What is it with David Brooks and restaurants?
A brief history of the New York Times columnist and food takes
I have to say: I think David Brooks was joking. It’s hard for me to understand, otherwise, why he’d take a photograph of a cheeseburger, fries, and whiskey and post it to the social-media website X.com with the caption “This meal just cost me $78 at Newark Airport. This is why Americans think the economy is terrible.”
I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Brooks, but surely even he is self-aware enough not to complain about inflation with reference to the price of booze at airports? And he must know, from his millennial wife if no one else, that X.com-ing this photo is like offering a scavenger hunt to dozens of relentlessly online disputants all to happy to spend an hour searching through the menus of Newark International Airport eateries? The X.com post is even structured like a joke, more or less, with the whiskey serving as a visual punchline--the joke-iness of its construction is precisely what makes it such low-hanging fruit for the eager wags who populate the site!
Please help pay my airport whiskey bill
The other reason I think David Brooks was making a joke is that over the past several decades no one has been more assiduously, obsessively concerned with the socio-economic valence of restaurant experiences than Brooks. Over the course of his career, Brooks has advanced a relatively simple theory of politics: There are two kinds of Americans. One kind of Americans eats at restaurants like this, and the other kind of Americans eats at restaurants like that.12 Operating as a hybrid of Dave Barry and Pierre Bourdieu (with Bourdieu’s sense of humor and Barry’s sociological imagination), Brooks uses finely honed attention to consumption patterns to access the fundamental divides in the American character. Nowhere is this more important than in restaurants. If for Marx, class is at core defined by one’s relationship to the means of production, for Brooks it is chiefly defined by where one eats out to lunch or dinner.
Take a relatively early work, or at least one from around his ascension to Times columnist: “One Nation, Slightly Divisible,” a 2001 Atlantic article sussing out the differences between “Red America” and “Blue America” based on Brooks’ ethnographic observation of Franklin County, Penn., and Montgomery County, Md. He is unable, from the start, to avoid distinguishing the two in terms of restaurant choices:
When I drive to Franklin County, I take Route 270. After about forty-five minutes I pass a Cracker Barrel—Red America condensed into chain-restaurant form. I've crossed the Meatloaf Line; from here on there will be a lot fewer sun-dried-tomato concoctions on restaurant menus and a lot more meatloaf platters.
Later in the piece, Brooks gives himself a restaurant-based challenge, in the manner of a TikTok star:
On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu—steak au jus, "slippery beef pot pie," or whatever—I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee's. I'd go into a restaurant that looked from the outside as if it had some pretensions—maybe a "Les Desserts" glass cooler for the key-lime pie and the tapioca pudding. I'd scan the menu and realize that I'd been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and "seafood delight" trying to drop twenty dollars. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.
Lest readers are worried that the $20 challenge corrupts the purity of Brooks’ restaurants theory of class by reference to “money,” follow-up reporting by Sasha Issenberg published in Philadelphia magazine, found that Brooks’ descriptions of the menus of Franklin County had no relationship to material reality:
Taking Brooks’s cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The “Steak and Lobster” combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. “Most of our checks are over $20,” said Becka, my waitress. “There are a lot of ways to spend over $20.”
The easiest way to spend over $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts “turn-of-the-century elegance.” I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce. Afterward, I asked the inn’s proprietors, Walt and Sandy Filkowski, if they had seen Brooks’s article. They laughed. After it was published in the Atlantic, the nearby Mercersburg Academy boarding school invited Brooks as part of its speaker series. He spent the night at the inn. “For breakfast I made a goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomato tart,” Sandy said. “He said he just wanted scrambled eggs.”
Similarly, during the 2008 presidential election, Brooks analyzed candidate Obama’s appeal to “less educated people, downscale people” through the lens of the restaurant theory of class--specifically the “Applebee’s salad bar” test during an appearance on MSNBC:
The magic is not felt by a lot of people. It’s not felt, obviously, by a lot of less educated people, downscale people. They just look at Obama, and they don’t see anything. And so, Obama’s problem is he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who could go into an Applebee’s salad bar, and people think he fits in naturally there.
As many commentators pointed out, Applebee’s locations didn’t have salad bars, but as Brooks himself explained to Issenberg, the restaurants theory of class is not materialist or “fact-based”:
“What I try to do is describe the character of places, and hopefully things will ring true to people,” Brooks explained. “In most cases, I think the way I describe it does ring true, and in some places it doesn’t ring true. If you were describing a person, you would try to grasp the essential character and in some way capture them in a few words. And if you do it as a joke, there’s a pang of recognition.”
What “rings true”? Some Americans eat meatloaf at the Applebee’s Salad Bar; some Americans eat sun-dried tomatoes at the Thai restaurant. Sure! But don’t imagine that you yourself are able to assess the vibes of a given culinary object--leave that kind of thing to the pros. Take “Stella Artois,” which you might think of as the kind of middling import guzzled by Non-Applebee’s Americans, but which Brooks pegs as a blue-collar brand to Americans in this really magnificently impenetrable column about a demographic category he dubs “Manly Upscale Proles,” “soft information-age office-park jockeys” whose class position is defined by their consumption of goods made by brands Brooks associates with manual labor:
The coolest Manly Upscale Proles live in the meatpacking district on the west end of 14th Street in Manhattan […] The people who actually work in the meat business would feel as comfortable in these boutiques as a cat in a Jacuzzi. But now fashion-forward tourists have been drawn to the area, and you see information-age professionals who have taken their clothing cues from On the Waterfront. You see others in loggers' boots, cargo pants, shoulder satchels with anchor-chain straps and post-ironic John Deere and Peterbilt baseball caps. There are several outstanding restaurants to choose from, many of which serve Stella Artois, the beer of the Belgian working class.
This is not to say that Brooks himself doesn’t sometimes make mistakes about which restaurants belong to which classes. Famously in 2017 he “insensitively” took a friend “with only a high school degree” to an Italian sandwich shop, forgetting that she comes from Applebee’s America and should stick to Mexican food, meatloaf, etc.:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
What is it about restaurants to Brooks? Why do they hold the key to unlocking the deepest divisions in American politics? I still don’t really have an answer. But I feel quite strongly that a man who has such strong theories about the class character of dining choices would never presume to speak for all Americans based simply on a single meal. For Brooks, only one type of American would eat at a Newark Airport restaurant--indeed, I suspect that is part of the joke.
Perhaps the most mystical articulation of Brooks’ understanding of American politics came in this column, an imagined dialogue between allegorical characters called “Urban Guy” and “Flyover Man,” which has the strange pre-modern atmosphere of a morality play or gnostic text and ends on the single best final line of any New York Times column this century.