Foodie Underground: What Exactly Is a Foodie?


I live in a foodie-centric town. Portland is known for its coffee snobbery, its food cart fetish and its farmers’ market obsession; most of us pride ourselves on eating well. That doesn’t mean that every meal is a well-planned feast of locally grown, freshly picked ingredients, but everyone seems to have a favorite food hot spot or quirky dish that they’re more than excited to talk about. So there has been a bit of local outrage in response to a recently published “Non-foodies Food Guide,” that appeared in the local daily the Oregonian, in which the first lines were pretty spiteful:

I am not a foodie.

To me, food is what you eat, not what you pray to.

Call them gourmands, connoisseurs, picky eaters, or just plain old snobs. Foodies blog, write and chat about pet restaurants, trends and chefs. They leave little room on their plates or in their hearts for fast food, family dining and the untrendy. And they can be pretty mean to some places we love.

The article goes on to mention a laundry list of local chains, from the 24-hour pie place Sharis to good ole family joint The Ole Spaghetti Factory, all of which the author cites as examples of un-hip, foodie turnoffs. This raises the questions: what exactly is a foodie?

Let’s start with the definition. Urban dictionary defines it as:

A person that spends a keen amount of attention and energy on knowing the ingredients of food, the proper preparation of food, and finds great enjoyment in top-notch ingredients and exemplary preparation. A foodie is not necessarily a food snob, only enjoying delicacies and/or food items difficult to obtain and/or expensive foods; though, that is a variety of foodie.

For the sake of this argument, keep in mind that it’s just the obscure, edgy websites that define the term. The word is even listed in Merriam-Webster as a person having “an avid interest in the latest food fads.”

Despite the recent inclination to team the term “foodie” with “snob” there are a whole group of foodies out there that are simply concerned with where their food came from, how it was raised, and what’s being added to it to make the end product. In fact, if there’s one thing the underground food movement has taught us, it’s that local, sustainable, fresh fare is desirable, not just because it’s trendy but because it’s healthy and better for the environment.

Is being a foodie being a snob?

There’s an ongoing debate right now about food democracy. Los Angeles, one of the nation’s most abundant agricultural regions, is now taking a serious look at creating a regional food system that not only produces local, healthy food, but ensures that all residents get to take advantage of it.

The word “organic” has long been associated with higher prices, so much that the national media still questions whether it’s “worth the splurge.” As green blogger Mike Lieberman eloquently put it, “Organic Isn’t a Splurge, It’s My Healthcare.” In his well worded post he points out that questions like these highlight “how disconnected we have become from associating real food with health.” All you have to do is take a look at obesity rates from the CDC to understand the negative physical effect that this disconnect is having.

So is it snobbery or simply understanding what’s at stake when it comes to our health? Only consuming coffee from a particular cafe might seem like putting your nose in the air, but if you frequent the place because the owners are committed to selling fair trade coffee, the pastries are baked locally and they don’t give you plastic lids to your disposable cup unless you ask for one, then you’re probably there for a good reason.

Think about where your money goes

A common argument is “I don’t have the budget to eat that way.” Think being a foodie is reserved for the elite? Think again. In fact take a moment to reflect on all the luxury items that we have deemed necessary in our everyday lives. Flavor Magazine took on this exact question this summer and listed out the following:

Tobacco products, $100 designer jeans with holes already in the knees, KFC, soft drinks made with high fructose corn syrup, Disney vacations, large-screen TVs, jarred baby food? America spends more on veterinary care for pets than the entire continent of Africa spends on medical care for humans.

And yet we don’t have enough money to make sure that we’re putting food into our bodies that’s not only going to sustain us but is also going to protect us from future illness? At the end of the day, there’s simply no excuse for eating well, it’s just all about choices and values. Is the new big screen tv more important to you than a weekly delivery of CSA produce? Fine, but don’t call me a snob because I don’t feel the same way. To quote Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (yes, the one of Omnivore’s Dilemma fame), “To suggest that advocating for such a change makes me an elitist is to disparage positive decision making and behavior. Indeed, if that’s elitism, I want it.”

What kind of society do we want to live in?

We’ve got a long way to go if we want to be sure that our country has good food available to the masses. Until consciously produced food doesn’t have to compete with subsidies and the quick and cheap petrochemical industry, food will continue to be unhealthier, externalizing the real costs in exchange for a lower price tag. We need personal and infrastructural change to ensure that we’re all eating well.

But in the meantime, we have to change how we think. Being committed to good food isn’t about status, it’s about health, both personal and environmental. If we stop promoting underground food movements, like urban gardens, bike powered compost pick up, and food carts that source all their food in a 100 mile radius, what kind of a world will we live in? One dominated by chain restaurants, high fructose corn syrup and obesity. Do you call that snobbery or sanity?

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground. Each week, Anna will be taking a look at something new and different that’s taking place in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to culinary avant garde.

Image: Anna Brones

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.