February 26: gluten and modernism

It turns out that less than 1% of the population are allergic to gluten, whereas whole swathes of middle-class Britain are shopping in the ever increasing gluten-free departments of the supermarkets. My suspicion is that it is the word gluten that puts them off. It sounds too much like glutinous and glutton. It is too ugly a word to be marketable. A bit like pilchards which bit the dust some time ago. No right minded aspirational family was going to continue buying something called a pilchard, though it might fork out for a wild sardine or whatever it was they ended up changing its name to. This is also part of a phenomenon that John Carey proposed in his book on The Intellectuals and the Masses. His thesis was that at the end of the nineteenth century once people had learnt how to read and write, the upper middle class intellectuals had to push further out by creating modernism, difficult art, difficult writing, so that they could remain ahead of the crowd. I’m not sure I totally subscribe to this, but you can never overestimate snobbery as a motivating force in cultural life. And so it is with gluten-free. The middle classes will always push out further to put distance between itself and the masses. Remember pashmina when it came out. Very fancy and very pricey. Now you can get three pashmina scarves for a tenner on any street market.


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