I don’t remember when exactly I first heard of foodies, but I do remember the exact moment at which I decided they were my new least favorite group. I was in my car, listening to The Splendid Table on National Public Radio (NPR). Right about now, those of you who are familiar with my thinking are probably muttering “listening to NPR was mistake number one” but, whatever. I like to try new things. After all, isn’t variety the spice of life? But I digress.
This particular episode of The Splendid Table featured James Oseland, self-appointed foodie and author of Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Listening to this guy talk about his experience of living in Southeast Asia and “discovering” Indonesian cuisine instilled in me an overwhelming desire to reach inside the radio, grab him by the shoulders, and shake him until his head fell off. Now, those of you who know me must know that I am not normally prone to violent impulses but hopefully, by the time you’re done reading this post, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
I tried in vain to find the audio from James Oseland’s segment, but the best I could come up with was an excerpt from his book. It’s a recipe for beef rendang which, by the way, he pronounced with the most dreadful American accent despite his many months in Southeast Asia. After all, he made a point of credentialing his “expertise” on Indonesian cooking by mentioning the several months he spent in the country, staying at the family home of a friend. As he tells the story, he got sick just as his host family was going out of town for a couple of weeks, so he had the chance to hang out with the family’s cooks in the semi-outdoor kitchen, where the staff spent all day cutting, pounding, grinding, and cooking ingredients to make some of the delicious dishes that are now featured in his book. Here’s a description of beef rendang, taken from his recipe:
This extravagantly rich, dry-braised beef curry is a signature dish of the Minangkabau highlands of West Sumatra, Indonesia. It’s a triumph of flavor, with lime leaves, nutmeg, and cloves. The dish is cooked by a process that inverts normal braising. The beef is slowly simmered in a spiced coconut-milk broth until the broth evaporates and the meat is left to sauté in the intensely flavored rendered coconut and beef oils left in the pot.”
There you have it. This excerpt really gets to the crux of my beef—pun intended—with foodies. Nothing annoys me more than the habit—almost unique to the affluent—of exoticizing and intellectualizing everything. After all, it’s food we’re talking about here! Isn’t eating one of the most basic human activities? Yet this jerk cannot help but elevate it to the level of haute culture. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m as much of an intellectual snob as the next guy but . . .. OK, that’s clearly not true. But my greater point is that, for the millions of Indonesians who are lucky enough to eat beef rendang, it’s just a meal, not an artistic or intellectual experience.
But to this self-annointed foodie, what people eat in Indonesia is not just food. It’s also a commodity that can be packaged, marketed, and sold in the West. He has to intellectualize and exoticize other people’s food so that he can not only make himself an expert on it, but so that he can also sell his cookbook. I mean, how different is this book from the travelogues of the earliest Europeans who first set out to “discover” the rest of the world? Also, let’s not forget, this desire for knowledge is not merely curiousity. It is nothing less than the desire to know in order to own! Are we supposed to believe that James Oseland knows more about Indonesian food than the millions of people who daily cook and eat it? But how many Indonesians are earning a living from publishing books about their own cuisine in the West? Luckily for James Oseland, he got sick right as his hosts were leaving town. Otherwise, he might never have deigned to enter that kitchen and discover all those wonderful Indonesian recipes, whose publication has now enabled him to sell so many of his cookbooks.
Because I’m too lazy to write more on this, and because I know some of you will deny that James Oseland is exoticizing, here’s a random excerpt from his Web site:
We turned off the main road onto a smaller, bumpier one that wound its way toward Karma’s home . . .. The rain had stopped. The chirping of crickets filled the air. [Karma] was in his late 30s and had skin the color of tea with milk.”
If you read the full, unexcised text, you will see the full extent of the exoticization and orientalization of not just the locale, but also the people who inhabit it. But more on exoticization later.
Listening to this guy go on and on about how cozy and warm and aromatic his host family’s outdoor kitchen was, I was also infuriated by his seeming obliviousness to the social, economic, and political dynamics of the situation in which he found himself. I mean, what percentage of Indonesian families live in a house big enough to actually have a fully staffed kitched where cooks spend all day preparing ingredients? Did it occur to James Oseland that perhaps these workers were not even getting paid for their labor? Did he ever wonder where/what all these people ate? Did they eat at the same table as him or his hosts? Did they even eat the same food? If Indonesia is anything like Sierra Leone, I’d say the answer is probably no. But does James Oseland care about all these things? If he does, he certainly didn’t let on during his time on the radio. After all, he spent more time talking about wonderful aromas and pungent spices, giving barely a mention to the people whose labor was the essential ingredient in the preparation of that delicious bounty.
I’m sure by now, you’re all beginning to wonder what any of this has to do with foodies. Well, besides the obvious fact that this guy is a self-appointed foodie who appeared on a self-described foodie program, his attitude, in my opinion, is typical of the foodie worldview. But first, a dash of epistemology. “Foodie” first entered public parlance in 1984 after Paul Levy, Ann Barr, and Mat Sloan published their book The Official Foodie Handbook (wittily subtitled “Be Modern, Worship Food”). Although the book was at least partly meant to be a satirical, tongue-in-cheek look at the new fine-dining craze that was spreading among Londoners, the term has since come to have only positive connotations. For some, at least. But not for me.
Which brings me right back to the foodie worldview. To me, foodies are people who attempt to take one of humankind’s most basic interests (food) and activities (eating) and put them “on a level with painting and drama.” I, like millions of other people, eat because I need to stay alive. While it’s nice to eat something exotic (and usually expensive) once in a while, my primary motivation for eating is to make hunger pangs go away. Food and eating are not art, nor were they ever meant to be. Portraiture, photography, theater, music, and film are arts, which is why we need our huge brains to appreciate these things. But our brains were not created to help us enjoy food or eating, only to trigger the hunger impulse and help us remember which foods might kill us.
Foodies, on the other hand, view food and eating as an art. This is because foodies—like most people who favor high culture—are so well off, so comfortable, that eating is no longer a basic activity that is essential for survival. To them, eating is leisure. It’s something they do for fun, in much the same way one might see Shakespeare or go to the opera. So affluent are foodies that they can now afford to intellectualize not only food, but also the process of preparing and eating it. Foodies also love to try new restaurants and talk about the food. Going to a restaurant with a foodie, I imagine, would be a lot like going for a drive with a car enthusiast and learning much more than you ever wanted to know about torque, horsepower, traction, and RPMs. Or, it would be like going over to watch a movie at your friend’s place on her new 60-inch plasma television, only to have to listen to her talk about how great the sound and picture quality are.
Of course, you will never see a foodie at the local Sudanese joint—which, by the way is where I spend most of my time—banging on about how zesty, moist, and tender the lamb is. You will catch a foodie nowhere near the Sierra Leonean place asking whether the fufu is made from yams, plantains, or cassava (my favorite), and which of the three is best. No! The foodie would not be caught dead anywhere near where real people eat. For the foodie, it’s not just the quality of the food that matters. The foodie must be able to discuss every aspect of the eating experience, including the price. Because, when it comes to food and eating, the foodie seeks the exotic and the exclusive. I’ve heard the argument that foodies are merely people who enjoy [good] food, but that’s clearly not the case. Everyone enjoys food. I’m sure the homeless guy last week enjoyed the steak and cheese sub I bought him. The difference is, he ate it because he was hungry, not because it was fun. Intellectualizing food is not a luxury he can afford. This is what separates him—and millions of regular people—from foodies. And it is precisely this desire to be separate, to be different, that makes foodies nothing more than a clique. An obviously above-average-income clique, but a clique nonetheless.
More aggravating than the obvious affluence and pretentiousness of self-described foodies is their very hypocritical attempt to pass for ordinary. Even the word “foodie” sounds so innocent, so simple, so unpretentious; something a child could have come up with—mommy, daddy, baby, foodie. It’s not as if there weren’t already plenty of words that could be used in place of “foodie.” After all, gourmet, epicure, and aficionado are all synonyms and acceptable—if not perfect—substitutes for “foodie.” But part of the foodie illusion is the everydayness of it all, from the quotidian nature of the word itself to the very pedestrianism of some foodies’ culinary concerns. Using words of French or Italian origin might, after all, give the impression that foodies are . . . well . . . pretentious and not just like other people, which is a total no-no, especially in America, were everyone strives to be average.
In reality, foodies are the farthest thing from ordinary people. They are a huge consumer market for wines, cheeses, farmers’ markets, cookbooks, television shows, and expensive restaurants, along with the celebrity chefs who run them. Emeril, Jamie Oliver, and the very, very, zesty and delectable Nigella Lawson would all be unemployed if not for foodies. Foodies seek out exotic and exclusive foods and recipes, not simply because the food tastes good, but because they value the exoticism of the food and the exclusivity of the restaurant. This makes a foodie no different from any other affluent consumer who craves the newest car, the latest cell phone, or the most sought-after condo in the trendiest neighborhood. For foodies, the food and drink they consume are not meant merely to sate their hunger or quench their thirst. For foodies, food and drink are luxuries, a sign of affluence, a badge of status.
At the end of the day, in today’s world in which millions of people go to bed hungry, and millions more make do without three balanced meals a day, the foodie lifestyle is grotesque in its magnification of inequality, and foodies themselves are an affront to compassion and the spirit of communitarianism.
EDIT: It seems some readers have been confused by my definition of “foodies,” and wanted to know where I got my characterizations. Please see below for my working definitions which—although I recognize are not universally applicable—cover a sufficient range of my understanding of foodies and the foodie lifestyle.
I came across this definition of “foodie” on dictionary.com:
A person who has an ardent or refined interest in food; a gourmet: “[someone] in the culinary fast lane, where surprises are expected and foodies beg to be thrilled” (Boston Globe).
And here are a couple more definitions from Wikipedia:
Foodies are a distinct hobbyist group in the United States. Typical foodie interests and activities include the food industry, wineries and wine tasting, food science, following restaurant openings and closings, food distribution, food fads, health and nutrition, and restaurant management. A foodie might develop a particular interest in a specific item, such as the best egg cream or burrito. Many publications have food columns that cater to foodies. Interest by foodies in the 1980s and 1990s gave rise to the Food Network and other specialized food programming, popular films and television shows about food such as Top Chef and Iron Chef, a renaissance in specialized cookbooks, specialized periodicals such as Gourmet Magazine and Cook’s Illustrated, growing popularity of farmers’ markets, food-oriented websites like Zagat’s and Yelp, publishing and reading food blogs (a number of people photograph and post on the Internet every meal they ever make or consume), specialized kitchenware stores like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table, and the institution of the celebrity chef.
Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, foodies differ from gourmets in that gourmets are epicures of refined taste who may or may not be professionals in the food industry, whereas foodies are amateurs who simply love food for consumption, study, preparation, and news. Gourmets simply want to eat the best food, whereas foodies want to learn everything about food, both the best and the ordinary, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food.