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.
Food trends in 2016
Food trends in 2016
1/11 Celeriac root
We had a kale obsession in 2015, but 2016’s vegetable sine qua non is predicted to be the knobbly celeriac root. Celeriac milk (Tom Hunt at Poco in Bristol serves it with winter mussels and wild water celery), celeriac cooked in Galician beef fat (from Adam Rawson of Pachamama, hot new chef in the capital) and salt-baked celeriac (to be found in Matthew and Iain Pennington’s kitchens at The Ethicurean in the West Country) are just a few examples.
2/11 Middle Eastern food
The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook (£24.95, Phaidon) by grand-dame Salma Hage, author of the bestseller The Lebanese Kitchen (whose halva is pictured here), is out in April
© Liz & Max Haarala Hamilton
3/11 Non-alcoholic cocktails
Grain Store mixologist Tony Conigliaro has created Roman Redhead, a riot of red grape juice, beetroot, pale ale and verjus, and Rose Iced Tea (black tea, rose petals, anise essence, pictured here)
The discerning will be slurping Hepple gin – from chef Valentine Warner and cocktail guru Nick Strangeway – which is punctuated with bog-myrtle nuances
5/11 Argyll and Bute
Restaurant followers are getting in a froth about Pam Brunton in Scotland, who opened the Inver restaurant in Argyll and Bute to acclaim last year
6/11 Andy Oliver’s Som Saa
One of the most eagerly awaited restaurants of 2016 will be the permanent incarnation of Andy Oliver’s remarkable pop-up Som Saa opening very soon in east London. Oliver, who worked at Thai god David Thompson’s Nahm in Bangkok, raised a whopping £700,000 through crowdfunding, and is renowned for his piquant Thai flavours and obsessive attention to detail, including in his home ferments and DIY coconut cream
© Adam Weatherley
Another ruminant in vogue is venison, with Sainsbury’s doubling its line for 2016. It provides a protein-packed punch, with B vitamins and iron, and it’s low in fat. Its entry into the mainstream is in part thanks to the Scottish restaurant Mac and Wild, just opened in London, whose Celtic head chef Andy Waugh (who also runs the Wild Game Co) has been touting it as street food for years (his venison burger pictured here)
From Brett Graham’s The Ledbury to Angela Hartnett’s kitchens at Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest, Cabrito is the go-to goat supplier among the chef cognoscenti (roasted loin of kid pictured here) – but this year, domestic cooks can get in on the action, as Sushila Moles and James Whetlor of Cabrito offer their meat through Ocado
Mike Lusmore / mikelusmore.com
Coffee sage George Crawford is launching the much-anticipated Cupsmith with his partner, Emma. Crawford believes that 2016 is the year purist coffee will finally meet the masses; Cupsmith’s mission will be to make craft coffee as popular as craft beer on the high street. The company roasts Arabica beans in small batches, improving its quality – but sells it online, at cupsmith.com, in an approachable way: expect cheerful packaging and names such as Afternoon Reviver Coffee (designed for drinking with milk – no matter how uncouth, most of us want milk) and Glorious Espresso
10/11 120-day-old steak
Hanging meat for extremely long lengths of time has become an art. In Cumbria, Lake Road Kitchen’s James Cross is plating up 120-day-old steak (pictured here). The beef is from influential “ager” Dan Austin of Lake District Farmers, who is currently investigating the individual bacterial cultures that go into this maturing process
11/11 Lotus root
Diners can expect root-to-stem dining - cue the full lotus deployed by the Michelin-starred Indian Benares in its kamal kakdi aur paneer korma
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.
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