Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Are you a Foodie?

Something about the term "foodie" has always rubbed me the wrong way. It's never been something I wanted to call myself, even though (if forced to reflect upon it) I must admit that I meet several of the defining criteria.

The term "foodie" derives, as best as I can tell, from Paul Levy and Ann Barr's 1985 book The Official Foodie Handbook. Here's the opening paragraph:

What is a Foodie? You are probably. A Foodie is a person who is very very very interested in food. Foodies are the ones interested in food in any gathering - salivating over restaurants, recipes and radicchio. They don't think they are being trivial - Foodies consider food to be an art, on a level with painting and drama. It's actually your favourite art form.
Why did we need a new term? "Epicure" and "gourmet" had served us just fine for years. But, following the hangover of the James Beard and Julia Child days and the onset of the anti-grande cuisine reaction in the 1970s and 1980s (triggered, I guess, by Alice Waters and the whole California food thing), those old terms had just taken on too much baggage: stuffy, snobbish . . . food priggery.

Levy's definition of "foodie", with its references to high art, may not sound much better, but it definitely took on a different slant from "gourmet." The latter was some one interested primarily in just eating, the pure connoisseurism and enjoyment of the very best in refined dining. The refined part didn't matter as much to the foodies. The were food amateurs, but they loved not just eating but everything about food, including learning as much as possible about food and, of course, talking incessantly about it.

Somewhere along the line "foodie" took on its own set of negative connotations, namely obsessive compulsion and judgmentalism. It wasn't enough that foodies had to memorize every strain of bacteria used in fermented cheeses and proceed to enumerate them for you with color commentary at cocktail parties. While they were at it, they took the extra time to sneer at the pasteurized cheddar chunks that your host was so ill-informed as to serve.

But my resistance to the term goes deeper than the negative overtones. Part of it is a general impatience with people who let a hobby or interest get all out of whack until it becomes a "lifestyle" or, worse, forms a large portion of their identity.

The truth of the matter, if you get down to it, is that a predilection for pursuing good eats at the expense of reason and practicality doesn't define your identity so much as it defines the identity of your spouse or significant other, who must endure countless sidetrips down country roads because "I think I remember hearing about a guy around here somewhere who makes the best liver pudding in three counties." Who must suffer through extensive mumbled gripes and kvetching any time you spend more than two days encamped at the homes of relatives who insist upon serving pre-breaded, pre-flavored frozen chicken breasts to you for dinner. Who frequently is told "I'm just going to whip up something light for dinner" only to return three hours later to a kitchen knee-deep in dirty pans and the smoke alarm going off.

"The poor woman," she overhears them say in hushed tones. "She's married to that food nut."

But, let's cut to the chase. The fact of the matter is that "foodie" is simply one of the damn silliest names for a food lover that anyone could have come up with.

It would be one thing if it was an insult concocted by a bunch of fast-food junkies and Hamburger Helper devotees to mock food snobs. But why would any sensible human being want to say to another, "Oh, yes, I am a foodie!" Would a motorcylist announce, "I'm a bikie?" Would a oenophile embrace being a "winey" or a numismatist a "coiney"? Somehow I think not.

Maybe Levy tacked on that dorky "-ie" suffix just for that reason, to separate down-to-earth foodies from the stuffier, self-important gourmets. No latinate technical terms or snooty faux-Frenchism for them, just cute, little inoffensive "foodies." Or maybe the British are just weird.

In any event, it doesn't work for me.

I've always been partial to Calvin Trillin's preferred term, "big hungry boy," which describes someone who's passionate about food but mostly just wants to eat all the time and will go to great lengths to seek out tasty items but rarely, if ever, lords it over people who might have (if you were a foodie judging them, at least) "less discerning" tastes. A Big Hungry Boy would be far less interested in a yet another foie gras-topped filet than an unparalleled "River Dog" from Joseph Riley Park in Charleston (with its unbeatable combination of coleslaw, mustard-based barbecue sauce, and a big spear of pickled okra laid along top).

But, what's in a name? The Wife frequently chastises me for my "obsessive" interest in matters such as finding housemade pancetta or fresh, on-premise-ground burgers. But she has her own unnatural fascination with the daily minutiae of third-rate screen actors and really has no room for throwing stones.

After all, when I'm off on the road on yet another business trip, she may be stuck at home with two young children and nothing in the cubboard but a tin of really good Spanish sardines, a jar of handmade mustard, and six varieties of heirloom rice that take three hours to cook. But, I doubt she worries too much that I'm out at the nudie bars "entertaining clients" or hitting up the bellhops for tips on evening entertainment. It's a much safer bet that I'm alone in my room at 9:00 PM, sleeping off another triple-platter from Gates's Barbecue (ribs, sliced beef, and ham!) and calculating in my REM-sleep whether I have time to finish a client meeting at 10:30, grab a burnt ends sandwich on the way to the airport, and still make a 12:20 flight.

I suppose it could be a lot worse.


Anonymous said...

I don’t like the term either. The word has been applied to me by male acquaintances, who have a limited interest in food and do not cook. They do not understand why I am very interested in food and am willing to cook, to get the desired results. Perhaps my drive comes from a mother who was a good cook and was willing to try new things.

Janet said...

I always assumed my aversion to the term had to do with my being a word lover as well as a food lover. (I'm not keen on "veggie," either, for instance.) Speaking of "food lover," that's a term that works for me. Meanwhile, Gates barbecue? Have you been in KC lately, or is there another one somewhere?

Robert said...


You are very perceptive! I actually wrote this post while sitting in the lobby at the Westin Kansas City Hotel, about an hour after returning from a big meal at Gates BBQ. I was in KC for a business trip, and I think that got me thinking about Calvin Trillin, which got me thinking about big hungry boys vs. foodies, which led to the post.

I'm working on a Gates' post, too, which should be up shortly!

Eva said...

Splendid post. I do not use the word, either, and you've pretty much covered all my objections. So I give you Chris Onstad addressing people who use the term: "You sound like knee-dandling aunties, like a CEO named Charles who opts to go by the diminutive Chuckie. It's an idiotic term, and an embarrassment of the age. Like food is something we discovered in 1995. As though it were a novelty thing."

Robert said...

Great link, Eva!

The Wife said...

Um, what's wrong with Hamburger Helper?

Popular Posts