Reclaiming the F-Word (“Foodie,” That Is)

Because a foodie by any other name smells as twee.

By | Boston Magazine |
foodie

Illustration by Steven Stankiewicz

The other night I was at a bar with my friend Sarah, enjoying a perfectly genteel conversation, when suddenly she dropped the f-bomb. “I never would’ve thought to order this!” she exclaimed, eyeing the plate of pedigreed snackage I’d commandeered. “That’s why I love going out with a foodie.” Reflexively, I recoiled—then promptly recoiled at my own recoiling.

The thing is, my friend meant “foodie” as a compliment. Yet here I was, in prissy cringe mode, conditioned as I’ve been by the visceral hostility to that label from the, uh, edibles-enthusiast community. Indeed, do a keyword search for the verboten term on online forums and blogs like Chowhound, eGullet, and Eater and you’ll find dozens of threads devoted to railing against it. It’s pretentious, they complain with feverish disdain. Reductive. “Patronizing and infantile,” harrumphed one ’hound—the preferred label of many Chowhound regulars—who posts under the handle “aggiecat.”

Anonymous felines aren’t the term’s only dogged detractors. Local journalists, too, have joined the anti-foodie chorus. Globe dining critic Devra First has deemed the moniker “goofy,” while the Improper’s reviewer, who writes under the nom de plume MC Slim JB, began a recent column with an extended diatribe contrasting the foodie—a “dreadfully passé” breed given to “shuddering at less-than-shiny dining rooms”—with the “food nerd,” more likely to brave fading décor in pursuit of epicurean epiphanies. Food nerd, by this train of thought, implies legitimacy; foodie, then, is strictly for poseurs.

The roots of this lexicological backlash aren’t difficult to trace. For starters, even foodie apologists would concede the word’s cloying cutesiness, à la yuppie or Trekkie. Other disparagers blame those irascible Yelpers for hijacking the label, mucking up its neutral meaning with unsavory baggage—similar, at least structurally, to the aforementioned poseur theory, but with shallower pockets (and more entitlement). I’ll confess to having a certain amount of sympathy for that view. What genuine lover of food wants to get lumped in with a bunch of mercurial snobs wielding a poison pen in pursuit of Elite status, or a comped meal?

If such critiques are spot-on, the alternatives are decidedly less so. But I’m beginning to come around to the notion that parsing the relative ickiness of gastronome, epicure, food geek, gourmand, ’hound, troughist (I’m serious), gastronaut (ahem), and so on misses one glaring point. Namely: It’s hard to pull off anti-elitist insouciance with an indignant look on your face. “For the umpteenth time, it’s chilled-out chewmeister! Or, you know…whatever.”

As I’ve begun, as waffling politicians like to say, to evolve on this issue, I’ve found myself wondering whether we all just need to relax when it comes to gastronomic labeling—to resist that knee-jerk recoil factor. What’s more, is it (gasp!) possible that “foodie” deserves a fresh look? Is it time, in other words, for a foodie-backlash backlash? As one Dallas-based writer I follow put it in a recent article on this very topic: “The word works because there is no better substitute. Stop crying. Own it.”

I think she might be onto something.

  • mcslimjb

    I think the cringe response to any word that is cutesy or overused to the point of triteness is a worthy one. My bigger problem with “foodie” is that it has been co-opted by a lot of awful people, and not just Yelpers who have an inflated opinion of the profundity of their critical faculties. I know way too many self-styled foodies who really believe that their love of good food makes them a special snowflake, or that they actually possess more rarified tastes than the rest of us because they watch 50 hours of Food TV programming a week. Too many of them aren’t very adventurous about food, in fact are quite conventional and middlebrow in their tastes. The reason I prefer terms like “food geek” and “food nerd” is that they say, “I’m obsessive about my pursuit of good food, but I recognize that it doesn’t make me cool, that in fact I can be a bit of a bore about it. I’m a good person to know when you have a dining-out problem to solve, but you may find yourself edging away from me at a cocktail party when I start nattering on about Southeast Asian holes-in-the-wall in Lowell.” Maybe that’s the distinction that needs to be made: foodie can be okay if other people call you that, but calling yourself a foodie indicates a level of self-regard that you probably don’t deserve.