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Culture Plate

Like it or not, the word “foodie” seems to be gaining ground—not, as you might think, as a term of disparagement, but as a label people willingly apply to themselves.

That’s according to a new survey by 10 Best Design, a website that ranks digital design firms. (Why does the company care about this topic? More on that in a minute.) Polling 400 people across the U.S., the company found that while only 35 percent of people self-identify as a “foodie,” usage is on the rise: while only 21 percent of people over 70 call themselves foodies, nearly half of people 18 – 24 do.

Which begs the question: what the fuck is a “foodie,” really?

It’s strange to see the rampant, unironic use of a term that scans like an insult for so many people.

We’ve all heard the term, of course. For me, the term brings to mind a reaction I often get when I explain my work at The New Food Economy to people who don’t work in food or food media. Some people, when I introduce the magazine, clearly have no interest whatsoever, happy to leave the discussion of commodity checkoffs and bait fish shortages to us. Encouragingly, I often meet more and more people who think about food systemically and are eager to learn more about what happens beyond the shelf and plate. But there’s a third reaction I get constantly—it seems like at least half the time. It seems to happen almost every week:

“That’s so cool,” some guy will inevitably say. “I love food.”

10 Best Design

The implication being that his relationship to food is somehow heightened. That he takes unique pleasure in what he eats. That his wining and dining is not mere hedonism, but something more discerning, refined, and ultimately transporting.

That’s how I know I’m talking to a foodie. And yeah, they usually want you to know.

“A dumbed-down term used by corporate marketing forces to infantilize and increase consumerism in an increasingly simple-minded American magazine reading audience.”

It’s strange to see the rampant, unironic use of a term that scans like an insult for so many people. A great article in The Guardian recounts the word’s origins as a form of mockery—a jibe made all the more trenchant by the hordes that willingly, and unwittingly, adopted it. As The Washington Post’s Roberto A. Ferman put it, in an article called “Stop calling yourself a foodie,” there’s “a great irony in describing yourself as a food insider in a way no actual food insider ever would.” That negative connotation hasn’t gone away since the term’s coinage in the 1980s, despite its increasing currency. For evidence, just browse the word’s page in the Urban Dictionary, where “foodie” is variously defined as “a douchebag who likes food,” “a person who has no actual interests or hobbies,” and “a fat kid pretentious enough to think up a special word to describe their desperate longing for anything to shove down their face.”

Then there’s this, which has a certain ring of truth:

A dumbed-down term used by corporate marketing forces to infantilize and increase consumerism in an increasingly simple-minded American magazine reading audience. The addition of the long “e” sound on the end of a common word is used to create the sensation of being part of a group in isolationist urban society while also feminizing the term to subconsciously foster submission to ever-present market sources.”

People who actually run businesses are unlikely to call themselves “foodies” at all.

But probably the most relevant definition is this one, which calls attention to the indisputable fact that almost everything alive loves food:

“A person who enjoys eating food, unlike everyone else, who hates food, thinks it’s disgusting, and would never consider eating it.”

Isn’t it human to crave food, to delight in it, to take special interest in its procurement and preparation? We all do this. It’s nearly universal. To claim special ownership of something so fundamental is the worst kind of elitism, a way of trying to exclude others from something universal and profound.

Probably the most telling and worthwhile detail of the 10 Best Design study, though, is this detail:

“The most striking statistic that our research team found from this poll revolved around the correlation between Foodies and aspoused [sic] entrepreneurship. Those who identified as Foodies are 49.86 percent more likely to want to start a business than their Non-Foodie counterparts. This stat remained relatively true of Foodies, regardless of their income bracket, education level, or geographical location.”

Foodies, according to 10 Best Design, are 21 percent more likely to have a website built—a sign of their entrepreneurial streak, and the reason why the company is asking these questions in the first place. Maybe it’s not surprising that foodies like to fantasize about starting a business. After all, the surface-level fetishization of food preparation probably makes it easy to romanticize a line of work that can be brutally physical and mentally exhausting, with razor-thin margins to boot.

But it’s not clear that self-described foodies actually do start businesses. The survey leaves us with a final data point: people who actually run businesses are unlikely to call themselves “foodies” at all.

We’ll that detail speak for itself.

Joe Fassler bio

Joe Fassler

Joe Fassler is New Food Economy's senior editor. His food safety and public health reporting has been a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism. Follow him @joefassler.