Our friends over at Livability (www.livability.com) recently approached us while compiling a list of the Top 10 Foodie Cities 2013. They asked our opinion on some tough questions, namely, “How do you define a foodie?” You'll find snippets of my answers about foodies and foodie cities here, but I couldn't help examining the topic in greater detail.
I started my response by putting a little distance between myself and the word, stating that’s it’s really not everyone’s favorite word around the office. Many in the food writing world find it cringe-worthy, thinking it’s too cutesy, too broad or simply overused. The backlash has been well documented. As loaded and problematic as “foodie” is though, I felt that dismissing and thumbing my nose at it defeated the purpose of the exercise. So I set out to explore just what this word encompasses (pardon my tardiness to the party). Let’s take on the more positive and broader implications first.
A foodie can be someone dedicated to the pursuit of discovering or creating the most satisfying meal possible. “Foodie” does not have quite the same high-brow implications as gourmand or connoisseur. It can apply to restaurant enthusiasts of all varieties, be it a lover of diners, a burger blogger, or someone who keeps tabs on every new restaurant in their area. It extends well beyond love of restaurants, with innovative home cooks, expert meat curers and smokers, food photographers and even gardeners. The guy who makes his own beef jerky is foodie. So is a dining critic who mostly deals with high-end restaurants. You’d even categorize a friend hell-bent on finding respectable poutine south of the border as a foodie. Although a foodie need not necessarily have such a hands-on relationship with food, thanks to the empowerment of the internet. It can merely be someone who enjoys thinking and writing about the subject. The unifying tie is a passion for food and the willingness to go to great lengths for a memorable dining experience. Hence, it’s a pretty broad and democratic term — inclusive of any who are taken with the pursuit, creation or discussion of all things food.
Now, for the backlash. As just discussed, “foodie” casts a pretty wide net. While the generous would characterize this as inclusive, critics of the term find it maddeningly vague. Is it really a useful word if it applies to a seasoned dining journalist, a cookbook author who re-purposes junk food, and anyone who writes snarky restaurant reviews on Yelp alike? Furthermore, to counter the concept of foodie as a knowledgeable explorer of food, one could characterize a foodie as a shameless follower of trends. As the hipster is to music and/or fashion, so is the foodie to dining. There’s the person who always has a phone out at the table to check-in at the fabulous restaurant du jour or post food photos via Instagram (admittedly I’ve been obnoxious food photo guy). Foodies love restaurants with menus that repeatedly use the word artisanal and include self-congratulatory diatribes on their superior sourcing practices. As for the foodie at home, everyone has a friend who takes any opportunity to mention their CSA or look down at you for not painstakingly making your own chicken stock. Let it be noted that these instincts come from a good place: eating sustainably, supporting local vendors and taking a DIY approach with food at home are worthy pastimes. Unfortunately, locavorism (to use another oft-hated term) has become a haven for pretension and snobbery. Not to mention it’s a cost prohibitive club to join — but that’s another discussion entirely. With some foodies, it would seem the enthusiasm and enjoyment of dining takes a back seat to cultivating a foodier-than-thou persona. Such are the more insufferable connotations that the word foodie can conjure.
Foodie is a term that is constantly evolving, as our own tolerance for the word fluctuates. You could even argue that intolerance for the word itself is its own brand of snobbery. I wouldn’t argue for outright banishment of the word, but would suggest that we use it sparingly. As for the positive and negative connotations discussed above, drawing the line between the two — laudable food exploration and pretentious posturing — is difficult. At what point do our foodie tendencies and demands put other people out? I’ve no doubt caused family and friends to roll their eyes when I demand we leave the interstate (or paved roads in some cases) to find a ramshackle barbecue joint off the beaten path. Where do you make the distinction between seeking out/sharing a wonderful food experience and bragging about your dining exploits? It’s a fine line, and highly subjective. I suppose “foodie” is in the eye of the beholder.