Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Foodiots

[Update: please be sure to read through the comments on this one!]

In Joe Pompeo's New York Observer piece entitled "The Foodiots", he writes that

"New Yorkers' water-cooler chitchat has changed. They used to talk about sex and politics and TV shows. Now they can't stop yapping about what they're shoving down their pie holes.

"We see it in the meticulous record-keeping of eating habits on personal blogs. The ubiquitous Facebook updates and tweets about subscribers' most recent meals. (Surely you also have those five or so friends whose feeds are 90 percent food-consumption-related?) The requisite iPhone pic before a certain kind of diner—let's call him a foodiot—ravages his plate."
Surprising though it sounds, I actually share his derision.

In 1997, I started an online diary (the word "Blog" wouldn't be coined for another two years) on Chowhound entitled "What Jim Had For Dinner", which I suppose was the first to launch this meme. I did so with three intentions:

1. I was eating extraordinary things, and wanted to share. By "extraordinary", I don't mean foodie porn. Not "the most perfectly juicy New Zealand lamb shipped via vacupack" or "to-die-for Ugandan cherries", and not hooky/grabby ideas like cooking all of Julia Child's recipes or eating only foods beginning with a "V". I was having wildly successful food adventures while treasure hunting in obscure nabes. Hyperdeliciousness was being produced by myriad unsung geniuses who poured talent, care, and love into their work, most of them utterly obscure and well outside mainstream radar. Something really exciting was happening out there.

2. I wanted to support these good guys by getting diners into their restaurants (it worked well, considering the present-day sanctification of places like Difara's Pizza, Sripraphai, Kabab Cafe, Charles Southern Kitchen, and other operations I championed), and by creating a viral movement where lots of others would join the mission of ferreting out - and evangelizing - unknown treasure.

3. As a journalist, I saw a Story in all this. These were interesting tales to tell, and while I'd previously written reviews and articles for publications like Newsday, early NY Press, and the defunct glossy Brooklyn Bridge, plus a couple of books, those gigs didn't lend themselves to telling the full free-ranging gritty story of chowhounding the big city as it all unfolded, on the fly.

In fact, that's one reason I rejected an offer of a
column at the Daily News and chose, instead, to launch Chowhound. It would be a platform to cover this story, and in so doing help inspire an online community to communally hunt on a massively larger scale. We could spotlight nearly all the myriad geniuses laboring in obscurity, and inspire people to refuse to settle for the usual mediocrity...or to scamper mindlessly after the same-old spotlit shiny Big Things.

Chowhound inevitably became, at least in part, yet another vehicle for spotlighting shiny Big Things - though, thank goodness, a critical mass of hardcore hounds remained. And the web quickly filled up with food kooks who felt called to describe the (often predictable, shiny) things they were eating last night. For many years, over-exuberant strangers have been coming up to me at parties and boring the crap out of me by reciting, in excruciating detail, everything they've ingested in the past 24 hours. What had I wrought??

I had donned the persona of a cuckoo-for-cocoa puffs food enthusiast in order to help launch the chowhounding meme. Much to my surprise, people actually took this literally, and assumed I was nothing but an eager digestive tract. Amazingly, some even admired and emulated this, not just as a wry pose, but as a way of being. In a larger sense, people seemed to be getting the wrong message about what this was all about.

All my life, I've thrown myself passionately into many areas of interest, food being only one minor one of them. It all stems, really, from darkness. Since childhood I've felt a grave, deep-seated resonance with
Sturgeon's Law: that 90% of everything is crud. I might easily have turned curmudgeonly, but realized early on that allowing myself to crust into sneering superiority and bitter cynicism would not lead to happiness, much less an improvement of the situation. So I chose to passionately hunt down and embrace treasure - the wonderful hold-out 10% - while summarily ignoring the pandemic crap. Eschewing condescension, I embraced a strategy of willful transcendence.

And, so, given that I had to eat several times per day, I sought to make the best of it; to transform a bodily function into something more beautiful and divine. Tantric ingestion, if you will. Food was never my main interest in life. Or even among the top five. It was just one of many scenes in which I applied myself to making out a little better.

The general public doesn't know from "tantra", so I gave them, instead, a model of giddy obsession. I'd do whatever it took to overcome their ennui and spur them to seek out treasure rather than consume in lockstep to marketing hypnosis (and the PR that insidiously serves as fundament for much food journalism and nearly all conventional wisdom). It seemed a worthy goal. If consumers could be awakened to the possibility of making smarter, more active choices, rather than passively eating what they're told, the result might spill over into other realms. Who knows, perhaps this could help stanch the wrecked consumer end of a
free market equilibrium unfairly tilted against them via the persuasions of modern marketing.

It wasn't entirely a failure. For one thing, I'm pleased that a certain type of snobbery, rife until 1997 or so, has been shot dead. No longer is it considered daft to respect equally a stupendous street cart taco and a stupendous morsel of foie gras off an expensive plate. In fact, I'm amazed at how few people even remember when the notion of such culinary egalitarianism seemed pure lunacy. And lots of those good guy genius holdouts have thrived, thanks to the attention showered upon them by chowhounds and others.

But I also see untold thousands of giddily obsessive food crazies who've made chewing the very center of their existences, and who endlessly scamper after the usual spotlit shiny big things. And who need everyone to hear about it ad nauseum. I was hoping to galvanize intrepid, iconoclastic
chowhounds, but what I mostly see out there are more and more materialistic, hype-following foodies.

As William Shatner famously
told the world of Trekkies, these people need to get a life.

Note: don't miss my follow-up posting on this topic.


Hans_Moleman said...

I enjoyed Joe Pompeo's piece in the Observer, even though I seem to embody exactly what he seems to take issue with. But I found it interesting, and I am not offended by his opinion, since to me, it seems as though he does not understand why so many people enjoy talking about food/restaurants/etc. He's on the outside of this, and since he does not understand it, I'm pretty sure that is where his opinion stems from.

Jeff, what I take issue with your post is that you have this tone of superiority in your language. It appears that you believe what you were eating in 1997, was better than what the rest of us are eating now. Maybe that is true in some cases, and maybe you were doing this for some higher purpose, but you cannot disregard the fact that some people truely enjoy this.

Like you write, food was not in the top 5 interests of yours in life. Well, then are you the best person to be passing judgement on the activities of someone whose main interests are food related?

I can relate to your and Joe's frustrations, since for years I have had to listen to most of my coworkers, friends, and family drone on and on about, let's say, sports. Why should I care about college basketball? I don't know. But it has always been more socially acceptable to discuss sports in detail, then it is to describe food with the same passion. Yet we don't really see anyone coining the phrase "sporidiot", do we? Nope, so its okay for people go on about the pitching stats in the AL, but not to talk about why their dinner last night was great.

While I think we can respect your "Shatner-esque" role in what has become a new internet fad, it is unfortunate that you are judging those of us that aren't interesting enough to reach the level that you did. Some people just enjoy eating, photographing, and discussing food. Why you take such issue with that, I don't know.

Jim Leff said...

Jeff, what I take issue with your post is that you have this tone of superiority in your language. It appears that you believe what you were eating in 1997 was better than what the rest of us are eating now. "

Hi, Hans
While I do appreciate your stopping by and commenting, you same to have read my posting with the same level of care as your reading of my name (it's Jim, not Jeff).

I'm not even sure what it would mean to think that what I was eating was "better". My point is that what I was eating was interesting. There were interesting stories to be told, and persuasive reasons to tell them, and that's why I chose to do it. I wasn't simply vomiting up recollections of recent ingestion in a self-indulgent paroxysm of gastric exhibitionism.

Is that not a reasonable distinction? Being sane, I do realize that not every food enthusiast is as banal, ditzy, and self-indulgent as that. If you're one who's not, then....relax. I'm not talking about you.

If someone has something that could marginally be imagined to be interesting to say, and the topic happens to be food, I've got no problem with that. If you're real interesting, I'll admire you.

But, as in all human expression, inane ditzy meaningless compulsive spieling about some topic just because you really really really like the topic is maddening. I like Apple products...but I'm not a generic Apple fanboy. I like to eat well...but I'm not a foodiot.

Again: I don't care what you had for dinner last night. If you have something interesting to say about it, that's different. In fact, if you have something interesting to say about linoleum, I'll even be interested in that! But if you stand in my face and just say "Food Food Food Food" over and over again, I will grow exasperated, even though you believe yourself to be addressing one of the modern day founding fathers of the practice of standing in people's faces and going "Food Food Food Food" over and over again.

My tone on this may seem skewed because at least some of all this seems traceable back to me, and that's an eerily disorienting position to find myself in. Even more than the average person at Pompeo's water cooler, foodiots gravitate to me and want to blab endlessly about, say, artichokes. They don't even try to be interesting..."interesting" has nothing to do with the impulse. It's just compulsive drivel. Every food writer experiences the same, and I think many of us choke down The William Shatner Reaction (WSR).

Whenever I've been buttonholed by such people (and it's happened a lot), I've tried to be polite, but it wasn't until I read the article that I realized that, Jesus Christ, this sort of thing drives me nuts, too. So I chose to go Shatner about it.

Finally, yes, people liking to photograph and discuss food....fine, great, god bless 'em. Indeed, who cares what I "take issue with" (though, ironically, this conversation is about your taking issue with me)? Like Pompeo, I'm just saying it creeps me out. I think there's something seriously wrong with a lot of these people. And I believe my saying so is surprising enough, given my history, that this all passes my "interestingness" litmus test. Hence the Slog posting.

Hans_Moleman said...


apologies for addressing you incorrectly. In my haste I assume I managed to merge "Jim" and "Leff" into "Jeff", and unfortunately I did not scrutinize my response well enough to catch this. I meant no disrespect (though I would find it hard to believe if this was the first time it has happened).

While your response seems to have some of the same condescending and slightly belligerent undertones as your original post, I think you do a much better job of focusing on your specific frustration with the topic - particularly how this effects you personally. It seems to me that you take issue with the people who "buttonhole" you while "vomiting up recollections of recent ingestion". Fair enough - but your original post seemed as though you took issue with all people who do this everywhere, the entire "movement," rather than the ones who are addressing you personally.

And I agree with you - no one wants to be stuck in an unwanted conversation, be it about food, politics, or apple products. But the people who choose to discuss, or rather be obsessed with, these things should not be judged, as long as they do so in the confines of similarly obsessed communities (such as, lets say, this blog, or with a like-minded friend at the watercooler). You don't seem to be able to avoid these people, however I imagine that someone like Joe Pompeo could.

To me, this was not completely clear in your original post, and I appreciate you taking the time to elaborate on this further.

But that being said, I think it is important to realize that Shatner is Shatner because of his Trekkies, and to some extent, Jim Leff is Jim Leff because of these foodiots. Both are talented in their fields, but talent and hard work needs someone to embrace it, at least if you are trying to make a buck, which undoubtedly most of us are trying to do. And while you and Shatner both have a point that some of these people do need to get a life, don't forget how important they were in elevating you to where you are now.

I really don't take any offense to your post - I am content with my current role as a wanna-be food enthusiast, who is quite possibly "banal, ditzy, and self-indulgent". I can honestly say I generally do not post anything on these here interwebs and I am not even really sure why I responded to your original post (most likely because I found it amusing).

All acrimony aside, I respect what you've done and how you have done it. I find much of your work interesting and in this specific discussion, I don't entirely disagree with what you are saying. I suppose what I am trying to get at is that we do not need to be so polarized on the matter.

DocChuck said...

Well said, Jim Leff.

Jim Leff said...

Hans said:
"Your original post seemed as though you took issue with all people who do this everywhere, the entire "movement," rather than the ones who are addressing you personally."


And I do. But I find your favorite phrase, "take issue", kind of murky.

You came here to take issue with me (comment #1: "Jeff, what I take issue with your post...."). You have taken issue with my taking issue.

And listen, I don't take issue with your taking issue with my taking issue. I have no issue at all with those who take issue over anything. I just take issue with the notion that it's in any way appropriate or interesting to share, document, and ditzily obsess over what one shoves in one's pie hole, to use Pompeo's memorable image. Or to deem those who do so a "movement". Yes, I also condescend to it, in much the way I'd condescend to healthy adults wearing diapers, sucking pacifiers, and throwing raging tantrums each time they got thirsty. Some behavior is so ditzy it can't be seen from any other stance than superiority.

Speaking of "movements", I sort of expect the next rage to be people blogging, photographing, and exuberantly chatting each other up about their morning bowel movements. Turd size, shape, heft, etc. This, too, could be interesting if someone had something witty or insightful to say, or if one morning someone shat up a miraculous sculptural depiction of the signing of the treaty of Versailles. Otherwise, not so much.

Finally, thanks for saying "I respect what you've done." The whole point of the article is that I'm not sure I do. And if you deem me "elevated", you're sadly mistaken. I'm writing a Slog with a couple hundred readers (and am happy doing it...elevation doesn't suit me; doing good work does). For a bird's eye view of my supposed "elevation", please read the "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out" series, starting at http://jimleff.blogspot.com/2008/12/chowhound-story.html

As far as people appreciating my talent, anyone who does so is appreciated back (I'm not sure there are actually all that many of them out there, nor does there need to be). But the point (which is approaching the point of equestrian flagellation) is that insofar as I'm talented, it has nothing whatsoever to do with chewing. Food's a metaphor, a launchpad, an excuse to create.. Without elevating one's approach to it (in the writing, discussing, or even just the eating), food is merely the shit you eat every day. And that is about as worth obsessing over as the shit you shit every day.

Jim Leff said...

I'd like to note one result of this "movement":

I can no longer tell the average person about a great, say, pizzeria I've found. When the topic turns to food, and a passionate gleam fills the speaker's eyes, normal people these days immediately tune out, if not actually walk away. They think they're going to be suffocated and avalanched with ditzy food yapping.

I try to bypass that reaction via extra emphasis. "NO, you have to understand; this place is just unbelievable, a slice there will improve your whole day!" But they are unable to distinguish that 1. this information is of practical use to them, and 2. I'm not just idly frothing....the way so many people idly froth these days. I am, in their eyes, one of those obnoxious, creepy, foodiots.

This is bad for many reasons.

First, say bye-bye to any hope for great unsung culinary treasures to find mainstream support via grassroots word-of mouth.

Second, food writing has always been directed at a narrow niche, and I'd hoped to help broaden the niche via Chowhound. But, really, it's only narrowed still more due to all the pandemic froth (a MOVEMENT of froth!) those efforts seem to have inspired.

And, third, efforts to use food as a metaphor fail these days with all parties. Normal people tune out as soon as the topic turns foodish, and the foodiots miss the subtext and subtleties. I believe it's zeitgeisty underlying societal forces that are causing John Thorne to gap ever wider in putting out issues of his splendid and deplorably underappreciated "Simple Cooking" newsletter. Thorne is like Gandalf, and I worry he'll be boating west if this keeps up.

So some may have noticed I no longer write about food.

BTW - food lovers with an appreciation for subtleties, I salute you with all my heart. Both of you.

vhliv said...

Jim, I enjoyed this post. Since I first learned about Chowhound I've always been intrigued by the distinction you draw between Foodies and Chowhounds. Yet because I don't spend enough time around people who go out to eat enough to be either "foodiots" or hardcore chowhounds, I've never been able to determine for myself if foodiocy is as big a problem as you suggest. Nonetheless the devolution of food blogging does not strike me as something that you should blame yourself for. Nor should it lead you to think that Chowhound did not achieve some of the goals you hoped it would.

Revolutions are never as transformative as they seem at their beginning, and probably look least transformative about ten years out. It is very difficult right now to assess what the impact of your days as the Alpha-dog at Chowhound may or may not be in 20 years, but to measure it solely by the fact that old-style food idiocy has acquired the external appearance of chowhounding is wrong.

To me, an on-again off-again reader of Chowhound, the best part was that it created an outlet for people to passionately be passionate about food. Not too long ago, I happened to reread one chowhounder's (I'm pretty sure it was not you) rhapsody about Taqueria Coatzingo. The world is a better place for that piece of writing because the author's love and respect for the world Taqueria Coatzingo opened up for him is what the world needs more of. True, for every post like that there were plenty that were more mundane, but really what are the odds that that piece would have seen the light of day had it not been for Chowhound?
Please recognize that as an achievement of value beyond what you eventually were paid for the website.

At the same time, accurate as your appraisal of what has happened to food blogging as a phenomenon may be, I have a little sympathy for
a point I think Hans_Moleman was trying to convey, flawed as his presentation may have been. I have no idea whether his food blogging represents foodiocy or chowhounding passion at its best, and ultimately it doesn't matter, but no one likes to feel that the party they have been enjoying is over, and that implicitly the best part was before they got there, even if there is considerable truth in that assessment.

As a rock-obsessed teenager growing up in the 1970s, nothing was a bigger downer than hearing over and over again that having missed the '60s all there was to do was to look back. That doesn't redeem the tons of dreck that hit the airwaves in the 1970s, but there were also new talent, much of which went unrecognized in a timely manner because many people were looking backward. Now I'm not accusing you of looking backward. In fact you seem to be looking forward for a new passion, even though I know you cannot turn your back on your chowhound nature or the fact that there is a lot of dreck out there. But while obsessive dedication to chowhound communication may be old hat to you, there are others for whom it is new. Most will not be brilliant and some will offer the rest of us little of value at all, but now and then some will come along whose love and passion for food will remind you of why starting Chowhound was worth doing, and these future members of the chowhounding elite (whether they do it on facebook or somewhere else) should not be discouraged from leading us out of the sea of mediocrity for even a few minutes just because so many others can't.

Foodie said...


I hadn't read this post before I wrote that, but it gets even worse when you get to your site, huh? I'm imagining this unabomber like figure spinning further and further down into the hole, views getting more and more narrow.

I see this lead singer and that despises the fans coming to see the show because "they just don't understand the music."

Hey man, you wrote the music. You helped create this food as pleasure movement and now when someone has a meal at Per Se, you're going to call them the scum of the earth because it happens to be more photogenic than the hanger steak they had a week ago (which, by the way, equivalently blew their mind)?

Come on, Jim. The world is changing.

Come with us.

Jim Leff said...

Damn, that's some impressive point-missing!

First, nobody's coming to "my show", because I'm not writing about food (much) anymore. There is no show. Second, I think tons of people "understand" just fine. I don't feel particularly lonely in the point I was making. Third, I'm not calling anyone the scum of the earth or anything like it.

I have no personal stake in how people relate to food. Or how they blog. Or anything else. Yeah, I think most people do eating, blogging, and most everything else in a superficial, ditzy, pretentious and thoughtless way, but that's only a surprising or offensive statement to those who are superficial, ditzy, pretentious, and thoughtless. My gig, as a writer, is to analyze and try to offer insight on processes such as these. I'm not an angry crusty unabomber, I'm a bemused observer.

The only frustration I personally feel is at the truly mind-boggling inability of so many people to come within twelve miles of what I was saying re: this Foodiot thing. People strafe in fast and pull away whatever they expected to when they went in. Minds don't meet, just a quick sniff is made.

But, hey, superficiality is the very issue I was describing, so I oughtn't feel surprised that superficial people are growing huffy on the basis of a superficial read and expressing their indignation in a superficial way. What, I should have expected depth and insight??

Anonymous said...

Jeff, yeah, I mean, Jeff,

You're an arrogant, bitter loser who has lost all relevance in the food world. Your book is a disastrous non-seller which is ranked in the high 600,000 on Amazon's sales list. No one gives a crap about you, loser. I'm only leaving a comment because I know how much more bitter this comment will make you, and that alone is worth the effort.

Jim Leff said...

Jeff's cool. I actually answer to Jeff!

"You're an arrogant, bitter loser who has lost all relevance in the food world."

Arrogant: my friends don't think so, but they may be humoring me!

Bitter: actually, I'm pretty happy and idealistic.

Loser: I built exactly what I set out to build, and, through a quirk of fate, even got paid off for it. It took way too much out of me for me to gloat much (i.e. not sure I'd do it again if I had an opportunity to rewind the tape), but I don't feel particularly loser-ish, either.

Relevance in the food world: I haven't exactly been trying to have relevance, have I, Jason? I've hardly done a word of food writing in years and years. I'm doing all sorts of other interesting stuff, though.

Your book is a disastrous non-seller which is ranked in the high 600,000 on Amazon's sales list.

My book came out in 1999 (and was raved over in nearly all local media). It is at this point so utterly obsolete that it's an embarrassment to see it for sale at all. I pray NOBODY buys it, because the info is completely worthless, and it grieves me that people would waste $$ on something useless with my name on it. Problem is, I'm the only "name" writer for this tiny publisher, so they'll keep it in print forever to draw off that.

No one gives a crap about you, loser.

Well, I have you!

I appreciate your attention. But I don't crave it. Because "relevance" is not a goal.

I'm only leaving a comment because I know how much more bitter this comment will make you, and that alone is worth the effort.

I don't think I felt bitter before, and I'm pretty sure I don't feel any more bitter now (though, who knows, I may be in denial). But my suggestion is that if you think I've done anything non-optimal in my approach to food, writing, or anything else, that you go forth learning from my mistakes and do better.

As I told you once before: build something (or write something...or do something) really great and useful. Make it much better than Chowhound, much better than my blog, much better than me. And then, once you've done so, and you attract your own angry anonymous individuals, who show up to kick at your ankles, give them the same suggestion I've just given you. Urge them to take their anger and do something great. In that anger is great energy. Use it!

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