Culture  /  Explainer

Crème de la Crème

How French cuisine became beloved among status-hungry diners in the United States, from Thomas Jefferson to Kanye West.

In his catalogue of 11 studio albums, West includes more than 140 references to foods, drinks, cooking and eating. As Food Studies professors, we became interested in what he was trying to express through these references. Many of them namecheck brands West admires. There’s Grey Poupon (‘Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy, this is pure luxury/I give ’em Grey Poupon on a DJ Mustard, ah!’); Nobu restaurant and Whole Foods grocery (‘Huh? I swear my whole collection’s so cruise/I might walk in Nobu wit’ no shoes/“He just walked in Nobu like it was Whole Foods”’); also fast-food outlets (‘Beggars can’t be choosers, bitch, this ain’t Chipotle’ and ‘Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A’). The food rap that made the most impact on US popular culture, as measured by thousands of memes and tweets, comes from West’s track ‘I Am a God (Feat. God)’ on the album Yeezus (2013). To wit: ‘In a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants.’

Expediency in service is only what a deity might expect – though many people on the internet could relate. The best of the memes superimpose West’s face over a croissant, or over concertgoers waving at him from the foot of a stage, pastries in hand. Others set him alongside Napoleon Bonaparte or the Pillsbury Doughboy. The memes caught the attention of W David Marx, a former editor at The Harvard Lampoon, who in 2013 wrote a satirical response on behalf of a fictitious ‘Association of French Bakers’ chiding West for failing to consider the time it takes to achieve excellence in boulangerie. Marx’s letter, posted on Medium, went viral, and was picked up by Time magazine and USA Today, and prompted subsequent apologies for mistaking Marx’s parody for fact. ‘The Association of French Bakers does not exist,’ wrote Alexander Aciman in Time.

Yet mocking West is too easy. He is, after all, a contemporary cultural provocateur. The implicit logic of those meme-makers and critics, bent on turning his rap into a joke on its creator, suggests they took West at face value, as if he were merely complaining that an American Black man in a French restaurant doesn’t belong or is somehow out of place. But West was, in essence, exposing a politics of food consumption that, in tying French food to class status in the US, and concerning itself only with dominant Eurocentric and colonial foodways, silences the labours of indigenous chefs, chefs of colour and queer chefs. There’s powerful evidence that French food still aligns with class – which in the US can never be separated from race. So, when West tsks about French-ass restaurants, he reminds us that such covert forces of class allegiance persist, and that they need critiquing.