Are you a foodie? If you read this site and sites like it with any sort of regularity, it’s likely that someone who knows you has called you a foodie, even if you don’t call yourself one.
The word is weird in that way: Using it as a self-descriptor is likely to win you eye rolls from anyone in earshot, and it’s tough to call other people “foodies” without it sounding like maybe you’re actually dissing them—for being pretentious, for being a bandwagon-hopper, or, oddly, for not being “foodie” enough. In this way, the term is similar to hipster—linguistically lazy, poorly defined to the point of meaning everything and nothing at the same time, and frequently used as shorthand for large swaths of the Brooklyn population.
According to etymologist Barry Popik, it may have developed independently on both sides of the pond. In England, Paul Levy and Ann Barr coined it in 1981 and codified it in the title of their 1984 book The Official Foodie Handbook, while Gael Greene is credited with popularizing the term stateside through her column in New York magazine, where it was first used on June 2, 1980.
One thing’s for certain though: As our food culture has undergone seismic changes in the past few decades—as Food Network has stormed the gates of pop culture and chefs have been transformed into gods—that cute little word has been forced to carry a heavier burden than perhaps it was ever intended to. And the reality is, it’s buckling under the pressure.
To take stock of where foodie fits into the lexicon today, we enlisted some food writers and chefs to answer a question that’s been plaguing us: What does the word foodie really mean in 2013?
Read their answers below to find out if the word should finally be retired, or if we’re in too deep to turn back now.
“The word foodie don’t mean a goddam thing except to those who are apologizing that they are one. This ain’t fucking ‘Control’ by Kendrick or even relevant anywhere outside the small group of journalists that thinks it even matters. Nobody uses that word in conversation. Guys and girls can get laid with their IG food photos, though.”
Host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods
“I have very publicly derided the use of the word foodie every time I hear it or read it. It’s awful. It diminishes and undervalues the very people it’s meant to applaud and makes the user look foolish for not speaking proper English. Someone who loves food can be called a gastronaut (hipster) or a gourmet (classic) , or how about food lover…or anything else, for all I care. But I would never call my accountant a numberie. I don’t call a Yankees fan a baseballie!
These contractive, overly cute word mashups remind me of the worst supermarket tabloid combinations of stars names when they are dating—the same motivation to dub Benifer, Kimye, and Brangelina now intersects with our favorite cultural touchstone, food.
Here is the bigger issue: If you call someone a gourmand you sound like a 19th-century food snob slurping turtle soup in the formal dining room at Downton Abbey. We need a word that’s respectful and definitive in the dictionary sense of the word…I wish Andy Rooney were still alive.”
Editor of Lucky Peach
“I used to think, ‘It’s okay to call yourself a foodie, but don’t call me that.’ Now I think: waterboard me with truffle oil, dig the new trend that’s the same as the old trend, and go discover beer or yeast or whatever, like the Egyptians didn’t beat you to it and get the Bangles to sing a song about ‘em. Sell sell sell. Foodie foodie foodie.”
Managing Editor, CNN’s Eatocracy
“One of my life’s guiding principles is to do my best not to strip anyone else of their joy. Eatocracy’s unofficial tagline is, in fact, ‘If it tastes good, it IS good.’ So who am I to police anyone else’s self-descriptor if they choose to identify as a ‘foodie’? I don’t, myself, so I ask that same courtesy.
Case in point: I walked through the office with my annual tomato sandwich, which I’d lovingly constructed in the kitchen. Later, a colleague approached me. ‘Did I see you with…white bread?!?’ (She had, because homegrown tomato slices and mayonnaise on crappy white bread is the finest sandwich known to mankind.)
She continued, ‘Well, that’s not very FOODIE of you!’”
Nope, it wasn’t, and wow, did I not care. When fetishism and check-off lists trump pleasure, ritual and tradition, what’s the point?
Food writer (@robertsietsema)
“Some say the word foodie originated with the The Official Foodie Handbook by Ann Barr and Paul Levy, an 1984 British volume that made merciless fun of the food-obsessed, whose picky tastes drove everyone around them nuts. The resurgence (or recoinage) of the word probably began among American food writers in the late ’90s, at the threshold of the current eats-loving era. A hard-drive search reveals that my own earliest usage was in 1999, when in a letter to Jonathan Gold about the newly opened Lupa, I noted, ‘Sat across from a couple of foodies at a communal table and they were excited.’ That use was certainly neutral, but by 2003 I was using foodie in an ironic sense to describe those comically preoccupied with food and behaving oddly as a result. Nowadays, the beauty of the word is that you can use it positively or pejoratively at your discretion, so I think we should keep it. Yes, we are all foodies, but don’t we hate foodies?”
Food editor, Grub Street
“Any decent food publication long ago banished use of foodie and inane derivations like foodinista. But it might be time to reevaluate: The word no longer describes a person who enjoys cooking and restaurants—that’s just a food lover, the best kind of person. Foodies, on the other hand, are the people that rush to new restaurants just to say they’ve gone. Foodies Instagram every single thing they eat. Foodies are the people waiting in hours-long lines for the latest edible fad. The foodie label isn’t a badge of honor, it’s a mark of shame—and that’s a good word to have in the arsenal.”
Food writer (@jordanarothman)
“When someone uses the word in my presence, it isn’t unlike that moment at a party when a guest lights the business end of a joint and sends it my way: Don’t partake of the stuff myself, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. Basically ‘foodie’ isn’t part of my vernacular, but I have a hard time shaming those less-cynical gastronomes who have claimed it as their own.
I’d also add that I think the word’s ubiquity could be a testament to the limitations and rigidity of the English language. Ours is a narrow little lexicon, built like a Ford for brute-force efficiency. And while I feel a responsibility to find a way around it as a writer, I can understand the need of the general public to develop a shortcut—something that neatly defines the difference between someone who eats for energy and someone plugged into the sensuality of it all. It’s just such a shame (and also stupidly Puritanical) that we’ve settled on a word so diminutive and unsexy to express it. We probably should have devised a more elegant solution before ‘foodie’ became the pandemic it is today, but we didn’t. Oh well.”
Editor-in-chief, Bon Appétit
“I think one reason ‘foodie’ rubs so many people the wrong way is the word itself: It just sounds juvenile. It’s like a food version of ‘cutie.’ If you’re a grown man, are you really gonna identify yourself as a ‘foodie?’ (I’d advise, no.) And then there is the issue of who is and who isn’t a foodie? Do you have to pass an exam? Do you need to go get your passport photo taken? Do you need to renew your foodie license every couple of years? And why is it that any time someone is a foodie, he or she is ‘such a huge foodie!’, or a ‘total foodie!’? Um, so yeah—I’m afraid I’m not a foodie. But I really do like food, and I eat it every day. Well, except for Yom Kippur.”
Food Features editor, Every Day with Rachael Ray
“I think it started out harmless enough. ‘I’m a foodie,’ i.e., I’m a person who will chase good food, who seeks pleasure through food, for whom food is the goal, the destination. When you’re a foodie, food-related matters are the subject of long discussions; vacations are planned around food; the foodie will start thinking of what’s for lunch before breakfast is finished.
However, over time, that very food became a status symbol, and I think that’s what the backlash is against. It’s food as fashion label: Have you eaten at this restaurant? Do you wear this Chanel bag? Food became a club that people wanted to be a part of. That attitude, I think, is what made high-profile people in the food world come out against the ‘foodie’ designation. They felt that those people were poseurs, not true food lovers. Old-school foodies wanted to distinguish their authentic love from the inauthentic fandom by saying, ‘Don’t call me a foodie.’ Because foodies are tacky, the way label whores are tacky.
Plus, there’s something amateurish about today’s self-proclaimed foodie. For longtime food obsessives, today’s foodie is like the person who just discovered the band that you’ve been loving since the ’90s, and who tells everyone, with no sense of self-awareness, how great this new band is. The foodie controversy is rooted in the disdain of the longtime, devoted fan for the obnoxious new adopters.”
“I don’t particularly like the word foodie, but I do like the fact that the word now describes a certain type of person pretty accurately. There are a lot of self-proclaimed ‘foodies’ out there, which I think is the reason the term is now played out. I’d rather use words like food dork or food nerd to describe someone who is passionate and really cares about food. A foodie is basically a restaurant poser.”
Food & Drink editor, Time Out NY
“Nowadays, calling yourself a ‘foodie’ is like saying you’re an intellectual. It’s somewhere between pompous and clueless, and probably doesn’t apply if you have to say it. But growing up in Western Massachusetts, it wasn’t such a bad term. My parents and their friends batted it about—’Oh Karen, she’s such a foodie. You should have seen her last dinner party.’
Admittedly, it always sounded like some WASP nickname—Kitty, Bunny, Muffy, foodie. But things were a little different back then. In the ’90s, there were no twee, fetishist food magazines with consciously messy photography, locavore wasn’t a dictionary term yet, and most families in town were getting by with KFC dinners lit by a TV set, non-ironic iceberg lettuce salads, and Cool Whip. Not at my parents’ house: We had dinner together every night (no TV, no reading), often eating foods that were exotic at the time: rabbit stew, purple potatoes and carbonara made with pancetta, not bacon, which was the fanciest cured pork available in the Pioneer Valley back then. My mother made layered cakes for our birthdays and tempura on special nights, and my father rolled out fresh pasta and spent days on some blow-dried, marinated, tea-smoked duck. They let their teenage daughter hold up the close of a dinner party because I was fiddling over some multi-tiered dessert. And while we still had our Little Debbie treats and potato chips, those things were counterbalanced with a garden and the joy of putting together an honest meal.
There wasn’t the slavish Instagram documentation of every porn-y bite, Chowhound circle jerks, breathless live-tweeting of Michelin-starred restaurants and all the insufferable culinary peacocking of the selfie generation (yeah, guilty here too). Being a foodie in that era was a stance against the convenience-food tide—making food for your family, sharing meals with your friends, discovering new ingredients, and putting a little thought and ambition into a meal. Back then, being a foodie meant that you didn’t make Hamburger Helper for dinner, but if you went to a friend’s house and it was served, you still ate it and asked for seconds.”
Photos: Kat Kinsman (Mark Hill/CNN), Adam Rapoport (Matt Duckor), Jordana Rothman (Daniel Krieger), Robert Sietsema (Twitter/@robertsietsema), Peter Meehan (Sameena Ahmad for the New York Times), Andrew Zimmern (courtesy Travel Channel), Gabriella Gershenson (Landon Nordeman), Alan Sytsma (courtesy Alan Sytsma), Roy Choi (Fridolin Schoepper), Dale Talde (courtesy Dale Talde), Mari Uyehara (Liz Barclay)