The foods we eat and have access to are one significant marker of social class. Throughout history, it has not been uncommon for the upper classes to enjoy “fine” and “precious” foods that are often economically and socially unattainable for the lower classes. One food item that was a marker of class in ancient Korea was white rice. This precious commodity was largely consumed by royals and nobles (the upper classes), while those below including peasants (the lower classes) mostly subsisted on whole grains such as brown rice, barley, and millet. White rice was the superior foundational grain for all meals for its greater aesthetic appeal and palatability. However, due to the labor intensive nature of manually removing the bran from brown rice to yield white rice, it was expensive and remained a predominantly upper class staple.

This inequality in a specific kind of food item consumption certainly relates to a discussion of habitus, which is defined as our dispositions or natural inclinations. According to Bourdieu, habitus “. . . does not simply refer to knowledge, or even competence or sense of style, but is also embodied . . .”, meaning that it is also revealed in our “ways of eating”, or our food preferences and what we choose to eat (Lury 91). Habitus is connected to our family, group, and class position and “. . . operates according to . . . the logic of practice, [which] is organized by a system of classification . . .” and “. . . operates with dichotomous distinctions like high/low . . . distinguished/vulgar and good/bad” (92). This means that in ancient Korea, one way in which the upper class and lower class individual’s habitus differed was through the foods consumed, such as the types of grains eaten. Through the logic of practice, the upper classes compared white rice and other inferior grains using dichotomous distinctions. For the royals and nobles, white rice was considered to be refined, high-class, and an appetizing delicacy while other grains were contrastingly labeled as being less sophisticated, low-class, and less palatable. This system of classification, “. . . [operating] below the level of consciousness . . .”, cultivated the upper class’s taste for white rice (92). The perpetuation of this specific upper class habitus – the preferred taste for and privileged, unbarred access to and consumption of white rice – was one element that contributed to the upper class’s class reproduction. At the same time, the lower classes understood white rice to be a precious commodity, and their limited access to it was one factor that disassociated them from the upper classes.

In her post, “Divide and Conquer (and Consume)”,  sef333 similarly writes about the logic of practice and dichotomous distinctions, or in her words, “dichotomies of consumption” (she uses the example of feminine products). She explains how one dichotomy of consumption is luxury/bargain, which describes how the quantified price/exchange value for commodities affects consumer’s buying decisions – that is, consumers are divided based on whether they can afford the luxury or bargain version of an item. Putting this dichotomy in the context of my post, it can be said that in ancient Korea, white rice was the luxury grain whereas other grains were the bargain carbohydrates. For reasons explained above, white rice was more expensive than other grains and therefore more accessible to those who could financially afford it, making it a largely upper-class food item.  Sef333 also questions if “. . . these divides create polar dichotomies of consumption . . .”, to which I would answer no. Though white rice was an upper-class commodity in ancient Korea, that is not to say the lower classes never had access to it. For example, lower class families could have saved their money from time to time and purchased white rice to eat on special occasions. And what is interesting is that brown rice and other whole grains that the lower classes consumed are now more highly valued than white rice for their higher nutritional content and health benefits. Maybe if the royals and nobles of ancient Korea had known this, they would have consumed grains in an omnivorous manner, and the upper classes and lower classes would not have been on (somewhat strict) polar ends of grain type consumption.

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