In late 1984, The New York Times published a piece that was, at least indirectly, about a word we could all do without. The story covered the release of 'The Official Foodie Handbook' by journalists Ann Barr and Paul Levy, which chronicled, among other things, the lives of food lovers around the world. They were food adventure seekers, culinary addicts who were interested in all food experiences, refined and not.
"A foodie," the authors wrote, "is a person who is very, very, very interested in food."
The two weren't the first to utter the term — that appears to have been Gael Greene, who used it in a 1980 column for New York Magazine, according to etymologist Barry Popik. Nor, as it happened, were they the last. But for years, the word was used sparingly. A populist food critic might have been described as a "foodie." A gustatory pleasure seeker with the time and money to invest in obscure cooking methods, niche coffee roasting techniques, and not-to-be-missed meals might have earned the distinction too. It wasn't a compliment, it was just a descriptor. It was an unpretentious way to categorize a growing but still relatively small group of people.
And then it wasn't.
A look at Google Ngram, which tracks the frequency of words in digitized books, shows the word was nonexistent until it appeared in the early 1980s, but its use grew quickly shortly after the publication of Barr and Levy's book.
A peek at Google Trends, which tracks the relative frequency with which people search for various things, tells a similar story. Interest in the word "foodie," which seems to have piqued popular interest in late 2006, is trending at its highest ever. People are typing it in and pressing go.
Of course, you don't need Google's data to know the word is everywhere. You have heard it, I am sure, if not today then yesterday, and if not yesterday then the day before. It is inescapable.
Over time, the word has undergone an all-too-familiar transformation, bubbling up to a point of ubiquity that has stripped the word of any semblance of meaning. On a good day — or bad, depending on how you look at it — most people would qualify as a "foodie" to someone. The net the word casts is just too wide.
When asked about the word in 2012, Philipino restaurateur Elbert Cuenca had this to say:
It has come to the point of being bastardized. The word ‘foodie,’ which is nothing more than a modern-day casual substitute for ‘gourmet,’ has been relegated to mean anyone who likes food and/or eats out a lot. But who doesn’t like food? Who doesn’t eat out a lot?
The answer, on the off chance there is any doubt, is not that many people.
It's no wonder that the word is bemoaned by so many people who work within the world the term glorifies. Chefs hate it, because it empowers their customers to feign knowledge about things they don't actually understand. Mark Bittman doesn't care for it, because it too often reveres rather than challenges the current and flawed food system. Nor does British journalist and gourmand John Lanchester, who chronicled his frustration with mass "foodie"-ism in a 2014 New Yorker piece.
This is how he explained it:
Everyone’s a critic, they say, and that’s certainly true of the food world today. Of course, everyone has always been a critic, in the sense that customers have always made the most basic judgment of all: Do I want to come back to this joint? But there’s a contemporary development with respect to volume, in the dual sense of quantity and loudness. The volume of all this critical chatter is turned way up, and it’s harder than ever to ignore. Food is my favorite thing to talk about and to learn about, but an interest that is reasonable on a personal and an individual scale has grown out of all proportion in the wider culture.
Among the list of major publications that have published something that argues, in so many words, that the term "foodie" is awful: The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, The New York Times, and Saveur.
The Observer, meanwhile, took its contempt a step further, coining a new term in 2009 to mock those who embrace its predecessor: Foodiots.
We see it in the meticulous record-keeping of eating habits on personal blogs. The ubiquitous Facebook updates and tweets about subscribers’ most recent meals. (Surely you also have those five or so friends whose feeds are 90 percent food-consumption-related?) The requisite iPhone pic before a certain kind of diner—let’s call him a foodiot—ravages his plate.
There is no shortage of public "foodie" resentment. From people in the know, people whose opinions so-called "foodies" should, theoretically, value highly, no less. And yet, despite the heaping piles of expertly deglazed vitriol, the word persists.
There are obvious (ab)users, who use the word readily and unironically, the sort who post really close pictures of everything they eat or watch hours of food television each day without ever learning how to work an oven.
But there are others, too, who have usurped the word in arguably more upsetting ways.
Just this past Monday, the National Restaurant Association published its latest industry forecast. In it, you'll find this doozy: "Here’s a profile of the American Foodie 2.0."
"Foodie" has become a marketing weapon, a buzzword which companies regurgitate in whatever form suits the pitch. There are dating sites for "foodies", blogs about Paleo "foodie"-ism (an oxymoron, if I've ever heard one), even business-help pieces about how companies can "better target foodies."
I can't think of anywhere the word "foodie" appears more often in my life than in my email inbox, where PR pitches seem to invoke it at every opportunity. A recent search turned up dozens of results — hundreds more when I extended the search to my spam folder. One of the more recent examples (which went unanswered) was about a list of the "Best Cities for Food Trucks in the U.S." "Foodies today are considered 'hip,'" it read, as though it were written by someone's grandparents.
The problem with the word "foodie," which many have hopefully gleaned by this point, boils down to a simple truth: You can’t possibly call yourself a "foodie" if you’re actually a "foodie." There is a great irony in describing yourself as a food insider in a way no actual food insider ever would. The act itself precludes you from being part of the world you want to associate yourself with. The word doubles as a compliment and an insult, depending on who utters it.
In this sense, using the word "foodie" is like wearing an outfit that was fashionable years before, long enough ago that it's no longer in style but not long enough ago for some to mistake it as still being cool. The analogy, of course, doesn't end there, because those same people wearing what was all the rage five years ago are also announcing that they should be thought of as members of the fashion-obsessed squad.
There's nothing wrong with food populism. It's this very trend, after all, that has helped buoy the food movement, which is slowly reversing how disconnected we have all become from the production of our food. But some things have clearly been lost in the collective trek toward announcing whenever possible how much we like to eat.
Among them, is how Levy, one the term's pioneers, first encountered the term: as an insult. This is how he explained it in a 2007 piece published in The Guardian:
In late 1981 Ann Barr, then features editor of Harper's & Queen, noticed the food world was shifting on its tectonic plates, and that perfectly sane people had suddenly become obsessed with every aspect of food.
She invited readers to write in and immediately received several attacks upon a greedy, single-minded and highly visible food-obsessive who wrote in the magazine at the time - me. Thus it was that, in the issue of August 1982, I was derided in the anonymous article (edited, as it happens, by me) as the ghastly, his-stomach-is-bigger-than-his-eyes, original, appetite-unsuppressed, lip-smacking "king foodie." I had to sign a legal undertaking not to sue the magazine or myself for libel.
It's fitting, isn't it, how we have come full circle?