BY BRYAN LAVERY
Pecking order is the colloquial term for a hierarchal system of social organization. For the record, the original usage referred to the expression of dominance in chickens. With the keen interest in all things culinary, it should not surprise anyone to learn that there is a gastronomic pecking order. At the bottom of the gastronomic hierarchy is goinfre (greedy guts), then goulu (glutton), gourmand, (one who enjoys eating), friand (epicure; one who with discriminating taste takes pleasure in fine food and drink), gourmet (a connoisseur of food and drink), and finally the gastronome (one with a serious interest in gastronomy).
Let’s not overlook foodie, a ubiquitous term that is frequently used as a synonym for gastronome or epicure. Many people are unaware of the fact that there is a distinct difference in their meanings. The self-described foodie generally referred to an amateur or hobbyist, while gastronome referred to the educated palate and refined taste of a professional. In the past, I think my antipathy to the word foodie has been its frivolous connotations.
Knowing my profession, people often say to me, "You are such a foodie!" I am never certain what they mean by this. Sometimes I think it's an innocent enough question, other times I think the word feels like a put-down.
Now it would seem, the term foodie is beginning to have political aspirations with regard to food and is starting to be used with more gravitas.
The New York Times columnist, food journalist, and author Mark Bittman, suggested we should rethink the word ‘Foodie’ in an op-ed piece he wrote last year. Bittman says, “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.”
Some people self-identify as foodies to avoid being characterized as the type of food snob they associate with old-school gourmets. When people say to me, “You’re such a foodie” in the past it made my skin crawl. I don’t want any part of my life to be categorized by a cliché.
Writing in the Guardian, Paul Levy, who claims paternity of the term foodie with colleague Ann Barr, admits that American restaurant critic, food writer and novelist Gael Greene may have coined the term foodie at about the same time in 1982. “What started as a term of mockery shifted ground, as writers found that "foodie" had a certain utility, describing people who, because of age, sex, income and social class, simply did not fit into the category ‘gourmet’, which we insisted had become ‘a rude word’.”
In my experience, those characterized by the French term goinfre (greedy guts) suffer a ravenous disposition. They are hard to stomach due to their selfish, insatiable appetites. Gluttony is often an emotional escape, a sign that something is eating you. Gluttons indulge their voracious appetites indiscriminately and over-consume to the point of waste.
Gourmand is an all-encompassing term for acolytes who take great pleasure in good food but who are routinely unacquainted with etiquette. They lack the skills of proper refinement while being over-fond of eating.
At the next level, we find the epicure. This term has had a renaissance but is still sometimes used to lampoon those devoted to the pleasures of the table. The Oxford Companion of Food says the term “derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who declared happiness to be the highest good, which came to mean, in a food and wine contest, a person of refined tastes.”
Gourmet denotes even more respectability and gravity in culinary matters. This French term originally meant “cultivated wine-taster.” Gourmets tend to be discriminating in their eating habits and sophisticated, with a cultivated and professional interest in culinary matters.
The gastronome has reached the highest level, taking great strides to comprehend the most subtle nuances of taste. It is a pleasing word, gastronome: unfortunately it has become archaic. The gastronome’s discerning palate and quest for illumination have been confused with pretension and snobbery. The fact is that gastronomy is the study of the art and science of food and the relationship between food and culture.
I have noticed that gastronomes and foodies have at least one thing in common: they both seem to have a strong desire to impart their observations to others.