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What Was the Foodie?

Food culture has never been bigger. It's also never been more controversial.

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for NYCWFF

The foodie—as a word, a concept, a person—began life in the early 1980s. New York writer Gael Greene first used the term in a restaurant review, but it was Ann Barr and Paul Levy of England’s Harper’s and Queen who popularized it. In 1984 they published The Official Foodie Handbook, a lighthearted tome that explains that the foodie is not a gourmet, since she need not be a snob, a professional, or a man. She is not a gourmand, either, since she need not possess a pathological appetite. The foodie eats to meet the demands of her body from the neck up, not the neck down. Mind, mouth, soul: This is where the foodie lives.

Looking back in 2007, Levy wrote that he knew the word would hit the culture like a “cocktail stick applied to a raw nerve.” People like to be seen, and neologisms like “foodie” give us a way to name what was previously unnameable. A light goes on and you see the phenomenon everywhere. But even though, 35 years on from Levy and Barr’s book, the foodie is ubiquitous, she has never been harder to define.

If Barr and Levy were right in asserting that foodie culture is a late-twentieth-century trend in passion-driven behaviors, then we are now living through the full commercialization of their theory. We are deluged with advertisements for meal-kits (if I hear another Blue Apron podcast ad I will scream) and viral videos for making lasagna. The internet is crammed with food media, from the heady intellectual heights of The New York Times food section to the rapid-fire content streams of BuzzFeed’s Tasty. Celebrity chefs are household names, the food documentary is a veritable genre on Netflix, and Instagram is the mantelpiece where we place our careful portraits of home chef cosplay. Everybody and their uncle is an authority on natural wines, while my friends all cook with elaborate intention.

“Foodie-ism” more than ever describes a special area in our culture, politics, and economy. And this is why it has also been buffeted by the kinds of public controversies that traditionally played out beyond the confines of the kitchen. I’m talking about Summerhill, the restaurant that opened in 2017 in Crown Heights riddled with fake “bullet holes,” and the rosé and now water sold in bottles meant to resemble 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. I’m talking about the fact that you can still find “oriental Chicken salad” on the menu at Applebee’s, long after the outdated term was eviscerated in the Times. And I’m talking, of course, about the #MeToo movement and how it has brought down erstwhile paragons of the foodie community like Mario Batali.

I am not a foodie. I don’t even know the difference between a meuniere and a mirepoix. But from the outside looking in, it’s clear that foodie culture is roiling with a new awareness of social politics, undermining some of that culture’s unspoken tenets: that taste and pleasure are neutral, universal concepts; that the kitchen is an apolitical zone. Being a foodie now, in 2019, requires thinking with more than your tongue.

Bertony Faustin has a pithy assessment of the mystique that surrounds wine-making: “It’s bullshit.” Faustin, Oregon’s first black vintner, made the comment to chef Soleil Ho and reporter Zahir Janmohamed in 2016, on their podcast “Racist Sandwich,” which explores the intersection of food culture with race, gender, and class. Faustin spoke derisively of the arcana surrounding winemaking: the weird neckties vintners wear, the sense that the process of turning grapes into alcohol is ineffably magical, the monopoly that white people hold on that “magic.” Wine is not a potion conjured by druids, Faustin pointed out: “It’s chemistry.” But wine is so swaddled in norms about how its enthusiasts should look, act, and speak that the industry has effectively shut out people of color.

“Racist Sandwich,” now 68 episodes strong, is pausing operations while Ho takes up a job as restaurant critic at The San Francisco Chronicle. Originally based in Portland, the whitest big city in America, Ho and Janmohamed started the podcast in 2016 to offer listeners “a perspective that you don’t hear often: that both food and the ways we consume, create, and interpret it can be political.” They have made their point abundantly by reporting the erasure of black and brown people from Texan barbecue culture and discussing sexual harassment allegations against prominent chef John Besh.

The bullshit, to use Faustin’s term, is everywhere. The reason is clear: The basic principle of the food industry is the exchange of cash for edible objects, so its social architecture has been built by the people who have traditionally been the wealthiest. If cooking is a working class profession, dining is the province of the bourgeoisie and fine dining, where cooking as an art reaches its pinnacle, is the dominion of the rich. This structure has implications for food culture as a whole, trickling down to influence what the foodie cooks at home, what she buys at the supermarket, what she posts on her social media account. Perhaps the best example of this trickle-down effect is the Times’s Food section (previously the Dining section), where traditional reviews of fine dining establishments meet a vast database of recipes for the home cook—recipes that are often written by celebrity chefs like Gabrielle Hamilton (Prune and, for a brief controversial period, the Spotted Pig) and David Tanis (formerly of Chez Panisse).

Exacerbating matters, the culinary arts are indelibly rooted in French kitchen culture, from knife skills to the way that sommeliers are trained. Though the cuisines of Italy and Japan have since taken their place alongside French cuisine as the primary colors of high-end cooking, French customs, from the barking male chef in the kitchen to the veneration of European tradition, are ingrained in American foodie culture. That Eurocentricity plays out in food criticism, too. The Times splits its dining coverage between it signature high-brow restaurant column and a roving reporter who visits smaller, mostly “ethnic” places for the “Hungry City” section. The Times also regularly runs food articles that gently introduce “ethnic” foods to their readers, for example classifying miso and soy sauce as “expert” level pantry items.

When you take into account the way the fine dining industry overlaps with home cooking and food media, the overall effect is of a culture that skews male, white, and wealthy. Foodie-ism, in this country, is largely created by white people for white people. As Korsha Wilson noted in a widely shared Eater piece on dining while black, fancy restaurants are often hospitable only to the white and affluent: “As many black diners know, being in a dining space can often mean choosing between being ignored, interrogated, or assaulted.”

Even attempts to diversify foodie culture contain a pernicious brand of exoticism. The writer and artist Sukjong Hong (who is also a former staffer at The New Republic) put it to me this way: She loves food and cooks often for her family, but sees foodie-ism as “a form of conspicuous consumption that disguises itself as cultural acumen.” When food is separated out from its practical function and cultural context and turned into a media property, foodie-ism is often “orientalist and neocolonial in its language of ‘discovery,’” Hong said, particularly in its “valuing of authenticity around foods that are not from the dominant culture.” It is how miso and soy sauce, everyday staples in Asian cuisine, become the province of experts.

I recently tagged along with a food critic to a restaurant she was planning to review (she asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons). Between bites of a sandwich that I would struggle to describe to you (I am allergic to the dominant tropes of food writing: the “thrumming bass line” of spice in a dish, endless and labored synonyms for “crispy,” etc; the sandwich was good) I put my questions about the problem with foodie-ism to her. My acquaintance is a white woman, and she noted that there are lots of people who look like her at the top of food publications. White women are socialized to cook at home, but also made to feel (more) welcome in a prestige office environment.

A fancy restaurant critic, on the other hand, gets his expertise through sheer volume of experience, trekking across the fine dining institutions of the world. That takes money, unless you have a reliable expense account. It might also take a certain skin color: She cited Wilson’s piece about her experience at the Grill in Manhattan, where a bartender assumed she’d never tried a negroni before and condescendingly explained to her the principle of bitter flavor profiles.

On the face of it, we were discussing the kinds of bias that shape every American industry. Race, class, and gender inflect everybody’s experience of life, in and out of the workplace. But only the most coddled of our society get to build a career in restaurant criticism, which remains the ultimate arbiter of what sophisticated eaters value in their food. Meanwhile, line cooks in fancy restaurants and diner chains continue to make roughly the same wages.

All our discussions about food are shot through with these fundamental inequities. Take a recent GQ profile of Tunde Wey, written by Brett Martin. Wey makes delicious food, but his work is also a form of political performance art: in Martin’s words, “a hybrid of political action ... revolutionary rhetoric, impish provocation, and other assorted acts of public intellectualism, all built around a critique of the way we eat in America today.” Wey melds cookery with a potent critique of gentrification and racial inequality. For example, in 2018 he hosted an event called Hot Chicken Shit in Nashville, where he charged white diners $1,000 for four pieces of chicken, or a Nashville property deed for a whole chicken. Black diners ate for free.

Martin, however, openly has trouble with Wey’s approach and worldview. He describes the “pain and frustration” he felt when Wey took him to task for fawning over a white southern chef. On another occasion, Martin accuses Wey of “hating food,” positing that his “indignation at foodie culture was, at least in part, a puffed-up justification for what was really a deep ambivalence about pleasure.” This is an old chestnut in conversations around food: the idea that physical pleasure is a neutral, apolitical sensation. Wey responded that he loved to eat and that of course “there should be places where dining is simple pleasure, where food is respite and solace.” But the problem is that everywhere is like that: “if all your spaces are spaces where you eat and don’t think about shit, then you’re never thinking about shit!”

It is curious that the commercialization of foodie-ism surged in the wake of the financial crash of 2008. Instead of leading to a more frugal eating culture, precarity has resulted in a proliferation of the luxury restaurants that have come to symbolize our Gilded Age. Look no further than the new Hudson Yards complex in New York, which will feature 25 separate places to eat over the course of a few city blocks, including new ventures from superstar chefs like Thomas Keller and David Chang.

Still, the recession did have an impact. “The financial crash changed everything in the restaurant space,” Amiel Stanek, an editor at Bon Appetit, told me. The recession, he said, “saw the end of a certain kind of fine dining: finance-bro, expense-account kind of restaurant. We saw the rise of fine casual, with places like gastropubs, and a new focus on certain kinds of cuisine that were not ‘Frenchy’ or Japanese. You saw a lot of regional Italian food, which felt homey and safe to people, and a lot of British food, interestingly.”

The vibe in America post-crash, Stanek said, was “one of nervousness around ostentatious displays of wealth. Restaurants started capitalizing on shows of austerity.” This helps explain the rise in nose-to-tail and farm-to-table eating. Diners were spending the same amount as in the old white-tablecloth spots, but the sensibility had changed. In the meat world, for example, “off-cuts became really popular,” Stanek noted. “You suddenly saw hanger steak on every menu, you saw short rib on every menu, you saw pork belly on every menu.” When filet mignon and rib-eye started to feel distastefully extravagant, hanger steak took off. And now it’s expensive, because consumers want to identify with it.

Nose-to-tail and farm-to-table became key market principles in recession food culture, part of a “fantasy of rustic or peasant-style cooking,” in Stanek’s words. As Americans rejected excess they embraced a new ethos of authenticity. “Whether a place was really making authentic Sicilian food, or authentic Roman food, or was being true to some kind of farm-to-table ethos, the appearance of a vision became more important,” Stanek said.

Much of millennial consumer culture is about our instinctive sense of precarity, our allergy to corporate signifiers, and our formless urge to be good people who won’t screw up the world all over again. But the food market adapted, of course, and continued to take our money, though selling us different values. Transparency, authenticity, good health, convenience, anti-snobbery—all now available at Sweetgreen!

This is all a lot to hold in one’s head every time one orders a meal. As The New Yorker’s food writer Helen Rosner told me, we make decisions about food several times a day. So, no matter how much we know about how we should eat, our knowledge about food always exists in tension with learned habits in our daily behavior. Philosophers call this gap between knowing and doing the “malaise of will,” Rosner explained. Food is so close to the grain of our lives that we eat on unconscious instinct, which is often just another word for bias.

Without a doubt, food has become newly political. The difficulty of defining that politics, however, lies in the fact that food culture is precisely coextensive with human culture. Food is virtually synonymous with life. We all need to eat, and when we stop to consider our eating habits we are really pondering a galaxy of concerns that seem all out of proportion with, say, the desire to eat a croissant. When a behavior happens constantly, it can be almost impossible to gain the Archimedean point necessary to see it clearly.

But just as Betty Friedan took ordinary life as her subject in The Feminine Mystique, to show that the “normal” is political, the many ways that social politics inheres in food culture prove that point all over again. What has felt like a special interest subject is, in fact, everybody’s business.