Are you a foodie? No, really. Are you one of those people who obsesses about food—in a good way? I thought I was. Recently however, I find to my distress that the term has taken on a negative connotationMost of my foodie friends refuse to admit it. They aren’t foodies, they exclaim. They just like to eat well.
So that’s the new term, is it? Eating well. The irony is that ‘foodie’ was coined to contrast the officiousness of words like gourmet, gourmand and epicure. Paul Levy and Ann Barr wrote The Official Foodie Handbook in the mid-1980s and defined a foodie as someone who was “very very very interested in food”. Modern dictionaries define a foodie as a “person who has an ardent or refined interest in food.” These definitions notwithstanding, I am compelled to add that foodies aren’t just people who love eating. They love the pedigree of food, its historical associations; they are giant storehouses of food trivia; and keep track of nuances of dishes. Above all, they have a palate with an elephant’s memory.
They are the people who will say that the cardamom in Aunty Gauri’s kheer was more prominent during last year’s Diwali feast as compared to this year. Needless to say, most Indian grandmothers are foodies although they wouldn’t call themselves that; they may even be insulted if you tell them that they are very, very, very interested in food to the exclusion of everything else. In their minds, they are performing a holy mission; one that involves feeding their extended family and every guest that enters their home. The fact that they spend the bulk of their time comparing recipes and choosing ingredients is beside the point. Actually, I found out that Indian mothers and grandmothers aren’t so much foodies as they are Aristologists.
An Aristologist is someone who places great importance on the experience, skill and artistic integrity of the chef and disdains the use of ready-made ingredients, cookbooks and other conveniences. As we all know, no Indian grandmother would be caught dead with a cookbook. As for conveniences, a mortarand pestle will suffice, thank you. None of your new-fangled blenders, mixers and grinders. No, my dear, these wizened, grey-haired beloved termagants who dominate our kitchens aren’t foodies; they are Aristologists.
In a move that is emblemized by the metrosexual male, we now have men who claim to be diehard foodies. These men compare global restaurants, talk about sushi and wasabi with insider knowledge, and quibble over how a certain friend’s pasta is never al dente. Some of them are good cooks, but most of them are finally giving rein to a palate that had been suppressed all through childhood—first by those aforementioned grandmothers who stereotypically slotted all boys in the “what do they know about food” category and later by hostel messes which served mind-numbingly repetitive food. For these men, the coming of middle-age has allowed their interests to flower, not least because of the women they married.
Many foodie men are married to career women who allowed them unprecedented access to the kitchen. Unlike their mothers and grandmothers who guarded the kitchen with savageness, these men ended up with women who actually encouraged them to cook. Even today, while only a few foodie men actually cook, they are finally able to putter around in the holy domain. They are finally able to give voice to their opinions, listen to their palate, and indulge their feminine sensitive side without alarming their families.
My contention is that it is these very same foodie men who have given the term its bad connotation. In a classic example of overkill and over-enthusiasm, these men are carried away by this whole foodie thing. They blather on and on about how Himalayan fossil marine pink salt carried down the mountain by Nepalese yaks doesn’t have the same “minerally” quality of the Peruvian version (which incidentally is mined from an ancient ocean that feeds a natural spring high up in the Andes carried down the slopes by burros).
Minerally salt? What is that? It is this type of chatter that makes you want to put your head into a bucketful of simple white table salt and yell, “Pass the ketchup”. One man added salt to my wounds (forgive the pun) by chiming in about this fabulous Sydney restaurant called Pink Salt. Don’t get me wrong. Even though I roll my eyes at such discussions, as you can see, I don’t forget them. I store away these nuances. I actually get interested in the taste of pink salt. I plot about how to procure the stuff—the Internet is a great equalizer. I read recipes which claim that pink salt dusted on ripe tomatoes tastes “divine”. Divine is a very foodie word. But these quirks notwithstanding, I’ll have you know that I am no foodie. I merely like to eat well.
(Shoba Narayan is a Bangalore-based writer and foodie who has recently started pretending that she isn’t one. Comments on her column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)