Finding a role for the foodie

Why do some people dream about food so much?
Zac Alstin | Jul 1 2014 | comment  

Have you heard of a ‘foodie’? Originating in 1982, the term refers to someone “with a particular interest in food”. Foodies have been labelled a ‘distinct hobbyist group’, with the term encompassing a wide variety of specialised interests ranging from the intricacies of food production and preparation to the more modest aim of finding the perfect burger. Like any hobby, there are die-hard extremists for whom foodie-ism becomes an identity, while at the other end of the scale are those anonymous foodies who merely like to share their culinary adventures on Facebook.

Like most neologisms, the word ‘foodie’ rubs me the wrong way. But how else can a person put a name to their intense and noteworthy appreciation for food? 

‘Gourmet’ is too posh and connotes an exclusivity of class divisions. ‘Gourmand’ invokes images of aggressively obese middle-aged Frenchmen, and the implications of its etymological root in ‘gluttony’ may strike a nerve. Besides, ‘gourmet’ is a claim to superior knowledge – the connaissance of the connoisseur; and ‘gourmand’ is difficult to say without adopting a French accent. As a particularly incisive contribution to Urban Dictionary noted:

“Though the terms ‘gastronome’ and ‘epicure’ define the same thing, i.e. a person who enjoys food for pleasure, these words are perceived by the modern American consumer as elitist due to their Latin root forms and polysyllabic pronunciations.”

The humble foodie merely loves his food, his good Old English foda. There’s a purity and a simplicity to his affection that resonates with the integrity of the meal, whether it be the thrilling authenticity of a particular Vietnamese phở, or the transcendent moral purity of the freest of free-range chickens: hand-fed, well-read, and accomplished on the piano.

Our cynic at Urban Dictionary thinks the foodie is a marketing ploy:

“A dumbed-down term used by corporate marketing forces to infantilize and increase consumerism in an increasingly simple-minded American magazine reading audience. The addition of the long "e" sound on the end of a common word is used to create the sensation of being part of a group in isolationist urban society, while also feminizing the term to subconsciously foster submission to ever-present market sources.”

But others see a deeper significance, even a potent ethical ideal, at the heart of the foodie fascination with the quality of food. As a recent op-ed at the New York Times by Mark Bittman argued:

“shifting the implications of ‘foodie’ means shifting our culture to one in which eaters — that’s everyone — realize that buying into the current food ‘system’ means exploiting animals, people and the environment, and making ourselves sick. To change that, we have to change not only the way we behave as individuals but the way we behave as a society. It’s rewarding to find the best pork bun; it’s even more rewarding to fight for a good food system at the same time. That’s what we foodies do.”

Bittman has a point; and invoking themes such as ‘sustainability’ ‘fairness’ and ‘affordability’ in support of the living wage, local food, and tradition (‘“Real” means traditional; if it existed 100 years ago, it’s probably real’) makes me want to start a smallholding yesterday.

If Bittman is right, the ideal foodie might be someone who uses his relationship with food as the context for an existential battle against dehumanising consumerism and economic rationalism: the chicken at the supermarket is significantly cheaper but I can choose to buy from the local butcher instead, thereby supporting small business, local producers, and paying a premium for tastier poultry dressed with a statement of my higher moral values; putting my money where my mouth will be.

On the other hand, the foodie movement might be little more than the turn of a consumerist hedonism toward the new market of ‘food appreciation’. What more disheartening statement of societal decline could there be at the beginning of the 21st century than the self-conscious indulgence of empowered consumers in the deeply meaningful quest to achieve sensual salvation through superior victuals – like some artisanal bread of life?

Ultimately the cynic at Urban Dictionary and the idealist at the New York Times might both be right, because the foodie subculture inhabits a tension inherent in the human relationship with food: food is a basic good of our existence, as well as a source of immense pleasure that can stretch our desires, not to mention our bodies, beyond their natural limits. 

But the virtues of the foodie ideal are not exclusive to the realm of food. Most areas of human productivity and consumption will improve if we start to emphasise quality over quantity. The values described by Bittman in relation to food systems can apply to any dichotomy where the cheap, the low-quality, and the mass produced vie with high quality, individualised yet expensive goods, be they clothing, furniture, construction and so on. 

Even Bittman acknowledges that not all foodies make the praiseworthy transition into genuine food activism, and his attempt to reframe the neologism in a more noble direction might not be representative of the foodie population. Without Bittman’s integritist aspirations, the foodie movement might be merely a benign yet self-indulgent hobby: the social-media savvy hedonism of an educated middle-class with nothing more important to do.    

Life in this spectacularly wealthy era offers us the very attractive option of thinking we might as well just enjoy ourselves. Though self-enjoyment has never before been touted as a satisfactory answer to life’s most troubling questions, we appear to be entering an era in which a confluence of factors make it increasingly easy to distract oneself from such questions in the first place. 

Perhaps this is the true significance of foodie-ism as neologism, subculture, social-media nexus, and fashionable vehicle for purposive activity. Foodie-ism cannot answer life’s questions, but it can provide sufficient meaning and social context in our increasingly online world to keep one distracted from more existential concerns. The foodie is, after all, not a mere consumer, but an active participant in, as researcher Isabelle de Solier put it:

“finding everyday ways to express a sense of creativity and to have the feeling of making something in this post-industrial world where most of us no longer have an opportunity to make things or be creative in our paid work.”

That feeling is not merely a distraction. Many of us play the role of alienated consumers, able to order almost anything online but incapable of reproducing almost any of it in real life. Yet this creative/productive challenge is important precisely because it ties into life’s greater existential questions. Our yearning to do something more meaningful than simply eat is a taste of our deeper hunger for true meaning in our lives.

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia.

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