Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Foodie’s Place in the Culinary Pecking Order






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 contemporary term that is frequently and incorrectly used as a synonym for gastronome or epicure. Most people are blind to the fact that there is a distinct difference in their meanings. The foodie is an amateur or hobbyist and a gastronome has the educated palate and refined taste of a professional.

Foodie, like the expression eatery, is a relatively new term in our modern culinary lexicon. Both of those terms have given me cause for pause. The word eatery I am only now shamefully surrendering to after initially finding the term not only loathsome but unappetizing. My complaint is that “eatery” is being used inaccurately; it is an interloper on the culinary landscape, evoking images of cheap, usually inferior restaurants with undiscriminating all-you-can-eat offerings and other unspeakable horrors. Recently, I have begun to hear the term eatery to describe fine dining establishments. I am seeing the expression bandied about in venerated pages of prestigious publications.

With the simultaneous escalation of the food media, food apps and camera phones I try to keep my mind open to change. Expressions that seemed to have no root in our culinary lexicon are suddenly ubiquitous.

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” it makes my skin crawl. I don’t want to be categorized or lumped in with foodies despite their clichéd glory. The term sounds too much like groupie, and groupie, to my way of thinking, has the implication of being obsessively indiscriminate. For some reason the word “foodie” has always seemed too gung ho, too disingenuous and more about status than anything else. Several people have told me that I am mistaken, that I am a food snob. 

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’.”

We can see how far we have come by a legendary satirical sketch on the IFC series Portlandia (you can watch it on YouTube) caricaturing foodies and called, "Is the chicken local?" The episode goes like this:  A waitress approaches a man and woman seated at a table and asks if they’re ready to order. The woman says she’d like to know more about the chicken. “The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts,” the waitress states. “This is local?” the man asks, leaning attentively on his hand. “Yes,” the waitress replies. “Oregon organic, or Portland organic?” the woman asks. “It’s just all-across-the-board organic,” the waitress answers. The waitress leaves for a moment, and then returns with a file. “His name was Colin,” she says. “Here are his papers.” The questions get more intense and exhaustive, to the point that the waitress says, “I can’t speak to that level of intimate knowledge”. The diners then excuse themselves, promising to return but first they need to see where he was raised and lived, before they eat “Colin”. Although this satirical sketch mocks foodies, as consumers we should be aware of where our food is being sourced.

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.

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