Friday, October 9, 2009

Foodiots Redux

There's been discussion of my Foodiots essay in a thread on Chowhound, raising some points made elsewhere on the web by folks who don't read real careful.

For one thing, I obviously wasn't talking about chowhounds (by which I refer not only to denizens of, but to a type of eater generally). I'm talking about foodies. And I've always been creeped out by foodies. "Foodiots" are just the latest iteration of a type that's been around for decades (they were once called "gourmets").

I was asked, amid that Chowhound discussion, to more clearly explain the distinction I draw between foodies (a.k.a. foodiots) and Chowhounds. I'll reprint my response below. First, though, I'd invite you to read the comments posted to my essay here in the Slog. I've written more at length on the topic there.

Ok, foodies versus chowhounds:
Simply put, there is a vast amount of money spent in the creation of tastes...for food products, restaurants, chefs, cookbooks, brands, yadda. Same in realms like fashion, cars, travel, music, etc. That money isn't all directly pushing product; cottage industries have sprung up (e.g. entire niches of journalism and publishing) to suck money out of that same tap and extend its influence by proxy. It's like a huge "show", fueled by marketing money, and it inherently tends to ignore the vast realms of deliciousness that won't or can't pay to play. It's contrived, and it's about "sizzle" rather than "steak".

For foodies, the stuff pushed at them via this shiny spotlight is exciting! They're just DELIGHTED to hear about the latest star chef, to buy the big new cookbook and eat at the hot new restaurant. They buy lots of stuff and they buy INTO lots of stuff. They are the manipulatees targeted by a marketing machine (and its legions of intermediaries and beneficiaries), and they revel in it, sucking down manufactured, highly commercialized opinions like nectar. They eat where they're told, they follow trends, and they allow their tastes to be made for them. They are passive and shallow. They are foodies.

Chowhounds understand that conventional wisdom is bought, period. They love food, so they've sort of self-identified as foodies, but always felt alienated by the shiny food scene; often disappointed by (and disconnected from) food media, conventional wisdom, and the various Big New Things. They intrepidly make their own discoveries and draw their own opinions about things.

They're accustomed to dodging all sorts of misdirection; they focus on the high and low shelves in groceries, they look past the gringo fodder offered by restaurants of other nationalities. They appreciate fine ambiance and decor and service, but they're not hypnotized by it. They're trying to find treasure, and have learned to never expect it to be thrust upon them. If they do it long enough, they start to notice that the sort of thing they're into at any given time tends to catch on years later. Chowhounds are a type, and they've been around for a long time. Not all chowhounds have even heard of this site. But they're out there.

A chowhound lives to go investigate some random unfamiliar nabe and try to make finds, which they brag about and evangelize (which is why this site fit quite nicely). A foodie, by contrast, lives to try all ten of the Zagat guide's top 10 restaurants (and probably blogs about the "adventure").

To me, it's a pretty clear distinction. And I find that most of the people who fail to grok it are foodies, who naturally feel less than flattered when the mirror's held up. What makes me happier than anything is when foodies (or even non-food lovers) get a whiff of the chowhound (not necessarily Chowhound) spirit and discover their true calling. This web site is the most effective engine I could think of to achieve that transformation. I've also been pleased that lots of food lovers who felt alienated by the big shiny hypnosis machine have been able to gather here and find kindred spirits.

Here's a "
Tale of Two Chowhounds", a piece I wrote at the very dawn of this site, to explain the credo. Please give it a read, the real world examples therein explain what I'm talking about.


Vicki said...

100% in agreement. And I love "the big shiny hypnosis machine".

Unknown said...

"they look past the gringo fodder offered by restaurants of other nationalities"

That's me! Great article! This reminds me, yesterday me and my friend wanted to go grab something for lunch. I recommended this small, old, family run place that makes spectacular BBQ pork buns. And then my friend was like "ohh I don't think I like pork buns, because I tried them at the Chinese restaurant under my condo and I didn't like it".

It made me so mad! That restaurant is for expensive condo living gringos! And its not fresh, so you cant even compare.

Jim Leff said...

"It made me so mad! "

Seeing people being unhip and ignorant can trigger two reactions in those who are more clued in.

The first is anger/impatience/frustration. Two problems with this: 1. as you get hipper, more and more of the world will seem to be left behind, and your anger will swell until you find yourself frozen in unbearable, furious, airless superiority, and 2. this reaction is unpersuasive to those you're trying to convince (more on that in a sec).

The second reaction is to get excited for the other person, because there's nothing as sublime as one's very first taste of this or that great thing. So many great experiences lay ahead, and you can entice and guide!

If you go with reaction #1, you'll create a friction with the other person, who will resist being bullied into trying something new. If you go with reaction #2, you'll create a vortex of excitement the other person will want to ride into novel and sublime experience.'s skew was never to berate people for eating wrong. That wouldn't have worked; we'd have attracted a small crowd of condescending jerks who'd have joined together to repel all newcomers deemed not sufficiently in-the-know. Rather, we attracted a friendly, deliriously happy/passionate crowd which trembled with excitement at the thought of all the unsung treasure they'd help each other dig up, and loved having newcomers join in. The result was irresistible even to folks who didn't think they particularly cared about food, and people were persuaded to eat all sorts of things they'd never imagined trying.

You can influence people a lot more in the positive than in the negative. Chowhound attracted nearly a million monthly visitors without any marketing budget and just a skeleton staff.

As I wrote in the original post, to which this post was a follow-up (at , ):

"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.

Anonymous said...

I've always loathed the term "foodie," and I was pretty sure I would hate the term "chowhound" too, and I kind of do, although I appreciate the distinction you're drawing - it's an important one, like the difference between "DJ" and "musician." There's a lot of hype and next-big-things, and there are a lot of wonderful discoveries that you can make when you look past all that, but the naming conventions are way off.

I don't know if it's "hipness" or a feeling of "superiority" that creates frustration among food-savvy people trying to share their love of different things - that's certainly not how I feel. It's not that I feel superior - I want everyone to know about [insert wonderful food discovery] and I am annoyed when they don't embrace it as whole-heartedly as I have, not because my tastes are superior in any way (they are not - I love Filet-o-Fishes), but because I am so excited by it and want them to be excited about it too. And then when they're not, I'm disappointed because it seems perfectly reasonable to me that they at least try the new thing. Maybe there ought to be a reaction 2(a)? I quite like your line, "Eschewing condescension, I embraced a strategy of willful transcendence."

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