Let’s say you’re at a party, hovering over a gooey white puck of Mt. Tam, canape-concerned, ignoring the guests swirling around you, when a stranger sidles over and sizes you up. “Hey,” he says, a wide, knowing grin spreading across his face as he gestures at the cheese-covered knife you’re determinedly sliding across a good cracker. “You’re a real foodie, aren’t you?” “No, I’m just hungry,” you say, wincing — because you hate that word.
You’re not alone. To its detractors, the term “foodie” brings to mind Yelp–happy yuppies prone to infantile rhapsodizing on the subject of beloved foodstuffs. Yet to its advocates, the word merely characterizes a commitment to eating well — less prissy-sounding than “epicure,” without the Anton Ego-esque pomposity “gourmand” evokes. According to etymologist Barry Popik, former New York magazine food critic Gael Greene first used it in print in 1980. A few years later, Paul Levy and Ann Barr inserted “foodie” into the title of their book “The Official Foodie Handbook.” Since then, it’s appeared in countless cookbooks and memoirs, and thoroughly penetrated our vernacular.
A lot of people think arguing about what words mean is a silly preoccupation. Given life’s great challenges and the limits clocks and calendars impose, this particular linguistic scrap is not, in the big scheme of things, a fantastic use of time, but if enough people harbor strong opinions about the term’s use and meaning, it’s by nature worth addressing.
We all know people who truly don’t care what they eat, much less where their food comes from, or who makes it. These folks backpack through Europe proudly subsisting on jug wine and potato chips. They eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch every day. They forget to eat at all unless they’re reminded to do so. Food is just fuel, nothing more. Identifying yourself as a “foodie” is a way of saying you’re different.
Of course labels define people in overly simplistic and easily adjustable terms. People don’t necessarily have a problem with the existence of “foodie,” just with its ubiquity and the vague jumble of ever-evolving potential meanings it implies. If you’re a “foodie,” do you eat for pleasure? Do you talk about food all the time? Do you think eating is a political act? Do you dutifully follow food trends? Are you knowledgeable about food? Are you a fan? An aficionado? An adventurer? Do you spend too much at restaurants? Do you buy organic and local? Do you really have the time to track down every Twittered street food cart in town? “Foodie” may have been conjured up with a positive meaning in mind, but most word configurations ending in “ie” that describe people — alkie, druggie, yuppie, even hippie — tend to have disparaging connotations, and this one is no exception.
Unfortunately, similar one-word alternatives to “foodie” flop for other reasons: phonetically speaking, “foodist” is one letter away from “nudist;” a “foodster” sounds like a runaway hot-dog cart souped up with a diesel engine.
A house party in the Mission: Are these guys foodies? Photo by Michael Chopko
My house: What about this lady? Photo by A. Simmons
“Foodie” makes me think of hedonists with healthy appetites and strong opinions, but only a fleeting, superficial interest in food as anything more than a source of sensory delight. I’m not prescribing any Michael Pollan. The unexamined sandwich is still sometimes worth eating, but to me, “foodie” as a label implies frivolity when food is actually quite serious: an essential human requirement in which we’ve merely evolved to seek and derive incredible joy. Our relationship with what we eat shapes a text as rich as any other, a tapestry of taste woven across time through history, language, science, and art — reflective of, as is the case with most of what’s really important, everything humans have experienced. From fire-pits to Ferran Adria, food preparation is much older than music, art, and theater; it’s right up there with sex and violence. Being in touch with the role it plays means you’re engaged, not elitist. Seeing a dude on the bus with a grease-smeared McDonald’s bag in his lap and sneering because he doesn’t appear to value good food is elitist — and presumptuous. Maybe that guy knows more about food than you. Maybe he’s more passionate about his quarter-pounder than you are about Mission Street Food. Maybe he eats those weak burgers and, with every savored nibble, whips up waves of fond memory — road trips, family vacations, burger-y smells filling up the car and fogging up the windows, styrofoam folders of steaming breakfast munched on the school steps before homeroom — and puts him back in places he likes to keep close. Maybe he’s not what some people would call a foodie. Maybe he’s more than that.
Last week, I enjoyed a dinner with dedicated eaters. As the first course landed, I asked them what they thought of the word “foodie.” Predictably, a few embraced the term, a few dismissed it, and the rest shrugged and said they did not care. The newish Mission Burger came up an hour later, right after dessert, once a bottle of whiskey had begun making the rounds. “Oh, you should check it out,” I said, perking up. “It’s in a market, next to the meat counter.” I went on. “Sounds like something a foodie would say,” a friend immediately remarked wryly once I’d paused. “Right — and then blog,” said another.
People vulnerable to the foodie label like to discuss food and break news of hidden favorites. As we sat in my dining room, stuffed, half-drunk, talking about food, I thought of my late great-aunt Florence from Barlow, Kentucky. A large, funny woman with a tiny kitchen and pecan trees out back, she used each meal as an opportunity to plan the next. Sitting at the table tucking into bacon, eggs, and toast, she’d wonder aloud: “now, we’ll have green beans for supper, with potatoes and maybe a little ham.” She wouldn’t have known the difference between gazpacho and a can of Campbell’s, but she really liked to eat and talk about eating. Was she a foodie?
The foodie compulsion to share obsessively can irritate, but if food has the capacity to enrich lives, help forge relationships, and enlighten perspectives, then by passing it along, such fervent consumers — whether they be writers, food industry professionals, or laypeople — might be doing a service by sharing those possibilities with others. Sure, haughty critics and tastemakers (as well as discerning consumers) often spout off snark with no personal creative perspective — like a know-it-all modern furniture buff who doesn’t own a hammer, or an avid record collector who has never set foot in a studio. All the same, an intelligent thoughtful discourse about something meaningful elevates that something. People preserve things by paying attention to them, and what we preserve says a lot about us. Food is no exception. Every little bite counts. A burger is not just a burger, and anyone who doesn’t get that isn’t looking hard enough. Writing and talking about food isn’t dancing about architecture — not that dancing about architecture is a particularly bad idea — once you think about it.