foodie: (pronunciation: \füd-ee\)
Etymology: from Middle English fode
1: one who appreciates food (archaic)
2: food snob
3: dilettante who knows little about food but insists on imposing their opinions on others
I love food. Eating it, cooking it, learning about it. Sometimes, I even get paid to write about it. By most definitions that would make me a “foodie.” But when people call me that, my jaw clenches. It’s like nails on a chalkboard or seafood drenched in cheese. A repulsive and unholy sensory experience. An Ennio Morricone aria sung by Celine Dion.
“Foodie” is a casual descriptor, ostensibly neutral. One Sunday morning a couple months ago, I tweeted about how much I loathed being part of the genus “foodie.” To my surprise, my fellow food nerds tweeted their agreement. Here I was, thinking of myself as a bold contrarian only to discover that I was not alone. In fact, I was in the vast majority.
The New F-Word
Among many food geeks I know, “foodie” is perceived as a slur. Just as no bona-fide hipster (insert pale, skinny, ironic, androgynous, American Apparel-wearing stereotype here) would ever label himself as such, no food writer worth her weight in Hawaiian red sea salt would willingly wear that badge of dishonor. What’s with the “Scarlet F?” As @theminty elegantly replied: “I am really a food geek but the term foodie is more easily understood. I’m a little surprised how much the word is despised.”
“Musical subcultures exist because our guts tell us certain kinds of music are for certain kinds of people,” Carl Wilson writes in “Let’s Talk About Love,” his brilliant dissection of taste, identity and Celine Dion (once again, I find myself circling back to Mme. Dion). “But music never stops being a badge of recognition,” Wilson continues. “And in the rhetoric of dismissal…we bar the doors of the clubs we don’t want to claim us as members.”
Food is the new rock and roll, right? Swap out “food” for “music” and Wilson’s assertion hits closer to home. Is my contempt for the word “foodie” so shallow that it rests on the most transparent kind of elitist bias? On setting myself apart from — and above — a certain type of food fanatic?
From the Horse’s Mouth
A few years ago, I was at a birthday dinner sitting at one end of a long table with a lot of people I didn’t know. They were perfectly pleasant, except for That Woman. You know: Loves to ask your opinion so she can explain Why You’re Wrong. She was chatting with my friend and I about food, but what started as a casual conversation quickly became a denunciation (then abrasive, now funny) of anything we liked.
With deadly seriousness, she leaned in to inquire, as if administering a pop quiz, “Are you foodies?” My friend flashed me an incredulous look. “No,” he deadpanned, “we just like to eat.” It was far more polite than what he wanted to say. For her, this conversation had stopped being about food before she ever spoke to us. This conversation was about identity — and she was desperate to prove hers was more authentic.
On some level, I feel the same way about soi-disant foodies as I do about straightedge punks. I respect the belief system but not usually the people who proudly identify as such; there’s something unseemly about wanting so badly to hang your identity on a readymade hook. Besides, they’re mostly humorless.
The notion that “labels don’t matter” has always struck me as woefully optimistic or utterly impractical. My own pan-hedonistic, post-everything ethos makes me skeptical of words that attempt to encapsulate a zeitgeist. Consider the following: preppie, hippie, yuppie, yippie, plushie. Have such subcultural diminutives with cutesy -ie endings ever not evolved into pejoratives?
On the one hand, “foodie” implies earnest, unironic fandom, the kind of culinary charlatan who has “an interest in food but no knowledge or creativity,” as @TriceraPops tweets. On the other hand, it suggests an expertise that’s often unearned. Labels like foodie or hipster have become so broad that they increase our prejudices while decreasing our knowledge, ultimately saying nothing about the people they supposedly describe.
On the first accusation: Yay! In an era largely devoid of guilty pleasures, sincerity shouldn’t be the last one. As to the second charge: So what? It’s easy to forget before any of us was someone who knew a lot about something (Peruvian cuisine, Chevy small-block engines, French-Canadian chanteuses), there was a time when we didn’t. I can theorize all I want about how I am knowingly redefining my identity by appropriating a “label” and recontextualizing it from outside the parameters of a particular set of culturally assumed values… Ultimately, it comes down to whatever words we like best.
So you can call me a food geek, a glutton, a fresser. I suppose you can even (sigh) call me a foodie. (Just don’t call me late for dinner.) Sure, it’s a milquetoast slur, unquestionably inadequate and meaninglessly expansive. But my jaw now unclenches when I hear it. I don’t let it spoil my appetite.