Lost In Translation

Categories: (Un)sound Bites
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One thing you will never see on City of Ate or in Observer reviews--except perhaps in mocking form--is the word 'foodie.' In part, this is personal preference. The cute diminutive nickname just sounds so damn childish. But my distaste for the term stems from something decidedly generational (and almost gleefully uninformed) implied in its emergence and dominance.

The word crept into parlance in the early 80s then took off, spurred by a book--The Official Foodie Handbook--the launching of Food Network and ad nauseam employment by journalists...all of which combine to belie the common definition of foodie, such as this from Wikipedia: "gourmets are epicures of refined taste who may or may not be professionals...whereas foodies are amateurs who simply love food, consumption, study, preparation and news."

Essentially, the word separates us into two distinct classes yet confers no particular demands on the better sort. Simply, if non-foodies are disinterested, those who tag themselves with the foodie label must be more studious, sincere and involved--therefore more 'with it.'

But they're not snobs, like those gourmet types.

To me, 'foodie' is akin to America's insistence that the person we choose to run the country bowl a decent game, own a mutt, work the ranch and avoid refined pursuits...you know, reading, discourse, that sort of thing--elitist stuff. To put it another way, a gourmet knows the aroma and flavor of borscht by heart, while a foodie can see Russia from her house.

OK, so that's far too flippant to really get at the distinction I'm trying to draw. After all, many who have succumbed to the fad and identify themselves by the plebeian term know quite a bit about global cuisine. But 'foodie' is as all-inclusive as the gentleman's C, embracing those who get it wrong, those who get it right and those who just like to shop at Central Market.

And in the process of inventing a new catch-all, we've muddled a set of pre-existing words.

I prefer "gourmand," a word some nowadays deem interchangeable with "gourmet." But for several centuries before the Internet, gourmand was defined merely as "someone who enjoys good food." It's not, in other words, a pretentious word.

Gourmands may know foie gras, but they may also deeply appreciate peasant fare. Yet for much of the 20th century BC (Before Julia Child), Americans confused French cuisine with refined and unapproachable...while at the same time adapting regional Italian dishes into our common repertoire. It has taken us until recent decades to realize Bourguignon, bouillabaisse and escargot are, generally speaking, the French equivalent of Bolognese. Or of barbecue and fried chicken--regional specialties with common origins that, when well prepared, can be elevated in literature into things of beauty.

In the process, like I said, we muddled and then dismissed some perfectly descriptive words. La Bruyere and other Frenchmen of previous centuries divided people into those who just want to satisfy hunger, gluttons and gourmands--at the bottom level. Snobs begin with the epicure class, followed by gourmets (related, but not synonymous, with gourmand) and, finally, gastronomes...the truly rarified set.

Ultimately, I shy from 'foodie' because some of this self-styled set in this town rave eloquently about mediocre dishes and drinks--the preference for wimpy, sweet and sour-fueled Margaritas being a particular bugaboo of mine. Gourmands know their stuff, whether it be classic French, New American, real cocktails or the better store bought hot dogs. If not, they're quite willing to learn.

Semantics? Yes. A topic of great concern? Probably not. But it's difficult to shake what some of the so-called foodies have wrought: Rachel Ray and men who order dirty martinis, for instance.

So I'll stick to gourmands.  



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