Dawn of the Foodies, America’s Most Obnoxious Clique.

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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.[1] 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.[2]

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23 thoughts on “Dawn of the Foodies, America’s Most Obnoxious Clique.

  1. Amen! I keep my radio tuned to my local public radio station. I enjoy most public radio programs, but I can’t stand The Splendid Table. Listening to the way the host and her guests and callers talk about food is infuriating, and you have articulated far better than I can the reasons why. Listening to people talk about food like it’s art or something with which to play strikes me as obscene and disgusting when I think about all the people in the world who don’t have enough food to eat. The “exoticization” of food, as you call it, the elitism, the conspicuous consumption, even the way the host luxuriously describes the characteristics of a food item are repulsive to me. Thank you for writing this article.

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  2. Idren Abdul,

    Peaceful greetings from Jamaica. I am letting you know that I created a link to this blog post. The link word in the post is, of course, foodie. If there is an objection or problem, please let me know and I will remove it. I am slowly reading thru your older posts.

    Bless Up,
    Lady Roots

    Like

  3. Pingback: Rant of the week: White Americans who belong to no culture « who am i? why am i here?

  4. Pingback: Apparently, White People Like to be the First White People to Try Something New. « T’ings ‘n Times

  5. I just came across this definition of “foodie” on dictionary.com:

    A person who has an ardent or refined interest in food; a gourmet: “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.[1] 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.[2]

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  6. aw,

    At least I’m being honest.

    Also, I don’t want to find out what my girlfriend’s capable of if she catches me flirting with strange women on the web. 🙂

    Baby . . . if you’re reading this, it’s all totally harmless fun. Really. 🙂

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  7. haha,

    Thanks for the compliment.

    You’ll be happy to know that I’m not only MORE interesting in person than I am in front of the computer, I’m also TWICE as handsome. 🙂

    And you’re right, unlike some men, I don’t need to beat people just to prove my manhood.

    But while I can promise that you will never experience violence at my hands, I can’t guarantee that my girlfriend will give you the same assurance. 🙂

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  8. Yes, sweetheart. Let us all just sit here and look pretty for the tourists. Unless WE are mistaken for tourists.

    I love your blog, by the way. If you’re half as interesting in person as you are in front of the computer, I’d marry you. At least I’d be sure that DV wouldn’t ensue.

    Like

  9. haha,

    You’d better watch out. Owen Wilson’s Nose might have an Asian fetish! 🙂

    It’s easy for him/her to talk about how great it is to exoticize others because he/she probably considers him/herself the standard, the norm against which everyone else’s difference is magnified and measured. “Difference” for him/her is awesome, as long as s/he is not the different one. Owen Wilson’t Nose sounds like the type of jackhole who comes back from traveling and complains about how everyone was staring at him/her and treating him/her differently.

    But what do I know. I should just shut my brown *ss up and look exotic for the tourists. 🙂 After all, they’re doing me a favor.

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  10. Haha yes! What in the world? I’m South Asian and I’m NOT exotic. Maybe to people from other ethnic groups, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m just another non-exotic person. Someone is bound to say, being exotic is hot, why complain? But hello? When you say being exotic is hot, it’s because you want to say being different is hot. That may be true, but you’re talking about racial differences. THAT is where the problem lies.

    Owen Wilson’s Nose is probably red in this cold weather. Are we allowed to say Owen Wilson’s NOSE is exotic?

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  11. haha,

    Thanks for your comment. At least some people appreciate what I was getting at.

    Your reference to “us non-whites” leads me to believe you are not, in fact White?

    I’m happy that I got my point through to at least one person. 🙂

    Did you read Owen Wilson’s Nose’s comment? Clearly he didn’t get it.

    In lapping up internationalism, the West still insists on maintaining it’s position at the top of the food chain. Ergo, we others—along with our food, music, and culture—are there to be consumed. Discovering “unknown” aspects of the other is hip, just as it was a few centuries ago at the dawn of the colonial period. Elephants may have been food to some Africans but their tusks were more valuable because they could be made into piano keys or billiard balls for the enjoyment of Europe’s wealthy. Screw the Africans who might have wanted to eat them. Even mummies were taken out of the tombs and used as fuel—read firewood or coal—in steam engines.

    At the end of the day, every consumer thinks he/she is doing something good—whatever that something is—as long as it involves engaging with the other. According to Owen Wilson’s Nose, even James Oseland’s exoticization and exploitation of his Indonesian hosts’ servants is to the servants’ benefit, because they might like being exoticized!!! Likewise, the business traveler thinks he’s doing the Thai prostitute a favor by buying her body for a few dollars, the ethnomusicologist who’s sampling “tribal” beats is helping preserve indigenous music, and so on and so forth.

    This was precisely the all-encompassing consumerist attitude I was trying to address in my perhaps overly verbose post.

    And you just made my day by getting it.

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  12. Funny post, Abdul, even though it’s probably meant to be more serious, I like the way you put it. Exotization (is there a word?) of food/people/culture is the new ‘in’ thing, isn’t it? Be it Indian movies, African beats, Vietnamese cuisine, Lebanese kous kous, Bolivian women and what not, the West, in their effort to seem less ethnophobic (perhaps) have lapped up internationalism. In that lies the finely chopped bits of racism, but we do live in a better world. It’s better to call us non-whites exotic than slaves, isn’t it?

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  13. Gabriel,

    Thanks for reading my blog and leaving a comment. I hope you didn’t take offense at my characterization of foodies.

    For the record, I must say I’ve been very pleased with the grammar and cogence of the foodie commenters. Much better than the comments left by the folks who were trying to argue that Dr. Watson was right. 🙂

    This post was in no way an attempt to describe or identify an entire group of people. Even a raving hater like myself understands that all members of a group are not the same. But if my piece had been more nuanced, it might not have sparked the conversation we’re having now.

    I like food too. Just like you. We have that in common with most of the world’s population, I think.

    I know there’s a big difference between the foodies I describe in my post and people like you, because you actually COOK, and you enjoy street food. I’m the same way, except I tend to prefer street food to restaurant food, as it tends to be more varied. Cheaper too. 🙂

    I do take your point that Serrano ham and ikra would be no less delicious if they were less expensive. I also agree that liking food does not mean being rich, but let’s not forget the term “foodie” was coined in the mid-1980s for London restaurant-goers. You figure, people who were frequenting restaurants in Thatcher’s London were more than likely not working-class.

    But, at the end of the day, it’s just food. And for millions of people the world over, eating it is a matter of survival.

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  14. Owen Wilson’s Nose,

    You’re a d*ck.

    You know nothing about me, but thanks for trying. You could at least have read the “About” page.

    I am not an American.

    I do not drink diet soda from 7-11 or anywhere else. I do not have a Mac nor do I own any Ikea furniture. I do not have cable and I do not watch TV so I have no idea what those programs you named are about. I do not own an LCD or an iPod, and I do not have a subscription to iTunes. And I have no idea what Death Cab for Cutie is.

    Nice try, though.

    You are an even bigger d*ck for comparing Indonesian servants with someone who suffers from Tourette Syndrome. A really big, ignorant d*ck. Do you really believe there’s a worthwhile comparison to be made between a person’s nationality or class and a mental illness?

    If James Oseland really cared about the people whose recipes he stole and whose lives he used as seasoning for his book, he would have written about their life stories in his book, instead of simply pirating their recipes. I wonder if he even bothered to learn or remember their names.

    I don’t know, maybe you think it’s fun or cute to be considered exotic or rare. I don’t. I find it very annoying because there’s much more to me—and everyone for that matter—than the country in which we were born or the color of our skin. It’s typical of the orientalist to think orientalizing is OK, simply because he does it. And, even if these servants enjoyed being thought of as rare or exotic, I imagine they’d enjoy a raise—or maybe even getting paid—a lot more.

    But you miss the main point of my blog so I suggest you read it again, this time slowly. Use a dictionary if you need to. It’s OK. The post was not about the exoticization of people. It was about the exoticization of food, and the co-optation of one people’s cuisine so that it can be marketed and sold in another country to a consumer market, in this case foodies.

    In the meantime, do me and my readers a favor. Keep your snide, d*ckhead comments to yourself.

    Go read Oseland’s blog instead. I’m sure you guys will have a lot of fun talking about the milky color of people’s skin or how triumphantly piquant their cuisine is.

    Like

  15. Just like any other stereotype, there may be some element of truth in it, but it certainly does not describe every single individual. I think of myself as a Foodie. At least, my interpretation of what it means to be a Foodie. To me it just means that I really like food. I like learning about it, I like cooking it and clearly I like eating it. I enjoy trying new things and learning about what people in other countries eat. Some of the very best food I’ve ever had would fall under the category of bargains, whether it was a nutella crêpe in France or a Turkish döner in Germany. I don’t really see the connection between being a food aficionado and being rich. I don’t think I would like Spanish Serrano ham or Russian Ikra any less if it was $2/lb. I respect your opinion though, and would agree that sometimes we lose perspective. It is just food after all. Some of us just happen to really like it.

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  16. I believe the point that is being missed, during the diatribe on the social caste system of Indonesia, is that perhaps these same cooks/laborers/indentured servants/personal ball-washers (see Lewis Black) whom you take pity upon, think of themselves as exotic. Far be it for an American, sitting at their particle-board laden Ikea desk, blogging away on their fancy Mac, noisily gulping Diet Soda from a Super Biggie Sized 7-Eleven Cup, while switching between “Real Housewives of Orange County” and “Grey’s Anatomy” on their LCD, to actually consider the feelings of the poor and downtrodden in Indonesia. Has is ever occurred to you that they make actually like being considered exotic and rare? Much the same way the man with Turret’s Syndrome that stalks Pratt St may find himself witty and verbose. Something to ponder about as you cue up your next iPod playlist full of Death Cab for Cutie…

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  17. Jealous much?

    You obviously have the palate of a tongueless chain-smoker.

    By the way, I’m so rich I drink coffee every day from beans only found in monkey excrement. Starbucks is strictly for enemas only.

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  18. slava,

    I never said anything about cooking. Cooking can be, and often is, an art form. Eating and drinking at expensive restaurants, however, is not art. It’s a form of consumption. More importantly, do you think the Indonesian cook who gave this guy his recipes thinks of him/herself as an artist?

    Foodies are elitist, as are other consumers of high culture. All that stuff about flavors and palates and whatnot is also pretty elitist, because millions of people all over the world eat delicious, satisfying meals (if they’re lucky). But they don’t feel the need to talk about it. Because they’re not snobs.

    Foodies are, by definition, elitist because they are a very thin sliver of the human population. They are elite. But while most affluent consumers try to not flaunt their affluence in the presence of less affluent people, foodies have no qualms about talking about how they love exotic and/or expensive food and drink. Sure, they might not use the word “expensive” but if you read between the lines, that’s what they’re saying when they intellectualize food. They’re saying, “I’m so rich, I can afford to go out of my way to eat stuff that most of the world’s population will never even see.”

    And don’t forget that foodies seldom care about where all this exotic food is coming from, who’s busing the tables in the fancy restaurants they frequent, where the waiters live, etc.

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  19. abdul, i hear your point about the elitism that is inherent in this ‘foodie’ business and i am with you on exoticization. but i have to disagree on whether food preparation can be an art form. I think many cooks would too. cooking, what little i know about it, involves understanding of the palate and of every single ingredient and how to combine them. there is skill and there is talent involved, not to mention the presentation. it must not only smell and taste great, it has to look appetizing as well. of course, if we think of the public enjoyment of this art form, it get pricey – eating at restaurants isn’t cheap and accessibly to those who have both the money and the time. other artforms though are not exactly free to enjoy either. i think that DC is one of the very few places out there where all museums are free. in most other cities you have to pay an entry fee or have a membership. theatre, opera, ballet – all cost money. concerts, even buying cds – all cost money. i think there is a difference between food as subsistence and food as art and entertainment. so in the end, yes, foodies are elitist, but probably not more so than avid theatre goers or museum patrons.

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