Foodie Underground: Are You Part of a Movement?

ColumnTake that obsession with food porn and sea salt and do something with it.

“I just had a Portland moment and only you will appreciate,” my friend said, calling from Tuscon in the middle of a Sunday.

“Ok, what?”

“Well, so we walked into this cute coffee shop and the first thing I thought to myself ‘I wonder where they roast their beans?'” she paused. “Who am I?”

At first thought I saw nothing wrong with this situation. Good coffee shops tend to sell good coffee, and if they’re really good, they’re probably running a coffee roasting operation in the back. Nothing weird there.

But at second thought, I realized what she meant. Most people, even those in coffee-centric cities, are probably more concerned with what coffee drink they’re going to buy than where the beans were roasted. We’re in the minority.

This call came less than six hours after brewing a morning French press on a quick one night girls’ camping trip. I had ground the beans before leaving home to ensure that we had good coffee on the trail. As we’ve already discussed, coffee is exponentially more delicious when brewed after a night in a tent.

“What kind of coffee is that?” one of my girlfriends asked.

Water Avenue,” I responded.

“Have you tried Oblique?” she offered up

“Have you tried Extracto?” chimed in the third of our trio.

Here we were by the side of a stream in the middle of the forest discussing craft coffee roasters, and although we left it at that, I am certain that the conversation could have continued, naming off a handful of other small coffee roasting companies in the city that are neighborhood favorites and garner cult-like followings.

The rest of the world thinks Portlandia is guided by Stumptown, but the rest of us know better than to put all of our coffee desires into one basket, even when we’re not extreme coffee aficionados. Most of us just want a good, strong cup, and like being able to purchase beans that are roasted on site. When we travel it’s not surprising that we seek out the same thing.

Back to the phone call a few hours later.

“This coffee thing has gotten me thinking,” continued the friend calling from Tuscon. “I realized this weekend how many times I thought “food porn!” and it’s getting a little out of control. Am I a foodie now? I think you should write about that in your column. When did you realize that you were a foodie? What was your defining moment?”

Good question.

What is it that makes you a foodie?

Is it when you’re sitting on your couch post-run eating a semi-failed batch of No Bake Chocolate Energy Bars with Sea Salt that you made the day before because you just felt the need to tweak a recipe? Is it when your friends ask you to plan dinner? Is it when you look at your phone and realize that 75% of your photos involve food or drinks? Is it when you took your own syrup with you to a restaurant because you knew you wouldn’t be happy with what they had to offer? Is it when you’re in the backcountry drinking specialty coffee because you refuse to bring instant?

It could be all of those things, or a long list of others, but does a defining foodie moment even matter? Why is it that having an appreciation for good food is all of a sudden an indicator for something larger?

As human beings, we have a need to define ourselves. We’re born with a tribe mentality, and because food brings us together more than many other things do, if we like good food we seek out those that do the same.

But unfortunately the word “foodie” also has a negative connotation to it. It’s stuffy, implies the obsession with a certain type of menu and a little pretentious. I in fact, hate calling myself a “foodie.” “Food-obsessed,” “food crazed” or “food freak” sure, but “foodie” just has an odd ring to it.

However, we have yet to find a better word for the phenomenon and it has come to define a cultural trend and shift. A trend of people that have started thinking about food. Although we might smirk at craft coffee obsessions and the need to check out every hole-in-the-wall operation that claims to be farm-to-table, we are thinking about the value of food, the time that goes into it and the people that are behind producing it.

Or are we?

A Mother Jones article last week cited that only 13.5% of food workers earn a living wage.

Americans love to talk about food—how asparagus is best prepared, which preservatives to avoid, which types of fish are in peril, where to find the best tacos or most delectable peach pies. Most of us spend far less time contemplating the people that pick, slaughter, sort, process, and deliver the products of this 1.8 trillion dollar industry—a group of workers that makes up one-sixth of the country’s workforce.

Herein lies the problem. We are obsessed with food, talking about it, taking pictures of it, and making our own judgements on the establishments that serve it, and even so we are still disconnected from the entire process. This thing that is at the core of all of our daily routines and we still don’t really know where our food comes from, who’s producing it and how much those people are getting paid.

That is frightening.

All this talk of and obsession with food doesn’t amount to anything if it doesn’t lead to change. Be that change in public health, workers’ rights, or corporate social responsibility, there’s a lot that needs to happen. Which means that voting with your fork does make a difference. Not once or twice a week, but every single day.

Having a vested interest in food has to be more than a trend, it has to be a movement. If we’re in the position to be making smart choices about every item that we eat, we should be. That means no food from China, even when it comes from a store with a fancy name, always thinking about if we’re eating the most sustainably sourced product, even when we’re tired and lazy, and choosing brands that are committed to working directly with independent farmers, even if doing so takes a little more research.

Maybe our defining foodie moments aren’t when we realized we were food obsessed, but when we realized we were making choices that made ourselves, our communities and our planets healthier. And that is something that anyone can do.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.