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Foodies: Culinary democrats or cultural snobs? Add to ...

Are you a culinary populist or an elitist? If you're a foodie, chances are you're a bit of both.

Food is often considered an equalizer that crosses cultural and class boundaries. Paradoxically, it's also a source of status and distinction that sets people apart as economic and cultural elites, say University of Toronto sociology professors Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann.

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As the authors explain in their new book Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, for which they interviewed 30 people and analyzed hundreds of articles, today's foodies might find classic French haute cuisine stuffy. They may be willing to try goat testicles and sheep brains. And they'll happily visit the city's best hole-in-the-wall eateries, no matter how dumpy the decor. But one thing foodies flat-out refuse to eat is dinner at a mundane, generic chain restaurant.

Why do people feel conflicted with being labelled as "foodies"?

Johnston: We discovered kind of a funny thing where around half of the people we interviewed said, "I hate the term 'foodie'; it means you're a food snob." And the other half said, "No, I am a foodie because I'm not a food snob." So they actually associated the term foodie with avoiding being the kind of snob they associated with old-school gourmets.

Yet you mention that the dominant foodie culture is white and affluent. Why is that?

Baumann: Well, I think part of the reason why is that foodie culture is largely disseminated through mass media channels. A lot of research shows that there is a reflection and a reinforcement of predominant cultural norms that are informed by a historically white majority.

Johnston: A lot of elements of foodie culture are still relatively exclusive, and part of what foodie culture is about is dabbling in all sorts of different ethnic cuisines and food traditions. What makes that a kind of privilege is to have the kind of knowledge to go to all of these kinds of places [whether it's a fancy restaurant or hole-in-the-wall eatery] so you're not just familiar with one type of ethnic cuisine, you're familiar with the whole range of them. And that can end up constituting a kind of cultural capital people use to display their sophistication.

Baumann: In addition, though, those cuisines are still labelled as "ethnic" in relation to the central orienting Western European, and specifically French, traditional canon that everything else is judged against.

How do foodies determine what is good food?

Baumann: The two predominant characteristics that we were able to tease out is food has to be authentic and/or exotic. What makes food "authentic" is whether it's connected to a historical tradition, a particular geographic location, whether there's a simplicity to it, either in its production or presentation or content, and whether it was made or produced by a particular person or small group that could be identified as the makers. Food that is considered to be unusual, but shockingly so, is considered "exotic."

Johnston: So the trend to eating offal is part of that - people eating something shockingly unusual like brains or tongue. When we asked people what was something they'd never eat, they mentioned chain restaurants like Olive Garden. It failed on all of those exoticism and authenticity criteria - it's too accessible, too mass-produced, not associated with real Italy.

Why do you say that foodies tend to romanticize poverty?

Baumann: I think this is especially true in the U.S., but also true in Canada, that we do not dwell on social inequalities related to wealth. When there's a romanticization of poverty, it's a way of looking away from these inequalities that we tend not to want to acknowledge because we find it very uncomfortable. But at the same time, if you're going to be a foodie and value authentic and exotic cuisine, it's going to lead you to places of poverty, to contexts of impoverished food production and consumption. Through romanticizing those conditions of poverty, you can get the good food without having to dwell on the uncomfortable fact of poverty.

How does that apply to "kitsch" foods?

Johnston: I think that's about middle and upper class people appropriating working class foods in a way that adds a kind of ironic twist or wink. When they're taken literally, people actually make fun of them or laugh at them. But when they're considered more edible, there's usually a substitution of ingredients so it's done in a way that's considered more palatable. So all of the upscaling of pot pies and mac 'n' cheese, those all have an element of kitsch to them, but they're redone in ways that are considered more delicious.

Baumann: And using expensive ingredients.

Were there aspects of foodie culture that surprised you?

Johnston: One thing that was surprising to me was the different ways that men and women embody their foodie culture. Men often emphasize their expertise more, and they're often much more interested in the exoticism, especially eating things that are wildly unconventional, like goat testicles. And women didn't do that as much. They talked more about how their interest in food was also about protecting the health of their family.

Baumann: And some people are really, really into their food. To actually hear people talk about it, it was surprising to see how strong that [connection]could be. For some people they're so into a particular genre of music and that's who they really identify as. Other people have food as central to their identity, how they understand what's important in life.

Is it possible to be a completely democratic foodie?

Baumann: I think it's possible to eat as ethically as possible, where you pay attention to the environmental impact of your food choices and the labour-rights impacts and the animal-rights impacts. But because there is status and prestige implicated in all of our food choices, even if it's not motivating us, it's hard to completely opt out of that.

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