May 28, 2014 at 9:24 am

In Defense of Food(iesm)

my name is foodie food politic

“Foodie” might be one of the most overused, misrepresented terms of our times. The habitually maligned group is compared to Portlandia skits more often than they’re taken seriously, and across social media they’re almost universally disliked. A friend of mine recently observed on Facebook: “Foodie” is pretty much the most obnoxious word out there. What does it even mean? Everyone likes good food.”

I consider myself a “foodie,” and spend so much of my waking life dedicated to food that I take attacks of this nature as a personal affront. To set the record straight I’ll tell you what it means.

Don’t fetishize bacon if you “don’t like to think about where it comes from.” Get dirty. Get connected. 

For the past several years I’ve been working in the field of sustainable agriculture.I drank the very proverbial Kool-Aid the summer after graduating from college when I was given In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. Before that I knew virtually nothing about where my food came from. I now find myself unable to look at food without considering its back-story and I take the Hippocrates maxim “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” literally.

I got into farming because I wanted to affect food policy and I figured any advocate worth their salt had better know what they were talking about. It’s one thing to read that a local, organic tomato is better for the individual consuming it and for the environment but an entirely other thing to see firsthand why that’s the case.

In order to learn directly I went to work for the model my studies taught me would make the food system work most effectively and be best for the environment and community: a small-scale organic farm focusing on vegetable production. I proceeded to fall in love with growing my own food, learned multitudes about the mechanisms (and social justice aspects) of food production, and became a highly proficient cook in the process. My maiden season on the farm solidified any doubt about a career—and life—in food.

It also taught me that most people, even the type who shop at farmer’s markets, know surprisingly little about food. They use catch phrases they hear in the media without understanding the science behind the concepts they adhere to. They complain about high prices without understanding that when it takes someone hours to weed a bed of carrots as opposed to haphazardly dousing it with herbicides, labor costs necessitate higher prices.

A critical part of being a “foodie” is developing a connection to your food—and no, shopping at Whole Foods does not qualify as a meaningful connection. Try growing something. Or, if you eat animals, try killing something. Don’t fetishize bacon if you “don’t like to think about where it comes from.” Get dirty. Get connected.

Being able to regularly drop over one hundred dollars on a tasting menu doesn’t make you a “foodie,” it makes you someone with a large disposable income.

 Today I work on the farm so that I can be intimately tied to my food system, grow my own food, and know what I put in my body. During lunch, I skim through my Instagram feed filled with inspirational photos from chefs and restaurants whose work I admire – “food porn” as its known. Post-lunch as I work in the field or the greenhouse I think about what I want to eat for my next meal, what I have on hand, and what I have to run to collect after work. After any necessities have been procured I relax at home and browse through a series of bookmarked pages on the computer: Vice Food, NPR’s The Salt, Modern Farmer, as well as chef and food policy blogs. I also collect cookbooks and am often unable to fall asleep at night before ascertaining what I’ll make for breakfast the following morning.

So naturally it bothers me when people who don’t know anything about their food consider themselves “foodies,” because it gives the real ones a bad name.

When society codifies us together we subsequently all get tagged with the “elitist” label. Which is ironic, because after the rent and student loan checks go out, I’m living paycheck to paycheck. The reason I seldom eat out is only half because I’m on Obamacare. The other factor is that I simply prepare better food than most restaurants I can afford offer, and that’s something that only comes with a love of cooking and a commitment to developing your culinary skills. Being able to regularly drop over one hundred dollars on a tasting menu doesn’t make you a “foodie,” it makes you someone with a large disposable income.

Waiting hours in line for a cronut—or whatever the latest food-fad is—doesn’t make you a “foodie,” it makes you someone who has a very interesting perception of the value of your time. And slobbering over “food porn” is just slobbering if you do it while the microwave is warming your pre-cooked dinner. I follow chefs online and I post pictures of my own creations because I’m trying to inspire people to cook more and learn more about their foods’ origins in the process.

That’s the beauty of caring about your food—you get better at it. Better at understanding how its grown, who’s growing it, what’s good for your body, and what does your body harm. Better at sourcing it, preparing it, and sharing it with friends and family. In a great twist of fate it’s the single thing you don’t get better at—enjoying it—that the faux “foodies” have latched onto and has become synonymous with the term.

Real foodie culture is alive and well. Several of my closest friends—whom I met during a three-month farming program in Italy—exemplify this notion. People who, despite being deep in a cheese-coma or having difficulty breathing due to fullness from a holiday meal, are already busy brainstorming a compilation of dishes for the next feast to come.

And while we don’t necessarily enjoy good food more than average person, we most certainly have lower tolerance for bad food, which is why we work on farms, spend so much disposable income on food, and dedicate so much mental energy to thinking about food.

So while the term “foodie” is often tainted, it does have a place among a certain societal fringe. People who put way more stock in their food than the average person; heck they probably make their own stock.

-Steven Waldman