One way of looking at “Foodies”

Back when I managed book exhibits at scholarly conferences, I noted the frequency with which book-booth neighbors would pass the time by talking about good, sophisticated food options in a strange city.  On one of these occasions, after discussing the value of locally grown and carefully prepared food with the editor in the booth next to ours, he asked me “Would you describe yourself as a foodie?” “No, I would not,” I replied emphatically, and went on to describe myself as someone who enjoys food and cares about support local agriculture and food businesses.  “A locovore, then,” he suggested, and I agreed that this designation was suitable.

Food-focused folks I know, including myself, don’t usually describe ourselves as foodies, even when we’re improvising cocktails out of fresh market ingredients and querying the butcher about whether his fryers died happy.  Yet we fall squarely in the category of consumers sketched out by the authors of Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape. We are high-frequency consumers of food that falls in with various intersecting discourses of local and global, ethical and artisanal cuisine. We’re invested in the quality of taste and craft of production, and we’re increasingly aware of political narratives (though not always driven by them). After interviewing a number of similarly food-focused people, the authors of Foodies note somewhat wryly that a significant fraction of their sample refused the titular label as well; like “gourmet,” “foodie” has taken on connotations that may be seen as positive or negative. We want to identify as consumers with refined and educated palates, but we do not want to be accused of snobbery.


But the subject of this thoughtful book is not “The Foodie” as an identity, but the discourse used, modified, and circulated by foodies.  Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann look at print and web publications, online forums, and interviews to examine the ways that discourse establishes and propogates particulate ideas of taste (what is “good” food and “good” eating, etc.). In particular, they note the contradictory ways that foodie discourse tends to identify good eating as both democratic (anyone can cook, shop, and eat well) and distinct (but not everyone does; not everyone knows how). It’s the fine line I walked in my previous post about eating well without breaking the bank: I do think that good food does not have to be prohibitively difficult or expensive to eat and make, but I also know full well that positions like mine very often veer into weird elitist territory: it’s not a huge leap from here to bragging about my expensive single-source chocolate and my cheap Asian supermarket sauce in the same breath, or to starting a smug lifestyle blog to show how easy it is to make everything from scratch, or even to raising the taxes on high-fat or high-sugar foods (on the assumption that Other People would just eat better if they were punished for eating junk). As the Foodies authors write: “Snobbery is be out of fashion, but hierarchy may never be out of style.” It’s humbling, but I think also helpful, to be mindful of the ways that foodie discourse sometimes merges problematically with capitalist discourse.

For example, the authors devote several chapters to teasing apart two of the particular obsessions of the foodie consumer: the authentic and the exotic. Authentic food might be that which is simple, close to its geographic source, or conforming to a culinary tradition; heirloom vegetables and the farm-to-table restaurant trend reflect an authentic ideal. Exotic food might be that which breaks traditions or norms (like molecular gastronomy) or belongs to a culture that is socially distant from the foodie’s mainstream (usually Western) food culture. Some food might be both authentic and exotic; you’ve probably heard from some well-meaning food fanatic that the best ethnic restaurants are the ones frequently almost exclusively by members of that ethnicity.

None of these preferences or practices are inherently wrong. Who can argue with either  supporting local traditions or broadening culinary horizons?  The conscious food consumer usually tries to do both. But it’s interesting (suggest the authors of Foodies) to notice how either choice can be framed as a “food adventure,” a manner of consuming that confers distinction onto the consumer. For a particular example that’s relevant to my own philosophy, they discuss locavorism: “the framing of local as a culinary fashion fits within a frame of individualized consumer ethics where discerning foodies can have it all–delicious food, a clear conscience, and participation within the latest consumer trends” (emphasis mine). This is really the focus of the NYT article (discussed in an earlier post) that worried about young people spending so much money on luxury grocery stories and expensive restaurants. Local, sustainable food sometimes costs more to produce, but it definitely acquires a higher price tag when framed as a fashionable way to consume, the way you want to be seen to eat. While many of us may well be eating local food despite the fashion rather than because of it–because it feels right or it’s more delicious or indeed because it’s cheaper–we are unfortunately not outside of or above the fashionable narrative, which necessarily puts pressure on or excludes those without the resources or means to access it.
That is, by the way, one of my motivations for peppering most of my cooking posts with qualifications (“if you have access”/”if you have time”/etc.). The way I eat is cheaper and easier for me, but this is not yet true for all populations.

This post is not exactly a review, but a rumination. I would certainly recommend Foodies: it is definitely an academic book and a work of sociology, not necessarily a casual read, but I found their argument accessible and readable as well as compelling. Primarily, though, I wanted to have their argument available as a point of reference when engaging discussions about class and consumerism in food politics, as broached in my previous post about eating well at a manageable expenditure. I wish I had read this book when queried by my conference booth neighbor about my own foodie-ism. I might have made a different and more self-aware answer.  Every foodie I know–whether they claim the title or not–would benefit from the book’s gentle reminder to consider carefully how our growing knowledge and evaluation of food production is framed.

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