December 1, 2018

Katharine Shilcutt on Foodies - A Jay Francis Shout Out (Houston Press)

Has the "Foodie" Backlash Begun?

Late last year, all of the sister papers in the Village Voice Media chain were informed that we were no longer to use the word "foodie" in blogs or in print. The reason? "Foodie" has not only become overused but has developed a strongly negative connotation: A foodie is no longer someone who appreciates and enjoys food.

A foodie is now someone who takes food to extremes: Tweeting every course of every meal, obsessively discussing Top Chef Masters and Hell's Kitchen episodes on Internet forums, forcing the entire group to wait as they take pictures of every dish that hits the table and rushing to upload them to Flickr or Twitpic, grilling wait staff to find out the exact provenance of every ingredient in a dish and revering chefs as if they were Lennon and McCartney. Then there's the arguing ad nauseum about whether sous vide is the greatest cooking technique since cavemen created the open flame, whether that bubbly-looking snot on the side of a dish is a foam or an emulsion, whether or not to call themselves "slow food" connoisseurs or locavores, and whether pork cracklins or morel mushrooms will be the next foods to take the culinary world by storm (since bacon and cupcakes are now passé, natch).

I don't identify myself as a foodie although I'm in the unique position of being a professional food writer. I love food, and I love writing. But I don't obsess over either. It's a bit difficult to be objective or biased -- or even simply to separate your work and personal lives -- if you're living fully immersed in the increasingly mad world of food fetishism. Gonzo journalism is for Hunter S. Thompson; I don't carry truffled duck fat around with me or crawl into a corner until I get my next lardo fix.

What was once the domain of a passionate, geeky few has suddenly mushroomed into a hobby for many: eating for sport. In the same way that it's now "cool" to be a computer nerd or a comic book aficionado, it's lately become cool to be a foodie. And as that hobby becomes more mainstream, it also becomes more self-aggrandizing, a pompous satire of itself.
When I was in high school, I was infamous for forcibly taking my friends out to "weird" and "exotic" restaurants. They all tried to refuse every time we set out in my beat-up old Camry on a food adventure, but my insistence on broadening their culinary horizons was like a force of nature (also, I was a demanding little bitch, and that wore them down pretty efficiently, too). Similarly, I was always the one dragging my family to new and exciting hole-in-the-wall joints and ethnic restaurants. My stepfather was none too pleased to celebrate Father's Day over a spicy bowl of doro wat at Blue Nile seven years ago, but the restaurant quickly became a favorite with my other family members.

Like our erstwhile Food Explorer, Jay Francis, I wasn't in the food adventuring game to show off my culinary knowledge (foodie) or see how many different empanadas I could eat in one day (gross foodie). I was in it for the love of finding new food and sharing that food with my loved ones. What can bring people closer together than sharing an experience that inspired or excited you? Especially if that experience involves the sacred and communal act of breaking bread?
In the same way that certain people call themselves "music nerds" or "fashion nerds," I was and still am a food nerd. A food nerd wants to investigate all aspects of food, where it comes from, how it's made, what it means in a broader social context and how it relates to your own tiny place in the world. Not foodies.

Foodies are just in it for the big show: to talk up their meals, to rub elbows with chefs, to write nonsensical "reviews" on Yelp and to scrabble together some bizarre version of popularity out of the whole shebang. And I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Just take a look at Shut Up, Foodies!, a blog dedicated to calling out foodies for all the dumb stuff they do on a daily basis. Making buffalo wing ice cream? Check. Making an enormous deal out of an "underground" grilled cheese operation that only sells 40 sandwiches a day? Check. Making ramps into a venerated food icon every spring? Check.

Which leads us to perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the modern foodie's attitude: food fetishism. Foodies take everything to extremes, including their love of trendy culinary items like bacon, cupcakes, lard, ramps (see above), truffles, meatballs, donuts, ice cream, fried eggs and cheese -- or a disgusting combination of all ten. Why is everything better with bacon? It's not. Most things are, in fact, not better with bacon.

To whit, I love Luxirare as much as the next hypervisual person, but adding shaved truffles to an already decadent dish abandons the realm of reason and careens into self-parody. It's the culinary equivalent of Alexander McQueen's armadillo shoes: freakishly mutated haute couture gone overboard, completely removed from reality, created for the sole purpose of being utterly pretentious.

Foodies, your bizarre worship of pork bellies has even caused the price of bacon to rise. Or, to quote New Orleans critic Brett Anderson at the Times-Picayune, "Pork belly fetishism is juicing the price of your BLT." I love pork belly, too, but it's not the epitome of all foodstuffs -- despite the fact that every high-end restaurant now features a pork belly dish on its menu. For swine's sake, you can get all-you-can-eat pork belly at Godo's dirt cheap lunch buffet if you're truly obsessed. And it's better than most of what's served at the expensive eateries in town.

And since we aren't currently fetishizing enough foods, the latest trend in Houston is frog legs. Yes, the same frog legs we've been eating for our whole lives in southeast Texas. Suddenly, restaurants like Bootsie's and Haven are acting as if they've reinvented the wheel: Did you know that you can EAT the LEGS of a FROG? I'm waiting for this winter, when $40 plates of oxtails hit menus across the city. TAILS? FROM AN OX? Truly.

It would be one thing if restaurants were simply celebrating the bounty of foods that summer in Texas offers. And, for the most part, they are. But what fascinates and repulses is the way that foodies drive themselves into a frenzy about it: Who can be the first to go and eat the vaunted frog legs? Who can be the first to make bacon-wrapped frog legs with a fried egg on top? Who can be the first to Tweet about it?

It's enough to turn even the most hardened food nerd's stomach. What happened to cooking a meal for the sheer joy of feeding your loved ones? Going to the farmers' market to buy food, not to make a statement? Eating at a restaurant because you like the food, not because it's currently the most popular place in town with the hottest chef?

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