TQW Magazin
Barbara Blaha on Von der Hand in den Mund by Julischka Stengele

Eating poverty


Eating poverty

Back in the day, the then Vice Chancellor carefully dipped a tender piece of beef in the sauce. He had a white cloth napkin tucked in his collar, like a child. To keep his monogrammed shirt from getting stained.

Our table is lavishly set. To this day, the sight of such a table triggers a brief moment of heaviness inside me. I had to learn how to navigate such a situation. It isn’t a skill I happened to pick up at home. When I’m invited to an expensive restaurant, it still feels like entering a foreign country.

Dining abroad

I’m a fast learner. I know what to wear when going out for an expensive meal. I know how to taste the wine, how to handle a place setting, which course to select red wine for. I recognise the type of restaurant in which the waiter adjusts the chair for a lady and where you are not allowed to refill the water yourself. I have acquired this knowledge like the vocabulary of a foreign language.

And yet it sometimes takes a second, sometimes two for me to find my feet again. Until I know: I can do this. Breaking the rules is easier when you have learned to play the game from an early age. I would not even remotely consider using the napkin the way the Vice Chancellor did.

Where I’m from, you can smell what the neighbours are having to eat even in the stairwell. In old apartment buildings, the kitchens have windows that open to the landing. As you walk by, you pick up the menu in passing. The old neighbour let something get burned again. The ground floor smells of cabbage. In the homes of those who are better off you don’t smell the food as it’s being prepared.

Food as a reliable class compass

After reading French classics, sociology star Pierre Bourdieu noted that not a single reference is made in these books about the characters’ social position. The mere description of what they eat is enough to highlight their social standing. Everybody is aware of the dividing line between champagne and Henkell sparkling wine.

Fine lines, between up above and down below, between inside and outside, drawn on the plate. They have not dissolved since Bourdieu’s groundbreaking analyses. Globalisation and co. are blurring the lines, though: thanks to aquaculture, many can afford smoked salmon today. These days, disassociation downwards occurs in terms of how organic, regional or vegan your shopping and cooking are.

Julischka Stengele’s performative dinner negotiates issues of class on a plate in a light-hearted manner. I eat, therefore I am – maybe someone who is better than you.


Barbara Blaha (b. 1983 in Austria) is a writer, founder of the Momentum political congress and the Momentum Institut think tank, and editor of the associated Moment magazine, moment.at. Blaha is a former chairperson of the Austrian Students’ Union (ÖH).