by Mark Bittman
At a dinner party the other night where people were asked to say a word about themselves, one woman said, “My name is” — whatever it was — “and I’m a foodie.” I cringed.
I’m not proud of that visceral reaction; in fact, I think it’s wrong. But I do wish there were a stronger, less demeaning-sounding word than “foodie” for someone who cares about good food, but as seems so often the case, there is not. Witness the near-meaningless-ness of “natural” and “vegetarian” and the inadequacy of “organic” and “vegan.” But proposing new words is a fool’s game; rather, let’s try to make the word “foodie” a tad more meaningful.
As it stands, many self-described foodies are new-style epicures. And there’s nothing destructive about watching competitive cooking shows, doing “anything” to get a table at the trendy restaurant, scouring the web for single-estate farro, or devoting oneself to finding the best food truck. The problem arises when it stops there.
More conscious foodies understand that producing food has an effect beyond creating an opportunity for pleasure. And this woman was not atypical: She’s into sustainability (“We have to grow our food better, right?”), organic (though for all I know this means organic junk food) and local food. She shops at farmers’ markets when she can. She cooks.
We can’t ask everyone who likes eating — which, given enough time and an adequate income, includes everyone I’ve ever met — to become a food activist. But to increase the consciousness levels of well-intentioned foodies, it might be useful to sketch out what “caring about good food” means, and to try to move “foodie” to a place where it refers to someone who gets beyond fun to pay attention to how food is produced and the impact it has.
The qualities that characterize good food vary within a narrow range. Good food is real, it’s healthy, it’s produced sustainably, it’s fair and it’s affordable. Maybe it’s prepared at home, though if communal kitchens or restaurants can deliver those qualities, I’m all for that.
None of this is complicated, but simple doesn’t mean easy. “Real” means traditional; if it existed 100 years ago, it’s probably real. Hyperprocessed is neither real nor healthy. No single factor is causing our diet-related health crisis, but some things we eat are making us sick and it’s more likely that the culprits are added sugars, not asparagus. So, “healthy” most likely will always be “whole” or even “real.” This doesn’t mean we should eat more watercress because it’s a superfood, high in some supposedly critical nutrient, but it does mean we want to eat more fruits and vegetables. As we know.
“Sustainable” (or “green,” another word that’s been rendered near-meaningless) suggests resource-neutral, or as close to it as we can come. There is farming, not necessarily organic, that puts as much back into the soil as it extracts; it also uses water in a way that will guarantee a supply for the future. We can call that “sustainable.”
“Fair” and “affordable” are very tough. As Margaret Gray discusses in her excellent book, “Labor and the Locavore,” we cannot achieve ethical consistency in producing food without paying attention to labor. (Animals are important too, but I suppose I’m an anthro-chauvinist.) For food to be affordable, people — all people — must earn living wages; alternatively, good food must be subsidized. Both conditions would be even better. (As almost every foodie knows, we’re currently subsidizing bad food.)
Some of these qualities can be controlled by individuals: Most of us can eat real and healthier food easily enough, and, as it happens, growing such food tends to be more sustainable. On a grand scale, we need societal changes and government support to make this more accessible to everyone. But — and this is the part I like best — making good food fair and affordable cannot be achieved without affecting the whole system. These are not just food questions; they are questions of justice and equality and rights, of enhancing rather than restricting democracy, of making a more rational, legitimate economy. In other words, working to make food fair and affordable is an opportunity for this country to live up to its founding principles.
So shifting the implications of “foodie” means shifting our culture to one in which eaters — that’s everyone — realize that buying into the current food “system” means exploiting animals, people and the environment, and making ourselves sick. To change that, we have to change not only the way we behave as individuals but the way we behave as a society. It’s rewarding to find the best pork bun; it’s even more rewarding to fight for a good food system at the same time. That’s what we foodies do.
For the entire article at the NY Times online, CLICK HERE.