It’s time for a new term for food lovers like me.
In 1978, when the first issue of The International Review of Food & Wine arrived, borne in the pages of a Playboy, the word “foodie” was still four years from being coined. But the food-obsessed demographic was there, and the founding edi-tors, Michael and Ariane Batterberry, knew it. Five years of re-search had told them that there was an audience hungry for “all there is to know about eating and drinking well.” That the new title launched in so racy a magazine hinted that this as-yet-unnamed demographic had a few rakes among them, too.
In 1982, another editor, Paul Levy, working at Harpers & Queen magazine in England, came up with a name for that audience, coining the word “foodie” to describe their increas-ingly gourmet readers. (In the United States, New York magazine food critic Gael Greene independently minted the term in 1980, referring to diners at Dominique Nahmias’ Restaurant d’Olympe in Paris.)
Over the next 40 years, the word spread. In the early 2010s, “foodie” was in its heyday, frequently deployed on everything from Instagram bios to Tinder profiles to tourism board slogans. As a food writer, I squeezed myself as snugly into the term as I did my skinny jeans and wore it just as smugly, too. “I know, Ma,” I would sigh, after waxing poetic about uni to a woman whose tastes tended to-ward applesauce meatloaf. “I’m just a foodie, I guess.”
But lately, the word has started to chafe. Now I cringe when I hear it. It stands for a way of looking at, and being interested in, food that is painfully outdated and possibly harmful.
There’s always been a twinge of conspicuous consumption associated with the word “foodie,” a sort of hedonistic enjoyment of what was on the plate and only the plate. But what if, in the past 40 years, we had expanded our gaze a few inches beyond the delicacies in front of our noses? What if, from the beginning, I had extended my passion for ramps and buttermilk-brined fried chicken just beyond the pass, to the kitchen? Perhaps some of my heroes wouldn’t now be lying smashed like fallen idols. (Perhaps they wouldn’t have been my heroes in the first place.) Instead my fellow foodies and I descended upon each new trend or hot spot just long enough to grab a bite, snap a ’gram, and hashtag it #eeeats. We took the plate to be paramount, a justification for all the bad boy chef shit that happened just a few meters away. Worse, we—real talk: I—imagined that for a chef to unleash his genius onto the plate, he must be allowed to live beyond the law. That is, if I even bothered to look up from the table to notice.
Luckily, at the root of what it truly means to be a foodie is the antidote: The beauty of what is on the plate can also radi-ate outward. In her book On Beauty and Being Just, Harvard professor Elaine Scarry notes that one word, fairness, conveys both beauty and justice. I don’t see how one can be both exquisitely attuned to the fairness of a blueberry sorbet, sensitive to the balance of flavors of that icy des-sert served in a fine dining room in New York City, and completely uninterested in the lack of fairness that a blueberry worker in New Jersey, just a few miles from the dining room, makes just $4.25 for 12 pints of blueberries. We’re learning that a gnudi or a gnocchi or an andouille does not taste as sweet when it is a product of a toxic workplace.
There is a concept, first put forward by the Stoic philosopher Hierocles, that features ever-expanding circles of compassion and care. It’s called oikeiosis, and it boils down to this: What starts with the self expands to family, citizens, countrymen, and finally mankind. The diagram actually looks a lot like a plate. Foodies, fortunately, have lots of practice. At the heart of the locavore movement is care for our world. At the heart of foraging is an openness to our environment.
Now it’s time to radiate the attention we pay to the plate in all directions, through time and space, too. We can extend our-selves into the kitchen and into the fields and into the homes of those who work them. We can imagine the course of influence not just from farm to table but from table to farm. Now I look at what’s on the plate not as the end but as part of a system in which I, too, am implicated and that I, too, can change. What I can’t do is isolate myself, redonning the blinders and staring at the table setting before me. I can, therefore, no longer call myself a foodie. But I can be something better. I can look up from the table and call myself a person.