You can’t go on suspending judgment forever — that would be to forgo genuinely enjoying music, since you can’t enjoy what you can’t like. But a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors — to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare. This kind of exchange takes place sometimes between citics on the Internet, and it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours?
I have an ambivalent relationship with the word “foodie.” If a “foodie” is someone who enjoys good food and drink and is devoted to exploring every angle of the culinary world, then count me in. But if a foodie is someone who is mostly interested in the latest food fads, in what is current and fashionable, then count me out.
“Foodie” is the culinary equivalent of hipster. Both the “foodie” and the hipster achieve social prestige by knowing about exclusive things before anyone else. The foodie dines at a restaurant, or more likely a food truck, before everybody else discovers it. The word irks, smacking of an elitism that marks certain food types (e.g. Korean fusion), establishments (e.g. pop-ups), ingredients (e.g. vadouvan) and techniques (e.g. anything fried) as superior to others. In fact, the term positions foodies as consumers on one side and puts food creators — bakers, fishmongers, farmers, restaurateurs — on the other side. Can’t I be both?
The term foodie has become so popular that even otherwise respectable people are using it. One of my favorite food bloggers, Chez Pim, parlayed her deep love of eating, cooking and entertaining into a book, The Foodie Handbook. Mazel tov to Pim on getting her book published. However, the book falls victim to the worst excesses of the term. It is structured as an instruction manual with chapters on “How to eat like a foodie,” “How to drink like a foodie,” “How to cook like a foodie,” and “How to be a fabulous foodie.” The book is so pretentious that it offers “tips on outsnobbing the staff of a Michelin three-star restaurant.” Triple yuck! Even though there are some excellent cooking tips and recipes (e.g. strawberries in hibiscus in vanilla soup) in the book, it is marketed towards the wealthy traveling gourmand. That’s not me, so I say: stick with the blog, Pim.
In 2006, a few years before folding, Gourmet magazine entered the world of food television with Diary of a Foodie. The show is positioned as a PBS-ified version of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, this time starring Ruth Reichl, Gourmet’s editor-in-chief, who travels the globe in search of yumminess. Although I find its content, personalities and recipes appealing, the opening sequence of each show irritates me when, against a montage of people, places and food, the narrator declares, “Some of us cook, some of us grow, some of us eat and some of us write. We are called foodies, and the food world is where we live.” Again with the elitism—we, the foodies, get to travel all over the world, eating from this culture, cavorting and having a good time while you stay home. Oh and moreover, we get to film it and show you how much better we are than you. Please…
I’m not the only one who feels this way:
- Believe it or not, according to CNN’s Eatocracy, chefs hate foodies. According to this piece, they are overzealous, trendy media whores who are ultimately disrespectful of the hard-working professionals who make their food.
- Darra Goldstein, the editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, laments “that little -ie suffix immediately trivializes the person it names.” She even held a contest to find a replacement term. Her readers came up with “culinarian,” which seems better albeit a bit academic.
- Finally, in an article for The Atlantic, anti-foodieism, especially against food writers, becomes a moral issue. The author asserts that to be a foodie is to be a glutton, placing culinary indulgence above all other values and leading an elitism that borders on moral depravity.
Unfortunately, foodie elitism has value in our culture. In the 1979, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu published his masterwork, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, and established the concept of “cultural capital”: the idea that our aesthetic choices are an artifact of our socioeconomic position. Bourdieu articulated a correlation between taste and class position: the more rarified or obscure an aesthetic experience is, the better its ability to distinguish us from those further down the social hierarchy. For Bourdieu, the value of distinction is truly the only real value “refined” or “civilized” tastes have.
This desire to amass cultural capital via distinction has become increasingly pervasive since Bourdieu’s book was published. Amazon asks us to create and curate lists of our favorite books and music. Facebook demands that we “like” what others post about. We are asked to make ever-finer distinctions of style, thereby perpetuating and reproducing the class structure.
But taste, literally, is something we all have. Instead of dismissing others as culinary savages, wouldn’t it be better for each of us to better understand our own tastes—where they come from, who we inherited them from, how they function in the context of our personal histories, how they play out on certain occasions? Shouldn’t we be sympathetic to all tastes, not just our own, asking with curiosity what does this dish mean to another person, another culture, another community? A more democratic, more pluralistic culinary landscape opens possibilities for connection with others unlike ourselves. So, eat out more, try something new and ask questions of your grocer, waiter or fishmonger. Now, let’s eat!
For a rundown of some of the food-oriented and other cultural events that Brian has helped bring to the JCCSF this season, see the video interview at :