It’s time to stick a fork in one of the most infuriating terms of contemporary times: foodie.
Adelaide people can be proud of their awareness, investigations and appetite for superior food. They don’t need a dowdy term like ‘foodie’ to define it. I’d argue that foodie is the badge worn by entitled, upper-middle-class white people who seem to think themselves superior because they are familiar with foods from other cultures.
In truth, South Australia’s history of multicultural harmony has given all of us access to this knowledge, through generations of cross-cultural eating, making the vast majority of us ‘smart eaters’. I like this term because it suggests applying some nous to what we’re eating – whether that be questioning its source or simply figuring out how to make any dish as delicious as possible, from cassoulet to laksa, to a perfect mound of hot fried potatoes.
If you’re truly curious about food, you never stop searching, forming questions, seeking answers to more than you already know. As a curious eater experiences more, it becomes apparent there’s so little you actually know in the universe of food and eating – and rather than being intimidated or upset by this, you simply relax to enjoy the long journey, one bite at a time.
It’s so much better to be smart about what we eat rather than stupid. Yet many who have anointed themselves foodies tend to boast about their little pool of knowledge rather than apply greater intelligence to what and how we eat.
Let’s put this in an historical context. The term foodie was never intended as a complimentary term. Writer Gael Greene first used it in a New York Magazine article published in June 1980, to describe a cluster of overly serious restaurant diners. But the term flourished thanks to Ann Barr, features editor of Harper’s & Queen (now Harper’s Bazaar), who asked readers to comment on a then-new obsession with food. Several responses named the magazine’s food writer Paul Levy as the perfect example of a food obsessive, and Levy playfully joined in the chorus, writing an anonymous article in August 1982, lionising the term (“Foodies are foodist. They dislike and despise all non-foodies.”) and satirising himself as “ghastly, his-stomach-is-bigger-than-his- eyes, original, appetite-unsuppressed, lip-smacking ‘king foodie’”.
Barr and Levy followed up with The Official Foodie Handbook, published in 1984, which enflamed use of the term but ultimately pulled it out of context until foodie become a warped kind of boast.
British journalist and gourmand John Lanchester vented his frustration with the escalation of the foodie cult in a 2014 New Yorker article, declaring, “Everyone’s a critic, they say, but the volume of all this critical chatter is turned way up… an interest that is reasonable on a personal and an individual scale has grown out of all proportion in the wider culture.”
The Observer ramped up the disdain, having coined a neat term to mock such people – ‘foodiots’, with ubiquitous Facebook updates, personal blogs and Tweets representing meticulous record-keeping of their eating habits.
Such behaviour has applied unnecessary strain on the dining experience. “Don’t touch anything,” is a demand laid down by foodies as plates arrive at table, while their phone is endlessly clicked at multiple angles. “Facebook gets fed first,” was the justification for such behaviour, which wasn’t offered with mirth or irony. It was simply a blunt statement of fact.
Visual fetishism is wedded to audible interference. I’ve heard far too many loud, arrogant assessments delivered in restaurants about whether things measure up to someone’s personal criteria, coupled with the threat of a damning online missive if they aren’t satisfied. It’s a foul poison that has polluted our restaurant environments.
Tasting Australia program director and chef Simon Bryant laments that customers who wear the foodie badge feel empowered to feign knowledge about things they don’t actually understand. “It’s an obnoxious attempt to draw attention to themselves,” he offers with a sigh. “Boasting distorts the dining experience into some sort of contest, with the most incessant bore eventually assuming they are the winner.”
Chefs aren’t the only ones who harbour a deep loathing of foodies who fancy themselves experts. “I don’t know what foodie means, apart from lazy journalism,” says food historian and author Barbara Santich. “It’s gone the way of ‘gourmet’ and many other descriptors that have eventually become meaningless.”
So, if we shan’t use foodie, then how can this pantheon of people be described?
After consideration, Santich decides against mature eaters (as in gastronomically mature) for sounding rather ageist, and while confident eaters conveys the same idea, it doesn’t have the sexy ring of a successful slogan. She likes reflective eaters, playing an intellectual riff on Socrates’ saying “the unexamined life is not worth living” because Santich believes a meal should fall under the same criteria. “We need to think about what’s on the plate,” she says, “to understand where it comes from, how it got there, and what cultures and traditions it embodies.”
Shall we try to be hipper in our terminology? Santich baulks at my suggestion of smart eaters for sounding too chummy and conspiratorial to the phone-obsessed iGeneration narcissists. Calling someone food curious has an honest ring to it, but sounds all too academic rather than hedonistic, and lacking in pleasure – ignoring that all meritable eating brings great pleasure.
There are so many possibilities, but if we’re really going to be honest, then we should declare that we are what we eat. My favourite advocate of this is Adelaide’s famous culinary father Cheong Liew, a brilliant, ingenious chef and voracious diner. I remember Cheong lamenting that his son Anton wasn’t able to keep apace with him on a dining reconnaissance tour of Vietnam. Cheong admitted to eating at a minimum of five street food stalls and restaurants at each mealtime. “I am an eating machine,” he declared.
Now that’s a badge to wear with pride. Not like the vacuous foodie, which is now dead to us.
Stick a fork in that. Turn it over. It’s done.