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Snobbery: The American Version by Joseph Epstein


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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What Kind of Snob Are You?

If you don’t think there’s enough to say about snobbery in America to fill a 250+ page book, take a look at Joseph Epstein’s latest book, Snobbery, and find out for yourself. In one form or another, Epstein shows that snobbery is everywhere. If you can’t see it for yourself, Epstein will help. His self-disclosures provide an interesting background to his broader observations about others. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on food, “Setting the Snob’s Table”:

“One knew that food had entered the domain of snobbery when it became all right to announce that one’s son or daughter was studying to be, or already was, a chef. This, as noted earlier, is one of the few downward-mobility jobs that is deemed – more than acceptable – positively meritorious. (True, chefs at upmarket restaurants were also earning six-figure salaries, so the mobility hasn’t been entirely downward.) During the past thirty or so years, the young began to dominate the restaurant business. Now waiters and waitresses not only frequently announce themselves by their first names, but, when reeling off the list of (often) goofily ambitious ‘specials’ on offer that evening, make plain that they had tasted them all; and then, after one has ordered, exclaim, if one were lucky, that one had ‘ordered very intelligently.’ (‘What, may I ask,’ I can hear my mother saying, on being told by a waiter forty years younger than she that she had ordered well, ‘is it his business how I ordered?’)
One might say that one was paying for the sizzle and not the steak, a metaphor greatly weakened by the paucity of steak on most upscale menus. (Upscale is of course a thin euphemism for expensive, or, as the English used to say, pricey.) For along with the snobbery of adventurous and expensive eating has gone the snobbery of healthful eating, which brings our old friend the virtucrat to the dinner table, and with his politically correct palate he’s not, as will scarcely surprise you, the most expansive of guests.
If one nowadays gives a dinner party, it is understood that serving steak is a serious error, veal an unforgivable sin. A politically correct diner concerns him- or herself with what are currently called food miles; that is, the number of miles it has taken to get the food to market and thence to the table, and if the fuel output is too great, the food is disqualified. The organic-food movement has grown to the extent that, in England, one can now buy organic gin, by which, presumably, one can get three organic sheets to the doubtless somewhat polluted wind. ‘Sweet,’ runs the caption of a New Yorker cartoon showing one enlightened-class couple driving off after a visit to another such couple, ‘but a little more organic than thou.’
Healthful eating took two forms, both tinged with snobbery: vegetarianism was one, fear of death before age 106 the other.”

Throughout Snobbery, there’s a peppering of astute and sober observations with clever comments that cause the beginnings of a smile. I admit to reading Snobbery while engaging in one of my forms of snobbery: drinking rare teas. It wasn’t just any Ti Kuan Yin that touched my lips during the first few chapters. No, it was the Golden Monkey Picked China Oolong. And for the later chapters, the weather turned cooler, so I switched to a different semi-black tea, with which you’re unlikely to be familiar since it’s so rare. It was a pleasure to wrap up reading Snobbery while sipping Amber Autumn in the Wu Gorge. Well, not really in the Wu Gorge, but on the patio. If you think you’ve escaped being a snob, think again. You’re likely to find your own attitudes on one page or another of Snobbery. If you have trouble seeing yourself as a snob, come over and have a cup of tea with me. Or, buy your own rare teas where I do: at Todd & Holland Tea Merchants. One taste, and you, too, could become a tea snob.

Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2002


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2002 issue of Executive Times


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