The Problem with David Brooks’s Sandwich Shop Anecdote

fancy sandwiches

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So, the internet had a great deal of fun with David Brooks's column yesterday. (See, for instance, all this.) For the most part, it was … actually a pretty good column! More or less uncontroversial, really. Brooks writes that upper-middle-class families use their cultural and financial capital to pass along their advantages to the next generation of upper-middle-class strivers while also simultaneously erecting a set of barriers, legal and social, that makes it uncomfortable for those unfamiliar with the codes of the upper-middle classes to move up a station in life.

The trouble is this anecdote that Brooks uses to share the second half of that lesson:

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.

Much fun has been had with this, so I won't elaborate on any of that here—except to say that, ironically, there's a liberal upper-middle-class signifier that Brooks could have deployed here to avoid all this trouble: The Wire.* And people I respect have suggested on Twitter and elsewhere that this anecdote is not only not funny but deeply revealing. Here's my problem with it as a reader and editor, though: Brooks makes no effort to actually ascertain that this is why his unnamed friend with the modest education was uncomfortable in the sandwich shop.

Maybe she doesn't like sandwiches! Maybe she's pregnant and worried about eating cured meats! Maybe she saw someone she used to date and worried it would get awkward! Maybe … maybe … maybe …

Or, maybe she was legitimately flustered by words she didn't understand and felt out of place.

The problem is simple: We don't actually know why she felt uncomfortable. Maybe Brooks asked her and she told him; if so, he didn't relay that information to the readers. We simply have no idea. The way the piece reads, he's just making a judgment call, one that confirms his biases and plays off something he read recently.

Again: It's actually a good column, one sparking some good discussion (e.g., this Dan Drezner blog post on cultural codes and the Trumps). It's too bad that odd anecdote undermined the rest of his (totally valid) points.

*There's a scene in, I believe, the fourth season of The Wire where a figure of authority takes a bunch of inner-city kids to a fancy restaurant as a reward for something or other, a reward they can't enjoy because the refined setting makes them all extremely uncomfortable. They don't understand the food being sold or the utensils to use, etc. The group bails on the meal and heads to McDonald's, where the kids are all smiles. Brooks could have deployed this little tidbit here and literally everyone making fun of him would have sagely nodded their heads, recalling that time that our young century's most blessed and sacred televisual text informed them of the Correct View Of Things.