The word 'foodie' is now ubiquitous - and provokes plenty of resentment from people in the know

Roberto A Ferdman traces its rise from early 1980s insult to its current over-usage

In 1984, The New York Times published a piece that was, at least indirectly, about a word we could all do without. The story was about the publication of The Official Foodie Handbook by journalists Ann Barr and Paul Levy, which chronicled the lives of food lovers around the world. They were food adventure-seekers, culinary addicts who were interested in all eating experiences, refined and not.

"A foodie," the authors wrote, "is a person who is very, very, very interested in food."

The two weren't the first to utter the term – that appears to have been restaurant critic Gael Greene, who used it in a 1980 column, according to etymologist Barry Popik. Nor were they the last. But for years the word was used sparingly. A populist food critic might have been described as a "foodie". A gustatory pleasure-seeker with the time and money to invest in obscure cooking methods, niche coffee-roasting techniques and not-to-be-missed meals might have earned the distinction, too. It wasn't a compliment, just a description. It was an unpretentious way to categorise a growing but still relatively small group of people.

And then it wasn't.

Google Ngram, which tracks the frequency of words in digitised books, shows the word was non-existent until it appeared in the early 1980s, but its use grew quickly shortly after the publication of Barr and Levy's book.

Google Trends, which tracks the relative frequency with which people search for various things, tells a similar story. Interest in the word "foodie", which seems to have piqued popular interest in late 2006, is trending at its highest-ever. People are typing it in and pressing go.

Of course, you don't need Google's data to know the word is everywhere. It is inescapable.Over time, the word has undergone an all-too-familiar transformation, bubbling up to a point of ubiquity that has stripped the word of any semblance of meaning. On a good day – or bad, depending on how you look at it – most people would qualify as a "foodie" to someone.

It's no wonder that the word is bemoaned by so many people who work within the world the term glorifies. Chefs hate it, because it empowers their customers to feign knowledge about things they don't actually understand. The US food writer Mark Bittman doesn't care for it. Nor does the journalist and gourmand John Lanchester, who chronicled his frustration with mass foodie-ism in a 2014 New Yorker piece.

"Everyone's a critic, they say, and that's certainly true of the food world today," he wrote. "Of course, everyone has always been a critic, in the sense that customers have always made the most basic judgment of all: do I want to come back to this joint? But there's a contemporary development with respect to volume, in the dual sense of quantity and loudness. The volume of all this critical chatter is turned way up, and it's harder than ever to ignore. Food is my favourite thing to talk about and to learn about, but an interest that is reasonable on a personal and an individual scale has grown out of all proportion in the wider culture."

There is no shortage of public "foodie" resentment, including from people in the know, people whose opinions so-called "foodies" should, in theory, value highly. And yet, despite the heaping piles of expertly deglazed vitriol, the word persists.

There are obvious (ab)users, who use the word readily and unironically – the sort who post really close pictures of everything they eat or watch hours of food television each day without ever learning how to work an oven.

I can't think of anywhere the word "foodie" appears more often in my life than in my inbox, where PR pitches seem to invoke it at every opportunity. A recent search turned up dozens of results – hundreds more when I extended the search to my spam folder. One example (which went unanswered) was about a list of the "best cities for food trucks". "Foodies today are considered 'hip'," it read, as though it were written by someone's grandparents.

The problem with the word "foodie" boils down to a simple truth: you can't possibly call yourself a "foodie" if you are actually one. There is a great irony in describing yourself as a food insider in a way that no actual food insider ever would. There's nothing wrong with food populism. It's this very trend that has helped buoy the food movement, which is slowly reversing how disconnected we have all become from the production of our food. But some things have clearly been lost in the collective trek toward announcing whenever possible how much we like to eat.

Among them is how Levy, one the term's pioneers, first encountered the term: as an insult. This is how he explained it in 2007:

"In late 1981, Ann Barr, then features editor of Harper's & Queen, noticed the food world was shifting on its tectonic plates, and that perfectly sane people had suddenly become obsessed with every aspect of food.

"She invited readers to write in and immediately received several attacks upon a greedy, single-minded and highly visible food-obsessive who wrote in the magazine at the time: me. Thus it was that, in the issue of August 1982, I was derided in the anonymous article (edited, as it happens, by me) as the ghastly, his-stomach-is-bigger-than-his-eyes, original, appetite-unsuppressed, lip-smacking 'king foodie'. I had to sign a legal undertaking not to sue the magazine or myself for libel."

It's fitting how we have come full circle.

© Washington Post

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