I spend hours at a time in the kitchen, I approach my morning coffee with a quasi-religious fervor, and the attention I grant beer and wine selection can border on the Talmudic. Am I a food snob?

Diverse authorities — including my mother, a certain Grist writer, and several friends — have claimed as much.

Foodies bite.

Photo: iStockphoto

And while they mean it with affection, their comments led me to think about the term as it’s used more widely. What is a food snob?

Snobbery is a serious charge in a nation that likes to pretend that class doesn’t exist. Yet in the land of Jefferson’s “all men are created equal,” a class system of course thrives: income inequality has been steadily rising since the Reagan era, average hourly wages have stagnated even as corporate profits have soared [PDF], and the ostensible great equalizer, the public-education system, has fallen on evil times.

Anyone who needs more proof that the United States has a class structure need only look to our food system, the source of my alleged snobbery. While prosperous Americans blithely gobble up the world’s cheapest food supply as a percentage of national income, an undeniably exploited class of workers — many of them illegal immigrants virtually without rights — toils in our fields, factories, and restaurants.

Conditions in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants have gotten so vile that Human Rights Watch saw fit to release a blistering report last year. Meanwhile, even workers on organic farms face long hours, unhealthy conditions, and low pay.

Moreover, while diet-related maladies such as obesity and diabetes are surging across all sectors of the U.S. population, rates are even higher among low-income people, who tend to buy the cheapest, highest-calorie food available.

Given the vexed class politics around food, I can see why people who are fussy about what they eat and drink get tagged with the “snob” label. Still, one should to be able to revel in delicious food without coming off as a self-congratulating jerk.

You Aren’t What You Eat

One way to address this issue, perhaps, is to acknowledge that U.S. food culture has a history and a political economy. In short, declarations like “people have bad taste” won’t do as explanations for the ravaged state of the U.S. food system.

Such statements, which I regard as the worst sort of snobbery, idly blame the people suffering from a sick food system while handing a pass to the beneficiaries: the big food corporations and the politicians who coddle them. The forces are merely “giving the people what they want.” Worse, such analyses fail to ask why things have gotten so abysmal — and by doing so, they point to no possibility for change.

Take, for example, the American love for soft drinks and other sugary junk food. Do we owe this phenomenon to some innate sweet tooth? Doubtful. In his classic Sweetness and Power, anthropologist Sidney Mintz shows clearly how outside factors influence meal choices for many.

In crisp, rigorous prose, Mintz dissects the history of sugar, tracing its transformation from a delicacy savored by the aristocrats to a ubiquitous source of cheap calories for the 19th-century British working class — and ultimately, for poor and working-class people all over the world.

The story isn’t a pretty one. European trading companies created lucrative sugar plantations on Caribbean islands and in Brazil starting in the 16th century. Driven by brutally repressed slave labor, these factory-like farms flooded the European and North American markets. (Fascinatingly, Mintz traces the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution to these operations, which he claims were operating as a “synthesis of field and factory” long before the first factories emerged in continental Europe.)

As supplies of sugar rose, its price steadily fell. British sugar corporations realized they could make more money peddling sweets to the United Kingdom’s swelling urban working class than they could by artificially propping up sugar’s price and selling it as a luxury good. A similar phenomenon was taking place with another tropical product made in British colonies, this one in the Far East. By the mid-19th century, heavily sweetened tea — often taken with bread slathered with treacle (a sugar byproduct) or jam — became a staple for Britain’s vast, time-strapped working-poor population, which could no longer afford much meat.

For many British families, Mintz reports, “high tea” became the day’s one hot meal. Public health declined as simple carbohydrates crowded out protein in the working-class diet. “A rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, sugar had been transformed into a virtual necessity by 1850,” he writes.

The catalyst for sugar’s rise wasn’t the free market, but rather the slave trade and public policy. The British working classes didn’t gain easy access to sugar until Parliament lifted tariffs against sugar produced outside the British colonies in the middle of the 19th century. Thus a product that originally depended on slave labor became a key component in fueling the Industrial Revolution.

Simultaneously, Mintz reports, cheap sugar was taking hold in the rapidly industrializing United States (where the bitter tropical beverage of choice was coffee, not tea). Today, of course, the U.S. sweet tooth thrives, though now it’s satisfied more by government-supported high-fructose corn syrup than by cane-derived sugar.

The only comfort I draw from this sordid history is the insight that food habits are not innate, but form within a broad social context. And if that process can be manipulated by powerful political and economic interests more concerned with profit than flavor, public health, or the environment, it can also be influenced by grassroots efforts from below.

Indeed, a popular revolt against flavorless, nutritionally suspect industrial food is rising up across the United States: in the form of urban community gardens, farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture programs, among other initiatives. In the weeks ahead, I’ll argue that these efforts, though vitally important, are severely constrained by public policy, which remains rigged to favor the large industrial food producers.

As for my own status as a food snob, I’ll paraphrase a classic ’70s song: If loving food is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. And unlike the kind of snob who clings to a sense of exclusivity, I want everyone else to love it, too.