Is ‘Trash Food’ a Thing? On Food, Stigma, Class, and Connection

A store clerk, an African-American man in his sixties, offered to help us. I told him I was overwhelmed, that plumbing had gotten too complicated. I tried to make a joke by saying it was a lot simpler when everyone used an outhouse. He gave me a quick sharp look of suspicion. I recognized his expression. It’s the same one John T. gave me when I mispronounced his name, the same look I gave John T. when he mentioned “trash food” and social class. The same one I unleashed on people who called me a hillbilly or a redneck.

I understood the clerk’s concern. He wondered if I was making a veiled comment about race, economics, and the lack of plumbing. I told him that back in Kentucky when the hole filled up with waste, we dug a new hole and moved the outhouse to it. Then we’d plant a fruit tree where the old outhouse had been.

“Man,” I said, “that tree would bear. Big old peaches.”

He looked at me differently then, a serious expression. His earlier suspicion was gone.

“You know some things,” he said. “Yes you do.”

“I know one thing,” I said. “When I was a kid I wouldn’t eat those peaches.”

The two of us began laughing at the same time. We stood there and laughed until the mirth trailed away, reignited, and brought forth another bout of laughter. Eventually we wound down to a final chuckle. We stood in the aisle and studied the toilet repair kits on the pegboard wall. They were like books in a foreign language.

“Well,” I said to him. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” he said.

I nodded.

“I think I won’t eat those peaches.”

Chris Offutt writes in Oxford American on the concept of “white trash,” the seemingly immutable class boundaries that divide us, and food’s power to widen the chasm or bridge the gap.

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