles), they would be elevated to “gourmet” status and would only be found in the most expensive restaurants.
Gourmet food can also be a matter of perception. Generally speaking, humans are more likely to perceive a rare commodity as superior as opposed to an everyday item. As stated, many foods are less available because of their place of origin or growing season. These foods, particularly if they hail from an “exotic” locale, (another definition burdened by subjectivity), are more likely to be viewed as special.
Sometimes price alone can influence this perception. We all intellectually know that price does not presuppose quality. But savvy advertisers and marketers also know that intellect often yields to emotion. Psychologically we still possess a tendency to equate expense with an item’s inherent worth. This is manifested in everyday mantras like “you get what you pay for,” and “it pays to buy the best.” Often this is true but sometimes we are merely inflating the coffers of shrewd businessmen.
Marketing techniques can be employed to manipulate public perception and ultimately revenues. A common ploy is to identify a variation of your product as superior and then sell it at a premium price. The new version may or may not be better, but by selling the conception that it is, a higher price is commanded from the unsuspecting public. Although not considered a gourmet item, a good example of this process is “gold” tequila. Gold tequila is nothing more than regular tequila with caramel coloring added and a higher price. The term “gold” is not an actual tequila designation but nevertheless, the word itself conjures up an air of supremacy. It’s this kind of mental gymnastics that results in a product being perceived as exceptional and sometimes “gourmet.” At its absurd extreme, there’s even a cat food company that endeavors to pass off its smaller canned, more expensive product as “gourmet.”
Another example is Angus beef. Angus is nothing more than another breed of cattle. Yet clever marketing has resulted in a perception that it is the zenith of beef. Along with that perception comes a bigger price tag. Angus may be better than the typical beef on supermarket shelves but the price to quality ratio is disproportionate. This is camouflaged however by the little signs decreeing “certified angus” and the fact that it is often housed in its own decorative case, separate from the indistinguished beef.
So I say we need to expand the definition of gourmet food to read something like this: An expensive, seasonal, non-native food, perceived as superior, that under the best of circumstances is also of high quality, accurately prepared and presented with artistic flair. How’s that for a gourmet definition?