Mark Bittman: Rethinking the Word “Foodie”

An excerpt from Mark Bittman’s ‘A Bone to Pick,’ featuring his most memorable op-ed columns from The New York Times. We found his take — on a word that has become ubiquitous not only in the food world, but at dinner tables with friends — really interesting and wanted to share this piece from his latest book with our BBL readers. What do you think about the term? Has it found a place in pop culture nomenclature that has in turn lessened the impact of the true meaning?

At a dinner party the other night where people were asked to say a word about themselves, one woman said, “My name is”—whatever it was—“and I’m a foodie.” I cringed.

I’m not proud of that visceral reaction; in fact, I think it’s wrong. But I do wish there were a stronger, less demeaning-sounding word than “foodie” for someone who cares about good food, but as seems so often the case, there is not. Witness the near-meaningless-ness of “natural” and “vegetarian” and the inadequacy of “organic” and “vegan.” But proposing new words is a fool’s game; rather, let’s try to make the word “foodie” a tad more meaningful.

As it stands, many self-described foodies are new-style epicures. And there’s nothing destructive about watching competitive cooking shows, doing “anything” to get a table at the trendy restaurant, scouring the web for single-estate farro, or devoting oneself to finding the best food truck. The problem arises when it stops there.

More conscious foodies understand that producing food has an effect beyond creating an opportunity for pleasure. And this woman was not atypical: She’s into sustainability (“We have to grow our food better, right?”), organic (though for all I know this means organic junk food), and local food. She shops at farmers’ markets when she can. She cooks.

We can’t ask everyone who likes eating—which, given enough time and an adequate income, includes everyone I’ve ever met—to become a food activist. But to increase the consciousness levels of well-intentioned foodies, it might be useful to sketch out what “caring about good food” means, and to try to move “foodie” to a place where it refers to someone who gets beyond fun to pay attention to how food is produced and the impact it has.

The qualities that characterize good food vary within a narrow range. Good food is real, it’s healthy, it’s produced sustainably, it’s fair, and it’s affordable. Maybe it’s prepared at home, though if communal kitchens or restaurants can deliver those qualities, I’m all for that.

None of this is complicated, but simple doesn’t mean easy. “Real” means traditional; if it existed 100 years ago, it’s probably real. Hyperprocessed is neither real nor healthy. No single factor is causing our diet-related health crisis, but some things we eat are making us sick and it’s more likely that the culprits are added sugars, not asparagus. So, “healthy” most likely will always be “whole” or even “real.” This doesn’t mean we should eat more watercress because it’s a superfood, high in some supposedly critical nutrient, but it does mean we want to eat more fruits and vegetables. As we know.

“Sustainable” (or “green,” another word that’s been rendered near-meaningless) suggests resource-neutral, or as close to it as we can come. There is farming, not necessarily organic, that puts as much back into the soil as it extracts; it also uses water in a way that will guarantee a supply for the future. We can call that “sustainable.”

“Fair” and “affordable” are very tough. As Margaret Gray discusses in her excellent book, Labor and the Locavore, we cannot achieve ethical consistency in producing food without paying attention to labor. (Animals are important too, but I suppose I’m an anthro-chauvinist.) For food to be affordable, people—all people—must earn living wages; alternatively, good food must be subsidized. Both conditions would be even better. (As almost every foodie knows, we’re currently subsidizing bad food.)

Some of these qualities can be controlled by individuals: Most of us can eat real and healthier food easily enough, and, as it happens, growing such food tends to be more sustainable. On a grand scale, we need societal changes and government support to make this more accessible to everyone. But—and this is the part I like best—making good food fair and affordable cannot be achieved without affecting the whole system. These are not just food questions; they are questions of justice and equality and rights, of enhancing rather than restricting democracy, of making a more rational, legitimate economy. In other words, working to make food fair and affordable is an opportunity for this country to live up to its founding principles.

So shifting the implications of “foodie” means shifting our culture to one in which eaters—that’s everyone—realize that buying into the current food “system” means exploiting animals, people, and the environment, and making ourselves sick. To change that, we have to change not only the way we behave as individuals but the way we behave as a society. It’s rewarding to find the best pork bun; it’s even more rewarding to fight for a good food system at the same time. That’s what we foodies do.

For The New York Times and all kinds of other publications, Mark Bittman covers policy, agriculture, health, the environment and more, along, of course, with cooking and eating. His body of work spans all media with print and web columns, videos, interviews, TV appearances and shows. He’s a regular on the Today Show and has hosted four TV series, including Showtime’s Emmy Award-winning climate change documentary, Years of Living Dangerously.

Bittman is especially known as the author of more than a dozen groundbreaking, popular books (three of which are now successful apps). He is thrilled to announce that How to Cook Everything Fast has just been released in October. The VB6 Cookbook was published this spring to expand on its popular predecessor, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller and was credited by Forbes magazine as spawning one of the most important trends of the year. How to Cook Everything — widely considered the new bible of American cooking with well over 1 million copies sold — continues to demonstrate his combination of common sense and approachable authority after more than 15 years in print.

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