Tastemaking: Martha Stewart and Pierre Bourdieu

Last night Martha Stewart hosted a party at her Omnimedia headquarters in way-west Chelsea to fête “The Tastemakers” featured in the April 2010 issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine. Crusty breads by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, spicy pickles by Joe McClure of McClure’s Pickles, heady Surryano hams by Sam Edwards III of S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, and rainbow-colored macarons by Florian Bellanger of MadMac were among the artisanal producers and products on offer.

Like stepping into the pages of the magazine, the whitewashed setting accented by colorful food and fashion-forward people was sophisticated and urbane. The event space, in the heart of MSL offices, was set off by transparent scrims, the fuzzy outline of cluttered desks and real-life work visible in the distance alluding to the soft-focus of the photographs in the magazine. (I feel sorry for anyone who had to work late.)

And, perhaps because of the enthusiasm and earnestness of the artisans themselves, the atmosphere of the party was open and friendly. You could actually meet these people and chat about their passions. “Your ricotta is amazing, where do you get your milk?” “How do you produce that texture of your caramel, so dense and flavorful and soft at the same time?” “Where can I find these tangerines?” Now that media food stars pay handlers to distance them from the throngs of their fans, this was a refreshingly congenial gathering.

French sociologist PIerre Bourdieu, who besides coining the phrase "cultural capital" posited a theory of taste based on distinction and the power to consecrate aesthetic judgments of cultural products.

What struck me as we trudged back crosstown to dinner at Grand Sichuan was how Martha’s special issue and this elegant party demonstrated the consecration principle of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of taste. Here were a group of young, tatooed, seemingly counter-mainstream artisans, working in basements in Brooklyn or small shops in off-color neighborhoods of depressed upstate towns, being anointed by the queen of taste herself. A tastemaker making taste. This was the field of gastronomy at work.

A cultural product—an avant-garde picture, a political manifesto, a newspaper—is a constituted taste, a taste which has been raised from the vague semi-existence of halfformulated and unformulated experience, implicit or even unconscious desire, to the full reality of the finished product, by a process of objectification which, in present circumstances, is almost always the work of professionals.

—Pierre Bourdieu,
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, p. 231.

What makes Martha and her Omnimedia world so unique in light of other mass-market food media (think Food Network) is that she has managed to maintain her consecration power and make a lot of money without losing the respect of the other tastemakers in the field. She does it with style and grace and in a way that makes us all aspire to live the tasteful life she portrays. More than a brand, she is a phenomenon. The machinations of the ever-changing field of gastronomy, with its positions and position-takers, its tastes and tastemakers, feeds our need for new and reinforces the very system that makes taste itself. This is not a judgment, just a fact. And there are lessons to be learned by all.

Based on Pierre Bourdieu's theories of distinction and the field of cultural production, I created this schematic of the Field of Gastronomy. As you move right on the horizontal axis your economic capital increases. As you move up on the vertical axis your power to consecrate aesthetic judgments in the field increases.

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1 Comment

Filed under Food for Thought, Taste Tidbits

One response to “Tastemaking: Martha Stewart and Pierre Bourdieu

  1. Her skills are impressive indeed–especially considering that she has perhaps, to some extent, diluted her power by branching out into realms where she seems to be less of a taste-maker, such as her line sold at KMart.

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