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Unquestionably, food and the way we communicate about it are important markers of identity. Like other chapters in this volume that illuminate connections to cultural, social, and gendered identities, food also is inherently linked to social class. Dougherty, Dixon, and Chou (2009) explain that people from different social classes have distinct relationships with food. From the security and taken-for-grantedness of food in middle and upper classes to the insecurity of food in lower socioeconomic classes, people's relationships to food structure everyday practices and discourses. Particularly for working class people (because "food on the table" is not always a taken-for-granted assumption), food is a highly salient issue that affects a number of behaviors, including not only how they talk about food but also how they prepare meals and make risk-benefit assessments in occupational settings. In this chapter, we focus our attention on a context in which temporary economic upheaval highlights the importance of food in understanding the material complexities of social class and financial insecurity.
In this study, we take a retrospective observer-participant stance to gain insight into accounts of hard times by individuals who were coming of age during the early 1980s recession. Our communicative lens focuses attention on the content and processes whereby people construct messages, tell stories, rework identities, and talk into being those revised realities that incorporate the consequences of negative life events. While the individuals' parents recalled particular strategies enabling resilience, such as talk and material practices associated with "tightening one's belt," preparing for anticipated hard times by saving money and stocking up, and seeking alternative sources of income, individuals who were children or adolescents during the 1980s commented on a different event-government giveaways of surplus cheese--and its significance for them. Nearly 30 years later, these kids, who are now mid-life adults, spontaneously and consistently brought up "the cheese" during interviews about life during the 1980 recession. Our research project examines why "the cheese" is so important to them and how it played a central role in this cohort's collective memory of hard times in "Irontown," a small mining community in the Rust Belt.