What Does “Elevating” Street Food Mean?

Food for Thought

At this stall in a small Flushing food court, I was moved by how meticulously she made these “wheel pies” despite them being only 3 dollars each. Food isn’t just about food; like a word, it’s the context that gives it meaning.

There is a tendency in New York to “elevate” street food by using more expensive ingredients and serving them in a luxurious ambiance. When you raise the price point, you don’t elevate it but change it fundamentally. It’s our capitalistic values that make us think more expensive things are superior.

James Cameron’s Titanic illustrates well why a higher socioeconomic class does not necessarily make our lives better; they are just different. Rose is attracted to the type of freedom that comes with the lower class, and she eventually escapes into it.

The idea that making something more expensive somehow elevates it, I find, is insulting. It’s like saying Japanese chess is superior to Western chess because it has a lot more pieces and squares. More doesn’t make it better; it just makes it a different game.

This isn’t to say I’m against expensive cuisines (although I find most of them boring because they tend to mask their lack of creativity with expensive ingredients). I appreciate, for instance, what Cecilia Chiang did to preserve and introduce Chinese banquet cuisine.

In Japan, artisans have certain pride at every socioeconomic level. They don’t think throwing money at art improves it. This sentiment is so strong that sometimes there is prejudice against expensive art. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film, Rikyu, has a scene where Rikyu tells his disciple not to be blinded by the ugly aspects of gold and to see the beauty of it with an unprejudiced mind.

How we customers are fooled by the prestige associated with wealth is to be blamed as much as the dubious motives of chefs who make street food more palatable to the wealthier audience.

Postmodern artists like Warhol used appropriation to make us question what we have become blind to, but in Manhattan’s restaurant scene, appropriation has the opposite effect. When an expensive dish is made cheaply, we describe it as basterdization, but the opposite is also true.