Is it “cool” to call yourself “working class”? Maybe, in bohemia, it always has been, but when I stumbled across two online projects out of Brooklyn, I was intrigued. What should we think about their use of “working class” as a marker for cool?
Working Class Magazine is a slick online publication that promotes artists and low-to-the-ground lifestyles in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It was started by a group of New York transplants in their twenties, including the managing editor, Megan Martin, who came to New York from San Francisco, where she worked as an editor for an arts magazine and attended journalism school. After trying to freelance, explained Martin via telephone from her day-job, she “got fed up and decided to start my own magazine.” Martin admits that her own family background is not working class and the name of the magazine is not related to any explicit “working class” content. “It seemed very catchy,” she explained. “Without this name we might not have received the attention we have.” The magazine only just started to receive modest advertising revenues, which Martin hopes to use to compensate Carol King, who currently designs the magazine for free.
Martin, who also works part-time as a bartender, may not see herself as working class, but certainly the creative workers who donate all of their time and a fair amount of their own money to publish Working Class Magazine are not rolling in dough. The current issue, the “Free Issue,” is a kind of anthem to scrimping. One article examines things you can get for free on Craigslist, including opened boxes of Tampons and only-just-expired cans of food. Another article shows, in true DIY fashion, how to rehab a chair found on the street. The design of the articles is arty, but the information might come in handy if you live in New York on an annual income of under $35,000 without benefits.
That’s the situation that Rebecca Lando found herself in when she decided to start an online TV show, Working Class Foodies, which promotes gourmet eating on a budget. She and her boyfriend, who both work in the New York film industry, had some connections at Next New Networks, which was adding a food channel, Hungry Nation TV, to its impressive lineup of online TV networks (most notably, $99.00 Music Videos and BarelyPolitical.com).
Lando wanted to be in front of the camera, but her boyfriend wanted to stay behind it, so Lando called up her brother, Max Lando, who was living with their parents in Sarasota, Florida, and had a background in theater. They filmed the first 24 episodes of Working Class Foodies last fall, and they are now in the middle of their second season.
Working Class Foodies shows viewers how to make delicious, seasonal dishes for as little as $4.00 per person. They pledge to keep all of the dishes they make under $8.00 per person, but the meal price-tags often go much lower. In a recent episode Max made bluefish with rosemary, lemon, and garlic, while Rebecca made mussels steamed in beer. The siblings sometimes engage in playful banter, but the focus is really on the food, and the food they make looks really good. Also, refreshingly, the Landos cook in a “real” kitchen—a small Brooklyn apartment kitchen to boot. No marble counter tops or racks with thousands of dollars of cookware here.
The Landos are passionate about local, organic, fresh food. They told me that the title of their show doesn’t really refer to a historical, blue-collar working class. Instead, the label “working class” is their shorthand for the project of making delicious food affordable and approachable. They have taken some flack for the label. “In one of our first reviews,” Max explained, “they called me out for studying poetry in college, saying that I couldn’t be working class. But, really, they just missed what we were trying to do.”
Rebecca and Max grew up in Pittsburgh before their family moved to Florida, and they admire the blue-collar history which marks city of their birth. Interestingly, Pittsburgh is also embracing the kind of food that they prepare: “Pittsburgh has a bigger slow food movement than New York,” said Rebecca.
It would be easy to dismiss Working Class Magazine and Working Class Foodies as inauthentic, poser projects—the work of a bunch of hipsters using the ironic “cool” of being legitimately downtrodden to market their projects. But I see something more hopeful and more interesting.
First, I see an opportunity to expand the definition of what it means to be “working class.” Surely these young, creative workers, who earn low wages and have neither benefits nor job security, have much in common with waitresses, janitors, and retail clerks, despite the difference in education and social status. As hundreds of thousands of Americans who once thought they were solidly middle class find themselves getting by on much less, why exclude them from the coalition of progressives fighting for better wages, health care, and social services? As these groups gravitate to the label working class, perhaps some commitment to working-class politics might follow? It’s worth a try.
Second, these hipsters might have something to offer the rest of us on a budget. A recent kafuffle over a group of twentysomethings who used foodstamps to shop at Whole Foods suggests that some might resent the mash-up of taste and class. But shouldn’t we promote healthy eating on a budget, instead of ridiculing it? And is it so wrong to want to be fashionable—even beautiful—when you’re struggling to make ends meet?
In the end, if underpaid urban hip-types want to use the label “working class,” I’m OK with it. As far as I can tell, they qualify. Now, if I can just score an invitation to dinner!
Kathy M. Newman
Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.