The Omnivorous Mind

Our evolving relationship with food

Why Is 'Foodie' a Dirty Word (for Some)?

The label that some food-lovers and haters-of-food-lovers love to hate

I am not a foodie. Sure, I am an enthusiastic home cook, with more cookbooks than I or my family could possibly use (I have a low threshold that just one decent recipe justifies a cookbook). I willingly drive a little further to visit our local artisanal bakery or butcher shop. I have never been a joiner, but I have paid my dues to the Slow Food movement.

At one time or another, I have subscribed to all of the major cooking magazines. I have read lots of books and scientific articles on food and eating, which is understandable since I recently published a book on the cognitive evolution of food and eating (available at Amazon!). I have hurriedly rushed out into the garden on a cool autumn afternoon, ahead of the first hard frost of the season, to cut down several basil plants, and then spend the next couple of hours turning them (and a gallon of olive oil) into pesto for freezing.

I follow high-end restaurant trends, although unfortunately at a geographical and economic distance. With my wife and some friends, I recently cooked a six-course meal using Grant Achatz's Alinea cookbook. It was excellent, but it took a long, long time (for anyone contemplating doing same, I recommend thinking of it as a two-day camping trip to your kitchen).

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Hmm.

Well, maybe I am a foodie and should just accept that, as Popeye would say, "I yam what I yam." But a quick perusal of the Internet shows that I am not alone in my foodie ambivalence.

According to etymologist Barry Popik, the word foodie began to appear in Anglo-American food writing in the early 1980s. In not too many years, it came to be widely used as a less intimidating, and therefore more friendly and inclusive term, than the more traditional gourmet, gourmand, or epicure. There is nothing stodgy or snobbish about foodie. "Anyone can be a foodie." (Nicole Weston).  Foodies are supposed to be holistically interested not just in the taste and preparation of their food, but also in its overall quality, sourcing, and ultimately, sustainability.  They are the new and improved gourmets.

The word foodie is how we label a group of people who share a certain outlook towards food and eating. One of the ways that the human mind organizes its understanding of the complex world it lives in is to create categories for things, actions, people, and so on. Categories provide a window into how we think. Conversely, the categories we use can sometimes shape the way we think.

In my book The Omnivorous Mind, I discuss how over the course of growing up, we develop a mental model of how and what to eat—a theory of food. Typically, we do not give a name to this eating pattern: it is just the way we eat. When we want to change the way we eat, we say we are going on a "diet," which is one way to acknowledge that we are changing from an implicit model of eating to an explicitly labeled new way of eating. These diets usually have names, such as the Atkins Diet or the Zone, or in the non-weight-loss realm, veganism or locavorism. These names signal to ourselves and others that the implicit diet buried deep in our minds is no longer the way we are eating. 

One thing I discuss in the book is how when governments prescribe a diet to their people, they often do so without explicitly calling it a diet. They typically use graphics, such as food pyramids, plates, or pagodas, to convey in a subtle way how normal eating can be modified in a more healthy direction. Nutritionists know that people do not like to be forced to change their diets, and these various graphics are a way to infiltrate the cognitive dietary model without announcing it as a full-blown diet attack.

Ultimately, the word foodie identifies a category of eaters. Traditionally, how people within a culture eat can be a very strong contributor to cultural identity and unity. Although everyone can be a foodie, not everyone is, and the very fact that the foodie-style of eating requires a label signals that it is a departure from the implicit cultural norm. Even if the word is less snobbish and more friendly than gourmet, it carries with it some of the same elitist baggage. Maybe this is one reason that some people don't like it. As I walk out of McDonald's, I don't want to be accosted by someone sneering, "Oh, hello. I thought you were a foodie." (proper foodie response is, "I just come for the French fries.").   

Another reason some people might be uncomfortable with the term foodie is if the foodie way of eating converges on their own theory of food. In other words, what if they were foodies before they knew what a foodie was, or maybe before anyone knew what a foodie was? In this case, adopting the foodie identity might seem a silly redundancy. Or perhaps more significantly, it might signal to others—incorrectly—that the person has changed status from non-foodie to foodie. After all, in Anglo-American culture, we tend to take on these eating identifiers only after a change in diet. But what if there never was a "come to cheeses" moment?

Finally, some people clearly just don't like the word foodie. Maybe they don't think that a diminutive-sounding and cute term is acceptable for such a critical aspect of life. Or maybe they just don't like the sound of it. But for whatever reason, it would be hard to categorize oneself as a foodie, or as anything, if the word itself were fundamentally unappealing.

It is probably some combination of all three of these factors that underlies my reluctance to embrace the word foodie, even if I am one.  But if being a foodie means acknowledging the importance of food and its preparation as a central aspect of human life and happiness that has been shaped by eons of biological and cultural evolution, then I am pleased to be called a foodie, although I may not call myself one.

John Allen is a neuroanthropologist working at the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California.

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