Fascination with food hits nerve

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Bloggers feasting on gastro-obsessed

Is calling someone a foodie an insult or a compliment? Twenty-five years after the publication of the "Official Foodie Handbook," two University of Toronto sociology professors have discovered the label can be both.

"Some people thought it meant that they were a gourmet snob, so they'd reject the term for that reason," says Josee Johnston, one researcher behind "Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape," published in December 2009.

University of Toronto sociology professors Shyon Baumann (left) and Josee Johnston pose at the universitys Gallery Grill in Hart House. The pair have written a book called Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape. Photo by The Canadian

TORONTO -

Is calling someone a foodie an insult or a compliment? Twenty-five years after the publication of the "Official Foodie Handbook," two University of Toronto sociology professors have discovered the label can be both.

"Some people thought it meant that they were a gourmet snob, so they'd reject the term for that reason," says Josee Johnston, one researcher behind "Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape," published in December 2009.

"But other people said, no, I'm a foodie because I'm not a gourmet snob."

Using interviews with 30 food lovers across the U.S. and scores of research, the book by Johnston and Shyon Baumann navigates the history of the food obsessed.

The word foodie itself, it turns out, was borne from the very squeamishness the word can incite today.

In the early '80s, the words "gourmand" and "epicure" were strongly attached to old-guard notions of haughty food snobs who worshipped French cuisine.

Foodies, on the other hand, were simply people "very very very interested in food," wrote Paul Levy and Ann Bar in their 1984 "The Official Foodie Handbook (Be Modern - Worship Food)." Sushi, injera and Panang curry replaced a North American canon of Eurocentric high cuisine.

Foodies "consider food to be an art, on a level with painting or drama," Levy and Bar said, and that "food talk is the staple diet of social intercourse."

Twenty-five years later, all that talk has made some people sick.

In September 2009, reporter Joe Pompeo came up with a different epithet in the New York Observer. "Foodiots" were what he called people who couldn't stop talking, tweeting or blogging about their latest life-changing rock shrimp experience, or taco-truck comas.

"What we eat has become a dominant, and perhaps obnoxious, part of our everyday cultural discourse," he wrote, and based on the reaction (within weeks, food blogs from all over the country were using the word) it's likely Pompeo hit a nerve.

"Shut Up Foodies" continued the conversation.

"Attention, locavores, omnivores, urban butchers, backyard beekeepers, cheese fanatics, and conspicuous consumers of consuming," reads the blog at shutupfoodies. tumblr.com. "Your chickens won't save the world and we don't want the life story of everything on the menu. We don't care what you eat - we just want you to lower the volume. Also, please stop talking about ramps."

Since setting up shop in March, three New York-based writers who go by the names Snacktime, Meatball and Julia Childless have poked fun at everything from the never-ending story of bacon trends to the popularization of urban, do-it-yourself butchery.

"You go to a dinner party and no one talks about books or movies or politics; they want to talk about the fiddleheads they got that day at the farmers market," says Snacktime, a pop culture and politics writer who prefers to remain anonymous. "It was tiresome. And there is often this attitude that eating well/organically/eating locally is this moral victory, and no acknowledgement of the cultural forces that allow only some of us to even have these oh-so-virtuous options."

Bauman agrees. "We see it very clearly with food because everybody has to eat, so there's no one who can opt out," he says. "But at the same time, it's a very stratified cultural realm according to what people can afford."

There's also the tendency to compare up, rather than down, says Johnston, who noticed in the study participants who shopped at upscale grocery stores such as Whole Foods tended to downplay the upper-middle-class significance of the choice.

"They compared themselves to people who bought all of their groceries at Whole Foods," says Johnston, "and would say, 'Man those people are rich. But I'm a relatively modest person in comparison."'

Perhaps the conversation about the f-word is changing, says the New York writer behind Ruth Bourdain, an Internet persona that fuses the personalities of renowned food writer Ruth Riechl and chef Anthony Bourdain in caustic spoofs on Riechl's 140-character food epiphanies on Twitter.

Since starting to tweet in March, Ruth Bourdain has become a food-world darling, with more than 8,000 followers, a well-followed food blog and chuckling nods from the celebrity inspirations behind the character itself.

"I think the reason why people are able to laugh at something like Ruth Bourdain or Shut Up Foodies is that they're entry points for people to start talking about food in ways besides Gourmet and Food and Wine," says the writer, who, like the Shut Up Foodies gang, prefers to remain anonymous.

But where to go from there? Though the use of the word foodie may change over time, Baumann says, as most language does, that doesn't mean the associations attached to it will.

"We know that some people think we're ridiculous," he says. "I think in our culture it's really difficult to be into something that a lot of people can't access or don't get or find too much, without seeming like you're a snob."

But "we wouldn't ask people to rid their lives or deny themselves all of their tastes just because not everyone gets to enjoy them," says Johnston.

Organizations: University of Toronto, Official Foodie Handbook, North American Whole Foods

Geographic location: TORONTO, U.S., New York

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