Kenza Marland discusses the status signalling behind fine dining. Illustration by Bethany Thompson.
The move from primary school to high school brought with it a lot of changes, one of the most significant being a shiny new group of friends. I grew up in Finsbury Park in North London, and due to the standard of schools near my home I ended up being the only person in my class to start at a new school which was a bus journey away- in Camden. London is the ultimate melting pot when it comes to ethnicity, background, wealth and class. The entire city thrives on this social jigsaw puzzle, as- on the whole- it prevents New-York-style sprawling ghettos, and Upper East Sides. My new big-school pals came from a different world to me: their parents were authors and musicians, who owned three-storey houses, cars, and holiday homes in the South of France. They’re my best friends to this day, and the beauty of growing up is it’s a continual journey towards heightened self-assurance. However, when I was eleven-years-old I found going for dinner at their house somewhat mortifying.
This was a different culinary land, one where dinner wasn’t served till nearer half past eight. Bowls and dishes and ‘ramekins’ of food were laid out on kitchen tables, and the whole family sat around it together. Instead of being handed a plate of food, I suddenly needed to navigate serving myself- how much should I take? Should I offer others? There was always salad. And wine. And elderflower cordial instead of orange squash. ‘Pasta Pesto’ rolled off the tongue like it was the most normal thing in the world. At home we’d always had pasta with ready-made tomato sauce, and I’d never even had pesto before. Or hummus. Or olives and feta cheese, taramasalata, mushrooms in quiches- muesli for breakfast with tupperware containers full of raisins and nuts. I felt painfully embarrassed at my ignorance when it came to food. When, how and what was being eaten was alien to me.
Throughout school, I developed a categorisation system to divide my friend’s homes into- it was simple and effective. There were those (the majority) whose bread had seeds in it, and those (myself) whose bread would never have seeds in it; I’m talking sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, oats, rye, flax, anything. We got white bread, brown bread or 50/50. The former tended to eat dinner later, and it included some of the foods mentioned above. The latter often had a food experience which was more like my own. I was used to getting takeaways and sitting in front of the tele, or eating just us three kids at the table.
“I’d never had pesto before. Or hummus. Or olives and feta cheese, taramasalata, mushrooms in quiches, muesli for breakfast...”
Normal dinners included eggs, chips, beans and sausages, or fish fingers, chicken nuggets or a KFC family bucket. Both my parents did cook often aswell, and we would have things like lasagna, spag bol and a roast on a sunday. But even then, as I’ve grown older, the stark contrasts have become increasingly apparent. Like how we’d use a packet sauce for the tuna pasta bake instead of making a white sauce from scratch.
Food was an enormous part of my childhood and my homes. I think lots of people would say the same regardless of their supposed social status. From my mum cooking moroccan food and baking cakes, to organising huge BBQ’s for when Arsenal were playing. It’s just taken me till now to realise lots of it wasn’t fancy or ‘proper’:
it was Betty Crocker’s chocolate cake mix, or Sainsbury’s pre-packed kebabs. Gentrification is definitely one of the words and concepts which will define our generation, but in this instance I’m less worried about my mum being out-priced of places, as much as I hate the idea of her feeling as lost and ashamed as I did when I was eleven years old. With all of our pubs, cafes and bars transforming into jam-jar-toting, light-bulb-loving, £2.80 coffee-selling, exposed-flooring and communal table boasting identikit versions of each other, what about the food on offer? Is it of a better quality, taste and nutritional value? Should we be aspiring towards loaves of black lava bread and 7 course tasting menus? Or is it exclusive and segregative for the sake of it?