Luxury and the consumption of labor.
By Lisa Wade, PhD
I came across this fascinating poster advertising tea at The Coffee Bean in Irvine, CA. The ad features tea leaves balled up into small tea “pearls” and spilled into a person’s palm. It reads:
Three minutes to fragrant perfection.
It takes a full day to hand-roll 17 ounces of our Jasmine Dragon Pearl Green Tea. But in just three minutes you can watch these aromatic pearls unfurl gracefully into one of the world’s most soothing and delicious teas.
This ad suggests that others’ toil should enhance one’s experience of pleasure. The fact that it takes a significant amount of human labor to “hand-roll” tea leaves into balls — an action that is in no way asserted to change the taste of the tea — is supposed to make the tea moreappealing and not less. We are supposed to enjoy not just the visual, but the fact that others worked hard to produce it for us. A whole day of their labor for just three minutes of curly goodness.
This is a rather stunning value pervading U.S. culture. Luxury may be defined not only as pleasure, or as the consumption of the scarce, but as the “unfurling” of others’ hard work. What could be more luxurious than the casual-and-fleeting enjoyment of the hard-and-long labor of others?
i saw this post like five years ago, and i still think about it weekly, literally, if not more often. luxury as the knowledge – and delight in the knowledge – that you’re undoing someone’s work.
I recently read “Consider The Fork” by Bee Wilson (excellent book, something I really recommend) and this topic came up a lot. The book is a history of cooking utensils, essentially, looking out circumstances shaped them, and how they in turn shaped what we eat.
And there’s this very persistent theme – that there are always a handful of dishes that go out of style once technological innovations turn up that make them simple to create. The evolution of the balloon whisk wrecked everyone’s taste for a “Dish of Snow” (basically egg whites whipped for a day until stiff by other people) in the seventeenth century and the
food processor meant that all of the popularity of molded mousses evaporates overnight in the eighties.
Especially in the case of food, we seem to love the suffering of other people and find it not just an addition to our pleasure, but in many cases the entirety of it.
There’s also the thing where people view food made with difficulty as more “authentic” – I have a recipe book which suggests hand-whipping egg whites for a pavlova. Spoiler: I did this, one Christmas in America, because I didn’t own an electric beater, and it was a bitch and a half and I never did it again and also my arms fell off. It didn’t taste any better, of course. But the book suggests – playfully, I think, but there all the same – that doing it that way is more “real”. Even when modern technology or methods get better results, it’s often seen as cheating. And I think this is also about class, in some ways, because when you’re poor you just don’t have the time to do things the “proper” way.
this is also why white europeans eat bland food—up until the 17th century european elites were eating meals with complex and contrasting flavor profiles due to the heavy use of very expensive spices. but starting around 1700, the growth of european colonialism meant that sugar and spices entered europe in huge quantities, making them much cheaper.
then all of the sudden, when everyone could have spices, they weren’t special anymore. the french especially pulled back hard from the prolific use of spices and pursued simpler, “elegant” flavor profiles.
[this info is basically a very condensed version of this fantastic npr article which also goes into detail about the influence of religion as well!]
I think this is very important to look at and critique both in fiction and in activism.
@simonalkenmayer fun food history for your readers. any corrections or additions?
My name is Bratand wen I feedor wen I hostI often needextra servantsto do hard workI don’t use toolsI am a jerkMy name is FopI am a mookyou’ll surely findI am no cookIf it is notjust ‘made by hand’I will not eatI lik the bland
And that’s been a thing for a long time- labor enhancing the experience of something- the consumption of labor as an element of heightened enjoyment. I get that some things have to be made by hand, but when they don’t, or it doesn’t enhance in any way…it’s conspicuous consumption of other people. It’s cannibalism. Like we were literally JUST talking about, right?