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"Highbrow" vs. "Lowbrow"

After spending time at my 84 year old yia-yia's (grandmother's) birthday party yesterday, I started thinking along these lines. She requested donuts and hot dogs for her party, and I thought it was interesting, because some of my relatives arent at all interested in these types of food, while others can't get enough of them.

So, all other factors being equal (i.e. the "best" example of the designated food is to be eaten), are you more of the "chips and dip" type or the "caviar and creme fraiche" type? I realize how subjective this is, that there are many different reasons why, and that there are many different interpretations of these two designations, but that's part of the fun of asking the question! So which will it be? I realize that we all experience at least a bit of both at times, but remember, the question is which way you lean toward the most, and the above examples of food are of course not to be addressed literally (e.g. "I like chips and dip better").

Oh, me? Well, I think I'm on the "lowbrow" end. I definitely love to experience "common" food more. As my income increases, though, so does my penchant for the "finer" things (as I am sure is commonly the case).

On a side note, the secretary here at work says that she won't eat beef unless it's tenderloin meat. I find this very interesting, and it says a lot about her as a person (not that her opinion is necessarily bad).

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  1. To make a generalisation, my tastes probably aren't highbrow. I'd prefer a tiny Vietnamese canteen to a super-fancy michelin starred restaurant, and I'll always prefer a simple pasta dish to, say, oysters or caviar. I still love good food, prepared with care from quality ingredients, but I tend towards more rustic, peasanty food (preferably in large portions!) to haute cuisine. I think it's maybe just that, for me, an essential part of eating is being able to relax and enjoy the company of friends and family, and thinking about the 'experience' and the cleverness/skill of the chef detracts from that a bit.

    1 Reply
    1. re: babybat

      Here here!

      I love good food. I love good food if it is my family's home cooking to little ethnic hole-in-the-wall places. Good food and good company is a great time.

    2. Here's my particular angle on this...

      While I certainly enjoy highbrow food and fine cooking in general, the term "highbrow" says, "some of you are excluded", whether overt or not. I say, "good food for everybody!"

      1. I went through a phase two years ago when I couldn't get enough highbrow food. I made it a point to try great restaurants in many of the cities that I visited. I really enjoyed it but one day it just kind of hit me that I had enough of that and it was fun while it lasted. Now I'm much more into local and ethnic food than I am high end food.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Rick

          Lol-and I'm sure your pocketbook thanks you for the change!

          1. re: madgreek

            Absolutely, my wife and I ate our way through DC for a short weekend and only spent $125 on the both of us. It's very easy to spend a lot more than that on one nice dinner in DC. The great part is we don't enjoy the low brow any less than we did the high brow. Another benefit is that when you're going low a bad or average meal is less disappointing than an average expensive meal.

            1. re: Rick

              I'd have to classify my culinary tastes as lowbrow. I live in the South, and nothin' says lovin' to me like homemade buttermilk biscuits, sausage gravy, fried chicken, or wood smoked pulled pork. I don't have anything against fois gras, cavier, or creme fraiche, it's just that my tastes are much simpler.

        2. Based on the definition here, definitely low brow. The only time I willingly go high brow is to impress a date, or for a really special occasion. Otherwise, I like to relax when I eat food and not worry about amusing the server with my poor wine choice, or spilling marinara sauce on my dress shirt.

          1. I love caviar and creme fraiche; and don't eat chips and dips.

            I'd love hot dogs and doughnuts; but also appreciate good French food

            I almost never eat processed or junk food; but now and then don't mind a Big Mac, Chef Boy-R-Dee canned ravioli, or instant ramen noodles.

            I enjoy eating out once in a while at a fine restaurant, but prefer street food over all other forms--but only good street food.

            I cook much more than I eat out (25 to 1); and will often try to trick you with my inexpensive substitutions for more expensive ingredients (not for the $ but for the challenge).

            I constantly bring food back with me from my travels; but am perfectly happy frying some local bologna and eating it with rice.

            I love fine wines but always act like I can't tell the difference between the best and Night Train.

            I always worry about my food and do pay attention to plating; but will love whatever you make for me...whatever, because you made it for me.

            High- or low brow?

            4 Replies
              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                Ditto for me. Except that I probably couldn't tell the difference between the best wine and Night Train.

                I like food that I like. Whether it's cheap or expensive, "highbrow" or "lowbrow" doesn't really factor into it.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  Perfectly said.

                  I keep aleppo pepper, assorted vinegar and Spanish sausages on hand. And then fry up spam and garlic for lunch. At one dinner a couple weeks back I delighted over black truffles, rabbit and pancetta. And then gleefully munched on Pepperoni Combos on my commute home.

                  I like chateaubriand and chicken-fried steak; white truffles and White Castle; mozzarella in carozza and mozzarella sticks.

                  My preference in the kitchen is for the rustic Spanish, Filipino, Cajun and Central European I knew from my youth so my tastes generally skew towards richness and savoriness. But whatever the dish, so long as the taste is pleasing, why bother with the pretense of category: high/low, strange/familiar; so long as the taste is there I will be a happy camper.

                  But for when the pleasure is not there --- well I need to work on achieving the same graciousness as you, Sam!

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    "....but will love whatever you make for me..because you made it for me."
                    I *LOVE* this reply, Sam! It's what is in my heart also...

                  2. Count me firmly in the lowbrow camp. I'm usually much more impressed with a good burger than with "elf food", to quote a recent credit card commercial. :-) As a matter of fact, my husband and I had a similar experience over the weekend - went out for a "highbrow" lunch on a friend's recommendation, then hit the hot dog cart at Lowe's on the way home since we were still hungry.

                    1. Unfortunately I believe I have "highbrow" taste on a "lowbrow" budget. I would spend scads of money on restaurants and food if I had the means.....but since the means have not yet arrived, I have learned to do what my mom and grandma always have done.....cook. I've spent an inordinate amount of time reading cookbooks and trying out recipes, and if you think about it, there are a lot of restaurants that have built their bones on making "peasant" food for high prices. I try to do what they do. At home. Albeit, with mixed results. If it's really bad I just serve extra wine and no one seems to mind :)

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: diablo

                        Interesting point about "peasant" food - I adore French country food, traditional Spanish and Italian food, but I'm not so keen on haute cuisine in any culinary language. I wouldn't necessarily class something like cassoulet or chicken cacciatore as highbrow because it wouldn't be regarded as such in its country of origin and I can make a passable version at home, but perhaps many people would because it's foreign/made from scratch?

                        1. re: babybat

                          Yes, and so many people are intimidated by cooking that they are unwilling to even try to make or explore different cusines. If you think about it, Chicken Cacciatore does sound exotic if you really don't know the origins or simplicity of the dish. Despite the dearth of people with extensive food knowledge on this board, my everyday interactions with people have yielded nothing of the sort. If I manage to run across a person with any kind of food knowledge or experience whatsoever, I grill them so incessantly I usually send them running from the room. Sad but true...

                      2. I am more "unibrow" I love good food and wine, and can be perfectly happy with a bag of Utz kettle chips and a smirnoff ice. It all depends on the company and the circumstance.

                        1. There are no such designations in jfood-land.

                          There is food jfood likes to eat and food jfood does not enjoy.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: jfood

                            Yes, this is how I feel too. Thank goodness I was presented with a huge variety of food growing up and there was no distinction between food status. Good tasting, healthy, variety.... those were the sole criteria. It made ordering in restaurants very easy. Still does.

                            1. re: jfood

                              jfood said "There are no such designations in jfood-land.

                              There is food jfood likes to eat and food jfood does not enjoy."

                              Succint and perfectly said.

                            2. I think high/low brow distinctions also are influenced on where you are from or your upbringing...sure i understand that things like caviar are "highbrow" but I ate them plentifully as a child (and dearly miss it along with wild mushroom, and game, and smoked fishes), so for me they are not ultimately really really "highbrow"
                              now that i live in new york, i mostly seek out interesting "new" flavors for my palate -- chinese, vietnamese, pretty much any asian/sea food. and then there are rare times where i can afford to go somewhere like wd-50 and love it ^-^

                              1. I started getting into Highbrow restaurants around 2000 when my growing income allowed me to. At that time the Tasting Menus, artistic presentations, snazzy decor etc., all made a great impact on me... and for years I was very much obsessed with Highbrow cuisine.

                                Beginining in 2005... I was now in a position to wine & dine clients on an expense account, and have gotten to eat many expensive meals at highly rated restaurants (mostly around the U.S. but also some outside of it)... I am less than 3 years into a saturation of fine dining... I am no longer impressed by 7 course menus & wine pairing... in fact its now kind of a hassle to me, and I find I don't really enjoy all the pretention & the annoyingly, repeated visits to my table. And here is what I really hate... having to pretend like some super star Chef is so creative, and being so surprised at what are essentially the same dishes I have consumed in highbrow restaurants in California, New York, Chicago, Mexico City, Lima, Las Vegas, Seattle etc., etc., etc., everybody has Carpaccios, Risottos, Pestos, Salsas, Fricasses, Ceviches, Tartars etc, everybody wants to claim locally grown versions of mainstream international produce & meats as if its some great localist cuisine etc., there really is not much creativity across the Highbrow spectrum as its pretentious enthuisiasts would like to believe. The Lowbrow spectrum (done right with decent quality ingredients) has so much more variety, interesting flavor combinations etc., than than the Highbrow spectrum.

                                So my tastes have rebounded and I am enjoying more dining experiences that are considered Lowbrow. In fact, when I think about the most memorable meals I've had in the last 2 years... 99% of them have been Lowbrow. Now personally, I am a Trader Joes' & Ethnic Market type of guy... I don't like uber processed foods... and try to eat a diet grounded in whole grains, fruits & vegetables, nuts, cheeses & eggs.... and lighter on animal flesh... so I am not crazy about calling a Double Cheeseburger, Fries & Soda (common Lowbrow fare in some places)... a real meal.

                                And yes my grocery list typically has things like Chevre, Roquefort, Jamon Serrano, Sicilian Olive Oil etc., but I don't consider these Highbrow foods since somewhere in the world (typically their place of origins) they are real Lowbrow ingredients.

                                1. re: "Highbrow" vs. "Lowbrow", I call this eating vs. dining.

                                  Eating is the everyday thing you do to survive, quick meals, street food, hand food (sandwiches, burritos, etc.). It can certainly be high brow but it's more common as low brow or just average to middling. In most cases, the low brow, everyday eating satisfies a very base instinct and the food often reflects that - basic, hardly, junky or filled with an element that's base physical craving (savory, fat, protein, sugar). Often times the very base is hooked into memory as a kid.

                                  Dining and high-brow is more a sit down and take your time to enjoy things deal. It of course could be just good ingredients at a picnic but to me it's about "refinement",, learning/education, experience (new and old) and fun. Luxury often plays into high brow but not necessarily. Often times high brow is about expanded horizons and grow in taste.

                                  I'm into both. Been to the 3-star Michelin places but have no problem eating a corn dog or Jack in the Box taco. Of course there's stuff I avoid but that's neither here nor there.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: ML8000

                                    "Often times high brow is about expanded horizons and grow in taste."

                                    Do you think Highbrow cuisine challanges your horizons and requires greater growth in taste than does experiementing with Lowbrow cuisine across the planet?

                                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                      Good point. Both can challange and expand your horizons. I think so-called "low brow" definitely can expand your horizons, more so if it's outside your country/culture. I don't know how it couldn't.

                                      To clarify, I was referring more towards low-brow "standards" in context of one country/culture. In this context, high-brow is about refinement. Even then I've never traveled to the deep south but I know there's low-brow stuff that would expand my palette, as any new place.

                                  2. I was raised y parents that suffered through the Great Depression, so most of our food was, as you put it, "lowbrow", but I consider it to be common food. The "fine" food establishments serve a lot of the common food I had growing up, but put fancy names on it and add ingredients that justify the high cost of eating corn meal mush (polenta) which we had often. Chicken liver pate was a standard but it wasn't considered "highbrow" back then. Spaetzle was not a delicacy. A lot of the food we ate was peasant food, but it was great.

                                    I don't have the income to go to a lot of upscale restaurants, so there are many things I have yet to try. I know I don't like caviar, but I do like a well prepared lobster. I can be just as happy with a big pile of crawfish, though. I love a really good steak, but give me a really good cheeseburger and I am just as pleased. Chips and dip and I am in a "not going to watch my weight today" heaven. So I guess I am just into food, no matter what. And I will try anything once! If it's good and cost $3, fine. If it's good and cost $30, fine. Just give me good food.

                                    1. Middlebrow.

                                      If it's worth the price, I eat it.

                                      1. i think the terms are relative to the situation, at least in my case. so i think i could be called "situationally highbrow."

                                        i am generally considered "highbrow" by the people around me, simply because i either have a taste for gourmet or because i can cook better than them or because i use ingredients like capers and sundried tomatoes. my budget, however, prevents me from experiencing higher levels of gourmet dining.

                                        my tastes are dictated by mood, so the choice between "chips and dip" or "caviar and creme fraiche" is entirely dependent on the time and day and just exactly who cooked/brought those choices. if, however, i have the choice between high quality locally made chips and a dip made from fresh high quality ingredients OR a bag of lays and tub of no-name onion dip... i will take the higher road! many people i know are perfectly comfortable making the "lowbrow" choice in this decision. i suppose that would make me "highbrow."

                                        and what exactly defines something as highbrow? is the quality? is it the rarity? is it the price? or is it the exotic nature of the ingredients? i like to think it's the quality...

                                        i love simple, homey foods. you don't have to use fancy or exotic ingredients, but you can make them with excellence and superior quality ingredients. say, a microwaved russet slathered with marg and processed cheese and ham cubes... OR a good potato from the farmer's market baked to perfection and topped with local sour cream, my own butter, gloriously crispy chopped bacon pieces and some garlic chives from the garden.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: dani_k

                                          DaniK, your potato analogy is perfect here. I agree that its not really what you eat, but how you eat it. Look at mac and cheese -- it can come from a blue box (great if you're 6 years old) or you can make your own with real cheese (several different kinds in fact) real cream and any kind of pasta you want. I like caviar and gorgonzola and sorbet (no, not in the same mouthful) but I also enjoy hot dogs and donuts and the occasional street vendor burrito. I'll eat chips and dip too, but given a choice, would have taro chips and make the dip with goat cheese. I have relatives who think Im a food snob, but I consider it an adventuresome palate. However, regardless of what they cook for our group meals, I'll eat it and never complain. If cheese and crackers is Kraft american slices on Premium saltines, so be it.

                                          1. re: Cheflambo

                                            "adventuresome palate" is a great way to describe it!

                                            hmm... i could do with some crackers and cheese right about now...

                                        2. I am an omnivore. If I have a good dietary reason to avoid some of the "lowbrow" stuff I'm fond of, such as hot dogs or corned beef hash and eggs, then I will, but when I cut loose and have something as a Special Treat it's as likely to be biscuits & gravy as caviar. Well, likelier actually, given my usual financial status...

                                          Anyway, my wife grew up with a dad who would whip out a blanquette de veau or coq au vin for supper, and I grew up in a house where tuna-noodle casserole was something special. While I've had a lot of fun getting to know French food, I did introduce Mrs. O to tuna-noodle casserole early in our relationship, and she adores it. So we're both omnivores.

                                          1. I am too scared of fancy food to really enjoy it. Foie gras makes me sick--it's so foul my eyes tear up just thinking of it. Meanwhile I actually have a tee shirt that says I HEART HOT DOGS. But I am trying to refine my tastes somewhat. Caviar? Bring it on. But honestly, I'd be just as happy (happier?) with a plate of cocktail weenies.

                                            1. As with most other responses, I like both types of cuisine although the low brow stuff is certainly more comforting. When I am stressed, I want chicken fried steak, biscuits, mashed potatoes, etc..

                                              It is funny though, because one of my non-negotiables in a spouse was that he must have an appreciate and love for both types of cuisine. Luckily I married a man who is as comfortable at a picnic table eating something bought off a taco truck as he is at a Michelin star restaurant.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: Honey Bee

                                                hilarious! that was one of my perquisites for a future spouse. i even wrote it down. my husband fits the bill nicely. was worth waiting for, i tell ya!

                                              2. Yesterday at work 2 administrative assistances were discussing how good a can of Hormel chili is...Which sounds disgusting to me! And I'm the grunt worker who makes considerably less & grew up with Mom's "home cooking" (Banquet frozen entrees).

                                                I eat my share of "lowbrow" food but I want "highbrow" ingredients. I love fried chicken & greens--but that chicken better be local, organic, & free range. But is that really high brow? My co-workers, at least, argue YES.

                                                I was invited by a co-worker to her parents' home for lunch. It was a 4-story home in a well-to-do neighborhood. When asked if I like grilled tuna for lunch, picturing a fat tuna steak, I eagerly said yes. I soon was presented with a not-so-fresh tuna melt on Wonder Bread (which I politely choked down).

                                                As a student I think I know more"poor" people who eat "highbrow" than vis versa. (Maybe that's why we're all poor. ;) )

                                                2 Replies
                                                1. re: Agent No. 9

                                                  "I love fried chicken & greens--but that chicken better be local, organic, & free range. But is that really high brow? My co-workers, at least, argue YES"

                                                  You should invite your co-workers to Chiapas & Oaxaca - the 2 poorest states in Mexico - to have local, organic, free range Chicken as the only option, and a 2 or 3 time per week habit.

                                                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                    Nopal, I completely agree. Boy I miss my trips to Mexico. Fortunately I live somewhere where the family farm is booming.

                                                2. I have some highbrow tastes, and certainly appreciate the merits of good quality food and wine, but definitely have more of a 'lowbrow' budget. Which is why I prefer small, ethnic restaurants to upscale bistros. Or rustic food to say, haute cuisine (which I can't stand - small food on big plates just doesn't cut it for me). I just love good food, regardless of where it is to be found. And I have the occasional junk food guilty pleasures too, so no, I guess I'm not too highbrow.

                                                  1. first I define high brow as more expensive than low brow. in the U.S., where I live, that means even going out for ethnic food is more expensive than what one can buy cheaply in a grocery store.
                                                    as to the secretary that will only eat beef tenderloin, she is missing out in terms of flavor. maybe there are no fat pockets in her steak but that's what gives it FLAVOR. So I think high brow and low brow both exhibit foods high in flavor. ex: the average hot dog, boiled, has less flavor than imported Weiss wurst. a more expensive, skin on hot dog grilled and served with sauerkraut, onions, deli mustard on a toasted bun starts to exhibit some class in my opinion.
                                                    aside from flavor, there is texture. Fresh uni, though not that strong of a flavor, has a wonderful texture.
                                                    i'm not sure if my definition of the distinction is the common one, but I tend to think of "low brow" not as country cooking(which can be great), but as processed and unhealthy foods or otherwise completely uninspired and not fresh foods.

                                                    1. I generally like low-brow food better than high-brow food. I would always choose dumplings over croissants.

                                                      But what I eat is generally cucina povera, rather than processed low-brow.

                                                      On slight tangent, I thought it was interesting your yia yia would ask for hot dogs and donuts instead of something Greek, especially for a party. Loukaniko and loukamades are not exactly high brow, but they're usually much more delicious than hot dogs or donuts imho ;)

                                                      Do you think she asked for hot dogs and donuts to keep things simple, so people wouldn't go out of their way for her? Seems like a very Greek mother/thia/yia yia thing to say is "Don't do anything special for me, I don't want you to go out of your way, just something simple"

                                                      Or could it have something to do with what she thought the grandkids or daughter-in-laws/son-in-laws would like to eat at a party? I find my Greek American relatives end up serving midwestern food to keep their non-Greek American spouses & slightly gastronomically xenophobic children happy, but we usually still have at least one or 2 Greek dishes on the table.

                                                      Maybe I'll have a loukaniko & loukamades party for my birthday this year!

                                                      7 Replies
                                                      1. re: phoenikia

                                                        "I generally like low-brow food better than high-brow food. I would always choose dumplings over croissants."

                                                        In Paris... croissants are certainly Low Brow no?

                                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                          I don't think so. Even in Paris, croissants are still high brow compared to an ordinary loaf of French bread. The amount of butter that goes into a good croissant means it will always be an expensive pastry to make.

                                                          It looks Wikipedia agrees with you, in that croissanteries are a low brow French response to fast food, according to this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croissant , although it also mentions the high brow origin of the croissant.

                                                          But perhaps, factory-made croissants are low brow, and hand-made croissants are high brow.

                                                          Foods like crepes, cassoulet and choucroute have had low-brow, country French origins, though. That's the kind of food I like to eat when I'm in France.

                                                          1. re: phoenikia

                                                            "The amount of butter that goes into a good croissant means it will always be an expensive pastry to make."

                                                            Croissants might be more expensive than a Baguette but they are still one of the cheapest things you can eat in Paris. And it all depends on perspective. Years back when I went with my college buddy to visit his grandparents & the rest of clan Michel in their Rancho near Autlan, Jalisco... I was amazed that the great butter laden Croissants in the nearby village were cheaper than buying a banana or a kilo of beans. The land in those mountainous, semi arid areas is only good for grazing, and their location (reachable only by dirt road)... meant all the dairy products they produced were largely consumed locally and by extension cheap. For them... Croissants & butter are the most low brow, of low brow foods.... but show them a Mango from Colima (where they are falling off trees in parks & courtyards) and that is the biggest food luxury they craved.

                                                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                              I would say that it is only up until the late 19th century that croissants and other butter laden breads (such as a rich brioche) were rich people's food. Of course due to various advances food is becoming more democratized (for the most part).

                                                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                Ok, fair enough, Eat Nopal. You are absolutely right that croissants are one of the cheapest things you can eat in Paris.

                                                                I had no idea a village in Jalisco would make croissants, let alone croissants that are cheaper than beans or bananas.

                                                                1. re: phoenikia

                                                                  Croissants are made in most villages throughout Mexico... the question is whether they are a butter laden, lard laden, or bready low fat version. Obviously there are places in Mexico were butter is a premium product, others (like my dad's home town) where quality lard is a commodity (much chearper than shortening or margarine)... and parts of Mexico (particularly remote jungle areas) where every type of fat is a very premium item... yet things like Cacao beans, Dragon fruit & Dominica bananas (which in France would be purchased only at very premium specialty markets) are essentially free to most villagers.

                                                              2. re: phoenikia

                                                                My parents were in Quebec and they asked the concierge where they should eat for various meals and - they could not really understand his French-Canadian accent, so he finally gestured - a hand above is head signifying "high" and then a hand on near the floor to signiify "Low." So, he'd ask "okay..you want (raise hand above head). or (lower hand to waist)." And they picked both, but the Low was Poutine - which, I mean, who doesnt' love that? They enjoyed seeing what he would pick for them based on the hand raising.
                                                                Sorry for the long story..it was funny.

                                                          2. I'm on both sides of the fence too, I suppose...as long as the food is fresh and prepared well, I can enjoy it....what I don't like is junk food, and processed stuff. I am happy eating simply, but if I go to a restaurant, I will most often choose the thing I cannot make at home myself, whether from lack of ingredients, experience, or skill. I DO like a creative chef who will combine ingredients I never though of before...I DO appreciate a beautiful presentation...but I will enjoy a simple dish just as much if it's prepared well.

                                                            Don't know if that would make me highbrow....to me eating lowbrow, would include brownies from a boxed mix, stuff made with creamy canned soup, and although I love how it tastes, I cannot see myself ever eating a fast food burger and fries again. I once saw a 2 year old burger and fries from one of these establishments, and it looked exactly the same as the day it was purchased. Nothing deteriorated, or rotted...it just got harder. That visual is all I need if I pass a place and think I'm getting a craving. Then I read "Chew on This" with my kids, and watched Supersize Me.

                                                            Nope, I'm done. Give me food, real food, made with real food ingredients, not chemicals and it can be as low or high brow as you want to call it, but that is what good eating is...