How is the neoliberal triad of fast-food retail—health, safety and autonomy—preserved and suitably delivered under the ongoing pandemic? In a context where “eating out” is no longer a desirable option, marketing strategies have changed to capture mall-hopping middle class aspirations and social class distinctions.
As COVID-19 cases surge relentlessly, “eating out”, an aspirational marker of middle class consumption through which social mobility and non-kin sociality are often forged, has been temporarily choked for many Indians. Unsurprisingly, quick-service restaurants (commonly known as the fast-food chains) have responded swiftly to the ongoing public health crisis to stay in business. Following physical distancing guidelines and safety regulations, these restaurants have reinvented and rebranded themselves to meet the heightened demand of take-away delivery. With marketing taglines that ranges from, “not all superheroes wear capes. Some deliver your favourites.” (Dominos) to pledging to serve “happiness” with “extra care” (McDonalds), trust, assurance and safety are invoked to preserve middle-class sensibilities around food. Fast food is being reconfigured and appropriately pandemic-adjusted by deploying tropes of ‘assurance’ ,‘care’, ‘safety’ and ‘happiness’, making it unambiguously marketable and preserving a certain neoliberal Indian global desire.
That contemporary food cultures, marked by a growing reliance on pre-processed food, speedy deliveries and standardised quality, have infiltrated the middle class consumption behaviors, is well-acknowledged. Arguably, digital and technological interventions in food production and consumption practices also facilitate a culture of glolocalization (Ritzer, 2003) of tastes, habits and lifestyles among city-dwelling middle class youth. Sociologists and cultural anthropologists have consistently demonstrated how (food) consumption practices become a persuasive site to forge new consumer identities, individuated self-representations and middle-classness. This practice of middleclassness, as scholars have shown, is marked primarily by upper-caste moralities around food, family and intimate domesticities that are not immediately threatened by the onslaught of consumerist ideologies and their appropriation. We unpack how the neoliberal triad of fast-food retail, namely health, safety and autonomy, are preserved and suitably delivered under the ongoing pandemic. In particular, this piece asks: In a context where “eating out” is no longer a desirable option, how have the marketing strategies changed to capture the mall-hopping middle class aspirations of taste and social class distinctions? How are the (upper) middle-class moral anxieties around touch, vegetarian/ non-vegetarianism, quality and hygiene assuaged by these retail chains?
Fast Food, Lifestyles and the Indian Middle Class
Sociologists and cultural theorists have shown how food and dietary practices form critical cultural signifiers of social class distinctions and identity formation in transitional economies. As such, India’s economic liberalisation heralded a “retail revolution” (Dittrich, 2009) where globally popular ‘fast food’ restaurant chains, namely McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), Dominos, Pizza Hut and the like, have altered the lifestyle choices of the upwardly-mobile middle class in urban India. This category of quick service restaurants advances a specific kind of consumption behaviour that reinforces, as American sociologist, George Ritzer, in his celebrated book McDonaldization of Society (1996) notes, the industrial capitalist and neoliberal values of speed, convenience and standardization. To be sure, in the neoliberal framework, to be a desirable sovereign customer would necessitate making decisions in food and lifestyle choices that fit the demands of global metropole. Organized retail brought with it the culture of increased consumption of packaged food, which were traditionally perceived as a West-inspired unpalatable “shortcut” for upper class bourgeois households that have long relied on fresh produce of local markets and women’s (wives’ and cooks’) invisible labor. The post-liberalized India with its orchestrated developmental narrative, hinged on labor-saving devices while emphasizing the superior quality and hygienic standards of packaged food items, reproducing social class distinctions in the realm of the everyday. While displacing earlier food orthodoxies and dietary preferences, this regime forged altered notions about what constitutes as ‘desirable’, and what is to be disregarded as ‘aversive’. For example, cured and processed meat products (e.g. sausages, salami, bacon) have recently gained visibility on the shelves of hypermarkets and departmental stores. Exotic meats including pork, quail, duck, along with a wide array of seafood selections such as octopus, squid, and clams feature prominently in the menus of fine dining and upscale restaurants in urban India. Urban anthropologist, Henrike Donner (2011), while writing on food cultures in Bengal, notes that expertise on a range of food products and restaurants delivering such global cuisines became a critical marker of middle-classness in metropolitan India. To this effect, triumphant media advertising orchestrated the spectre of a high-status consumption culture. The younger generation enthusiastically welcomed these global novelties, while mothers, although anxious about the new mores around food, soon socialized their children under pressure to adjust to this new food-industrial complex.
The shift in culture, prestige and intimate domesticities, although radical, is not surprising considering the history of middle class in India. As Carol Upadhyay (2009) notes “The Indian middle class had its roots in the colonial era with the spread of English education and new white collar occupations, but it came into its own as a hegemonic and dominant class during the post-independence Nehruvian development regime”. While status distinctions expressed through educational merit, respectability and white collar employment gradually weakened in post-reform India, these were rapidly replaced through a consumer culture that was assumed to embrace self-interested materialism and aspirations of upward mobility. Middle-classness in this new environment was hence reproduced by employing practices, values and lifestyle choices that align well with the logic of market capitalism. Organized retail (which includes the fast-food chains) emerged as a force transforming not only the Indian way of life, but also economy, workforce and popular culture. Nandini Gooptu (2009) notes how this necessitates creation of neoliberal subjects who are unquestionably compliant but at the same time entrepreneurial, self-driven, optimistic and self-disciplined. This applies, one can argue, to the fast-food retail chains where “soft skills” of self-presentation, comportment, grooming and developing a non-complaining positive attitude even under stressful; conditions are desired to remain gainfully employed in this sector.
This emphasis on an embodied performance (through cultivation of enterprising personality traits) becomes significant in the context of the ongoing pandemic that demands heightened levels of reassurance, optimism and positivity to stay afloat in the already sinking economy of organized retail. This neoliberal modality of an “enterprising self” extends further to the consumer: “The sovereign consumer is not only to pursue individual self-fulfillment and freedom through choice but is also expected to exercise enterprising conduct by making responsible decisions in consumption and lifestyle” (Gooptu 2009, 45).
Fast Food: Reconfigured and Pandemic-Adjusted
Admittedly, the ongoing pandemic has given rise to a range of moral anxieties among the Indian middle class around consumptions choices and dietary practices. The culture of eating out has been maligned entirely, with walk-in dining being restricted or even dissuaded and home deliveries or the consumption of food prepared outside the domestic kitchen being held in suspicion. Middle-class anxieties around touch and contamination have been exacerbated, and now go far beyond the socially construed ‘aversion’ for unmodern and non-branded food products (e.g. street food vendors). The notions of sanitation and cleanliness have gained renewed significance, with impending life-threatening consequences. The promotion of self-sufficiency, through the revival of ‘home cooking’, is being widely emphasized, often through publicly manufactured intimate domesticities of Bollywood celebrities (media is now replete with carefully curated montages of top Bollywood actors who have turned into “home chefs” feeding their partners and loved ones). At a time like this, fast food retail chains have been quick in stoking middle class moralities. The language of (re)assurance has been deployed through repeated use of the words “care”, “safe” “contactless” and “trust”. Anxieties around touch and sanitary practices, both of the staff members as well as of the food preparation process, have been well served and preserved by the fast food retail brands, who showcase their prowess in maintaining ‘no contact’ production and delivery of food services. Fast food retail chains even offer a ‘sneak peek’ into their restaurant kitchen. These quick-service retail chains curate videos of production on their respective social media pages to evoke authenticity and shore up (hashtag) trust in taste. Some have continued to put their customers at ease through quirky taglines emphasizing that they “got a handle on things”. Burger King reassures its clients by introducing what they call the ‘Reassuring Whopper’, because “after many long days of uncertainty, reassurance sure tasted good”. Appeals to authenticity are seductive and McDonalds has offered the generous possibility of enabling its consumers to track the use of raw materials like chicken right to its source undergirding reassuring ideals of safety, freshness and health. Finally, moral-cultural anxieties around the separation of vegetarian and non-vegetarian kitchens, although not central to the immediate concerns surrounding the pandemic, are perennially present against the backdrop of middle-class sensibilities. McDonalds addresses these concerns by reiterating the physical separation of vegetarian and non-vegetarian counters to prevent cross contamination with an unbeatable marketing tagline assuring its customers how a McAloo Tikki has never met a McChicken!
Food practices constitute a complex interplay between lived bodies and imagined realities. Amidst the ‘new normal’ imposed during the pandemic, the restoration of even a semblance of the pre-existing normalcy seems far. The new constructed normalcy therefore demands a meticulous allegiance to existing politics of self/identity, group status and personal health. This is achieved through a careful crafting of neoliberalism’s desired subjects incorporating the language of responsibility, agency and autonomy. In the process, middle-classness is delivered, safe and contactless, in cheerfully colored boxes that preserve upper class/caste values and communal moralities around food.
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Shreya Sen, Tannistha Samanta
Shreya Sen is currently a PhD scholar in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, at IIT Gandhinagar. She has a disciplinary training in Sociology. Her areas of research interest include urban cultural economies of food and consumption practices, food histories, print and digital cultures, and post-colonial studies.
Tannistha Samanta is an Associate Professor with the School of Liberal Education, FLAME University, Pune, India. She locates her research at the interdisciplinary crossroads of family sociology, public health and gerontology by blending quantitative and interpretive approaches. She examines questions relating to intergenerational relationships, sexual and reproductive health, social capital and the role of culture. When not playing the role of an academic, she enjoys cooking while listening to Bollywood music and building Lego blocks with her 4-year old. She tweets @tannistha14