Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Questioning my Faith in Foodie-ism

Despite the fact that I sometimes get a little high-falutin' and philosophical about my food, and that I do tend to obsess about some of the more researchy and anthropological elements of cooking and eating, believe me when I say that on a day to day basis for me, a tomato is just a tomato.

Sure, on occasion I might go on and on about the symbolic nature of the tomato garden, or tell a long-winded story about how I came to like tomatoes and what that says about my youth, but really, in real, offline life, I am not (usually) insufferable about this stuff. I can sit down at a table and have a meal (or cook a meal) without boring my friends and family to tears with endless commentary on where my food came from, what it means, blah blah blah.

So does that make me not really a foodie?

Well, as of last night, I kind of hope so.

I've had foodie-ism on the mind lately, as I've been thinking of sponsoring a little of my own research about what attitudes and behaviors really define the category (I know - right away, I contradict the idea that I can just sit down and have dinner without getting all analytical about it.) Anyway, I've been thinking about the term "foodie" and about the current culture of foodie-ism in America.

Between TV (both cable and network), magazines, cookbooks and, of course, the Internet, I'm overwhelmed by the amount of food-related information I could consume in any given day. The rise of the celebrity chef has Rachael Ray (shudder) gracing a Dunkin' Donuts billboard I pass regularly and her voice on the radio - plus the image of a number of other, less offensive chefs bombarding me every time I turn on the TV or get the mail. My "favorites" folder is full of food blogs I don't have time to read and my bookshelves at home are stacked with cookbooks I never remember to open.

I'm exhausted.

But here's what's broken the camel's back for me: the August issue of Food & Wine. Now, I love F&W and I read it from cover to cover every month. I'm not saying I'm going to give it up. And anyway, it's not the editorial focus of the magazine that I'm having trouble with. It's the food world, as reported by F&W staff, that bothers me.

Here's the deal: I finished reading the July issue of the magazine a few weeks ago and I've been meaning to blog about an article on chef Graham Elliott Bowles' use of works of art to inspire meals in a very literal way. Kind of cool, about art and food, all stuff I'm into. But I never got around to writing the post.

Then, last night, as I read the August issue (not yet online, unfortunately), I honed in on a comment made by British designer Terence Conran, in the design Q&A section of the magazine. Conran says:

"One of my greatest pleasures in life is a tomato fresh from the garden. I hate the kind of food that is considered an art form or an intellectual matter, or chefs who believe they are artists."

And I thought: " Damn. I have become so pretentious in the way I think about food." Pretentious at the stove is not who I want to be.

This also came on the heels of my reading an older article by Katherine Mangu-Ward, called "How the Upper Crust Eats: Food as a Status Symbol." The article, which is ostensibly a review of The Omnivore's Dilemma, takes to task the food elite that has politicized and snobbicized everything that everyone eats. Upon reading the article, I confirmed my suspicion that I don't have the time or the inclination to be so into food in the philosophical sense that I don't eat, for instance, Spaghetti-O's (I happen to love them). And I certainly don't want to be the sort of person who looks down on someone else for not subscribing to my personal food missions.

So where's the line between interested and over-intellectual? Between fascinated and obsessively boring? Between thoughtful and pretentious? And how will I know if I cross it?

I'm not planning to stop my food analysis altogether, but this has given me something new to think about. Maybe I really just don't understand what a "foodie" is. And maybe I should focus more on enjoying my food, maybe, and less on over-intellectualizing it. Easier said than done for me, of course.

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