In Defense of Foodies

The Good Food Fight

Foodie. The term evokes many characteristics: elitism, snobbery, obsession, gluttony. But the gourmets of today remain separate from their historical counterparts of a century ago, and the difference now is in the accessibility and democratization of both knowledge about food production and culinary innovation.

Today, the term foodie describes a way of thinking rather than a way of acting. A foodie is someone committed to increasing his or her knowledge about food and—in this era—someone who sees food as art that can be produced by ordinary people rather than by a culinary elite. In the 1550s and onward, the higher classes of England spent their wealth commissioning artists to create large sugar sculptures. Whereas this increasingly cheap commodity only became the primary source of energy for the masses later in the industrial era. It is clear to see how the idea of food as art became tied to notions of elitism and excess. But the foodies of today are of the postmodern era. They, of the internet age, demand information disseminated through a non-hierarchical network. When choosing a food item, they ask: What is its source? What are the ingredients? And who controls the means of production? They reject the authority of large corporations, such as McDonald’s, who reproduce foods based on standardization—a mere focus on the final product rather than the production  process. The plated food is only one part of the story—even the high-end French restaurant is suspect for the modern foodie.

But foodies demand more than accessible information about food production. In addition to rejecting corporate hegemony, they shirk culinary tradition in favor of innovation. They want creativity. This challenge for the contemporary food artist is open to everyone. This is how Spain has taken France’s place as the global center of food innovation. After the abandonment of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement in France in the 1990s, Spain became the world’s culinary hotspot, leading The New York Times to dub it the “new France.” This new Spanish cuisine arose not from years of traditional, fundamentals-based cooking—as customary in French cuisine—but rather, as one of the world’s leading chefs, Ferran Adrià, has said, from “anarchy.”

We see this across the globe. For foodies, challenging traditional ideas and fostering individual creativity are at the forefront of their movement. From Adrià’s high-end—and currently closed but soon to be transformed—Spanish restaurant elBulli to the Boston-based artisanal Grillos’ Pickles, started by an amateur without any previous experience in the food industry, innovation is paramount.

But you don’t need a big wallet to seek authenticity. The best bar in the country, as rated by Drinks International, is hidden inside a hot dog stand in New York City. Even something as small-scale as starting a personal garden is to be admired in the foodie world. Spending a Saturday making jars of jam from one’s own strawberries is not only cheaper than the store-bought alternative, but it allows the eater to be creative. The more we know about food, the more boundless its innovation.

In addition to creating a space for individual creativity in the making of food, the foodie philosophy fosters community through collective discourse. The movement for local food sourcing has its merits for environmentalism, but as a philosophy, it can also revolutionize how we relate to food production and to each other. We can start to buy from local artisans rather than from agribusinesses like Sysco Corporation. Indeed, there is something immensely satisfying about creating a dialogue through exchanging home-brewed beers with a fellow foodie.

Sometimes food is just something we eat. But food can be art; it can be creativity; it can be inspiring; and it can be inspired. We can recognize value in food beyond the mere palate­­—as a full sensory experience, as an expression of human ingenuity and play, and as something that fosters community. At its best, food can become the platform for rejecting the marketed messages of mass consumption produced by large corporations. Rather than just allowing you to taste in new ways, it can allow you to think in new ways.

More than ever, engagement with food as a cultural creation is available to everyone. Haute cuisine need not be defined by elites, nor should it be. And control of our food system is no longer monopolized by the Hostesses and Monsantos. Now a new generation of young farmers are staking their claims to this system of production and distribution as well.

Obsession can be unhealthy in any form, but increased knowledge about food, its nutrition, its production, and its sourcing—these speak of a postmodern information structure focused on sharing rather than hierarchy. Adrià made no profit from elBulli, but how many great artists profit from their great art? The value of art in the postmodern era has been in its ability to challenge norms and project new ways of thinking. As we continue to push the boundaries against conventional cuisine and food production, we reaffirm our own individual artistic and democratic potential.

—Columnist Natalie C. Padilla can be reached at npadilla@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags