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The Changing Costs of American Food Culture

Nov 14, 2021 Arthur Murray

I feel that the most obvious change in American culture is in the way Americans consume and understand food. When I was a kid, food was about the most basic experience a family could have. What did I have for dinner? We ate every day. We prepared food every day. It was something that was a normal part of our lives. Now it seems the number one goal for most Americans is to eat out. It’s the only “normal” way of getting food on the table.

And we love food. People go to movies, they go to sports events, they go to family and friends. That’s always been the way, but more now. And we live in a pretty sedentary society, and people don’t necessarily eat in the same setting where you do the most amount of socializing. They’ll be watching their food for quite a bit of the evening.

What really struck me as an interesting dynamic of food consumption was that if you were an immigrant coming into this country, and your family had never had anything to eat, you knew where to go. You knew that your family was going to go to the local soup kitchen to have something to eat, to feel a little bit less hungry. And now when someone comes up to me and says, “I want to bring my family to dinner,” it’s not about what food we want to eat. It’s about the food options we have. It’s about if we can get into this restaurant that’s going to be really nice and if we can get that reservation, if we can stay in this fancy hotel room.

But this all seems so different from the way you would imagine that it must have been for you. “In general, Americans as a society don’t pay for anything directly related to food, right? But I think when we think of food, we think about the food we consume. And now food consumption has become something we should pay for. People have a sense of what it’s like to eat at the table and be entertained at the table, and what it’s like to go out to eat and have a special night out. There’s a sense that it’s a social activity now, right? So we’re talking about spending money on food.

In a restaurant, the price of the ingredients is the price of the food. So how does that play into our thinking about food, that is, about prices, and where do you find those prices in a restaurant? That’s a very good question. The first time I came across it, I remember thinking about this, right? When I talk about how much something costs, I talk about the ingredients. But a lot of people don’t really think of ingredients in that way.

You talk about the costs of the food being passed along, all the way up to the final price of the food.

Yeah. The cost of the food is passed along in every way. I mean, the cost of the food comes up, not only in the menu prices, but also in the price of the glassware, the table settings, the tablecloth.

The cost of the food is passed on to us in every way.

I think the way we think about what we’re paying for when we eat out is, we think about how much money we’re spending on the food, the ingredients. But that’s not the way we think about the cost of the food. We think the food is the food, so we think the cost of the food itself is the cost of the food.

But really, the price of the food is the price of the food. It’s not just the ingredients. The cost of the food is not the same as the price, and it isn’t just about money. It’s a social cost too, and one we should really keep in mind when making that choice when we ask ourselves, “What shall we have for dinner?”

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