On the ‘foodie’ ‘gastronome’ divide

Taos from Tacombi @ Fonda Nolita

The word ‘foodie’ is so impossibly zeitgeist-y typing it makes me feel sick.  What is a ‘foodie’ anyway?  Is it someone who likes to eat?  Or is it your friend who has tried the newest food truck and waited on line for a cronut?  Urban Dictionary has no polite words for this person describing them variously as ‘A douchebag who likes food,’ ‘A proletarian or member of the middle class who occasionally eats … “exotic” food of foreign lands,’ and ‘A person who has no actual interests or hobbies.’  Fortunately, Merriam Webster rescues the word, calling the foodie ‘a person having an avid interest in the latest food fads.’  It seems that no matter how you define ‘foodie’ you cannot get away from its trendy nature.

Unfortunately, avoiding the ‘foodie’ shadow is impossible if you’re interested in food.  Calling upon the ubiquitous term remains the easiest way to justify an encyclopedic knowledge about cafes in Europe or an independent study about Slow Food.  Shouldn’t there be a way to describe an interest in or passion for food that transcends ramen burgers and bacon doughnuts?  If chefs can cook food that approaches art (as Julian Baggini argues in the wonderful Virtues of the Table), there deserves to be a better word than ‘foodie’ to describe those willing to pay and experience gastronomy.

Dinner in Copenhagen

I’m convinced this word doesn’t exist.  The only comparable word I’ve found, ‘gastronome,’ certainly doesn’t describe this new breed of food-lover.

Although the term ‘gastronome’ has existed in various forms throughout the years — Brillat-Savarin’s ‘gourmand’ is like a proto-gastronome — I’ve become acquainted with it through Slow Food.  According to Slow Food, a gastronome is a person who takes an interest in the entire process and identity connected to ‘good, clean, fair’ foodstuffs.  The gastronome isn’t content to simply drink the wine or eat the cheese, they want to know who made it, how it was made and what the tradition is behind it.  They want to know this even if it means reading a label that’s longer than a bread machine instruction booklet.  Perhaps the only people who fit this description are Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters (okay, Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, you’re gastronomes as well).

Despite the word’s imperfection, it does fix foodie culture’s major failing: the disregard for knowledge.  You don’t need to know how your shake burger is made to relish it.  Although major foodie outlets like Eater and Serious Eats run columns about the ‘how’ of certain foodstuffs, I’m willing to bet that these posts don’t generate the bulk of their click-throughs and hits.  If you look at recent-hit blogs, you’ll notice that photos outweigh the words.  Foodies don’t care about the story behind their meal, as long as it tastes good.

Bread and cheese from Copenhagen

On one hand, I don’t think that’s so bad.  After all, isn’t more pleasure more pleasurable?  Yet, the satisfaction you get from instagram-worthy chicken and waffles must be different from what you experience eating a meal at either a restaurant or home with some thought behind it.  The first is a hedonistic pleasure, the latter nourishes the mind and body.  Does that mean that we should only eat locally grown kale and eggs from named chickens?  Absolutely not!  The knowledge and story behind foodstuffs are subtle.  There’s no reason that Alder’s pub cheese can’t provide both physical and psychological satisfaction.  I just doubt whether modern foodie culture gives sufficient attention to culinary knowledge that extends beyond pretentious wine tastings and social media clicks.

In a perfect world neither ‘foodie’ nor ‘gastronome’ would have negative connotations.  They would describe different ways to enjoy eating.  People would accept that pleasure from food is a normal, good and healthy experience.  People would accept that understanding and honoring the process behind a food isn’t elitist, but a way to enhance meal’s psychological taste.  Moving between these, and other, ways of interacting with food would be accepted and respected.  Until that happens, those of us who are passionated and interested with food will just have to get used to articulating the reasons we find the culinary/food world so fascinating.  As long as we avoid the word ‘organoleptic‘, I’m okay with that.

Foodie?  Gastronome?  Would you choose to identify with one or another?  Why or why not?


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