I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and increasingly, it is a topic that comes up in conversation.
“Oh, I can’t cook for you,” I am told, “you’re such a foodie.”
I hear it all the time, sometimes as praise, sometimes as scorn, and often as an expression of the speaker’s fear of inadequacy or guilt-ridden acknowledgment that they are definitely not that.
So what does it mean, to be or not to be a foodie?
The word is reminiscent and rightfully so, I think, of that 60s’ moniker, groupie. Groupies flocked around rock stars, offering all manner of bribes to get backstage, wistfully or seductively waiting for attention, and hoping that some of the sparkle would rub off. Girls made careers out of following this or that musician and some married him or bore his child. A few groupies did indeed become famous but most simply faded away, presumably to live on memories and old vinyl.
Today, foodies flock around the latest celebrity chef and are constantly in search of the next big thing, the trendy new ingredient, the hot destination restaurant (for surely The French Laundry is old-hat by now, a seasoned–ha!–foodie thinks), the fusion that will shock and dazzle and clear the stage of all whom have gone before. There’s a lot of “I’m eating this and you’re not” attitude woven through this.
Why does the word make me bristle so, you may wonder?
It seems to me that foodies are born of a culture that views food and cooking as a spectator sport. At the core of the foodie’s canon is a belief that the best food in the world is found in the restaurant, not in the home, that cooking is difficult, that the home cook can never make anything as wonderful as what a professional chef can produce. It may be an unexamined and unacknowledged mindset, but it is also a pervasive one.
This attitude has been a long time developing. The seeds were planted a century and more ago, by the Domestic Scientists near the turn of the last century and by the food industry following World War II. If they could convince women that cooking was hard, they would have a ready market for all manner of culinary invention, from canned vegetables to packaged cake mixes. I don’t think anyone can argue that they weren’t wildly successful.
The Domestic Scientists were all about controlling food and denying appetite.
They created things like all-white meals, with everything precisely cut and napped in white sauce to disguise it. It is this movement more than anything else that led to the culinary stratosphere currently occupied by the likes of The French Laundry (yes, still), Denmark’s Noma, San Francisco’s precious Coi and its founder Daniel Patterson, who operated the exquisite Babette’s in Sonoma in the mid-1990s.
How many sleepless nights would Thomas Keller have if he realized he is the inheritor not so much of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin but of a small group of women who believed they were too dainty to have appetites and whose true motivation was to stop their men from drinking, a foundational goal of the “scientists.”
The leap from the home stove to the commercial kitchen as the Mecca of deliciousness was easily made in the 1970s and 1980s, when restaurants such as Berkeley’s Chez Panisse had access to better ingredients than restaurants had ever had. But I find it more than a little ironic that Chez Panisse relied, to a very large degree, on backyard gardeners to catapult it to fame. Today, a typical foodie might meet the suggestion of dinner at Chez Panisse with raised eyebrows and a shake of the head.
“It’s so simple,” they say, “and it’s really not very interesting.”
A foodie is looking for the razzle, the dazzle, the gymnast on the plate and might easily miss the point of a single perfect peach, served with nothing more than a knife, a dish for which Chez Panisse is famous. (And it just so happens that that peach is the Arctic Gem White Peach of Dry Creek Peach & Produce.)
After September 11, 2001, Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times that now who was at the table at a dinner party was as important as what was on the table.
In my opinion, who shares a table with us has always been more important than what is served. I care about what I eat and what I offer friends, I like the food I eat to be as delicious as it possibly can be. I enjoy shopping for it—especially when I buy from the farmers, cheesemakers and other producers who have become, through the simple act of procuring ingredients, my friends—and preparing it, but I never put the food above the companionship and conversation that accompanies it.
I also love a good restaurant meal and enjoy lingering in one or another of my favorite eateries but again, the companionship is as important as every other ingredient. I do not want to dine at the white linen altar, where one is supposed to admire the food and not talk too much, lest conversation eclipse the importance of the cuisine. Increasingly, this is an attitude adopted by foodies and those who serve them. I have friends who were told by their server at the French Laundry to please tone down their conversation because guests preferred to “enjoy their food in silence.”
I continue to believe that the very best food can and should come from our own kitchens, the beating heart of our homes, where success depends almost entirely upon the goodness of ingredients.
If you’d like to explore the Domestic Scientist movement, snag a copy of Perfection Salad: Woman and Cooking at the Turn of the Century by Laura Shapiro. Perfection Salad itself refers to the gelatin salads that were all about manipulating and controlling foods.
One example of the gelatin mixtures that came to be known as Perfection Salad