Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Gourmet is Dead, Long Live the "Foodie"

Have you noticed that no one uses the word “gourmet” any more? The word you do hear is “foodie.” What is the difference between a gourmet and a foodie? They are the very same thing. Or they are so different they are incomparable. That is, they are the same thing, viewed through the diversely tinted lenses of two different conceptual structures.

Allow me to explain.

The word “gourmet” only makes sense within the context of a specific world view. An essential part of this view is the notion of haute cuisine. What is this “high” cuisine? That’s a deep question, and I don’t have an answer yet, but the one factor that is relevant here is easy to see if we just glance at the history of the thing. High cuisine as we know it today was formalized by August Esoffier (1846 - 1936) [Wikipedia picture to the left], but it was really founded by Escoffier’s great predecessor, Antoine Carême (1784 - 1833). Carême worked as a chef for George IV, Tsar Alexander I, briefly for Napoleon (who found food a bore), but especially for Talleyrand. He cooked for the participants at the Congress of Vienna (1815). Escoffier on the other hand had a long business association with a business man, César Ritz, owner of the Ritz hotel chain. Escoffier spent his whole, long career cooking in hotels. The Ritz hotels were of course very pricey (when I was a kid, “ritzy” meant “fancy and expensive”) but anybody who earned and saved up the money (for a year? two years?) could have a meal cooked under the direction of the great Escoffier, the greatest living chef, perhaps the greatest who had ever lived.

Things were very, very different in Carême’s day, just three generations earlier. No matter how much money you earned and saved, you could not buy your way into the banquet at the end of the Congress of Vienna. You could not crash the gate at the Tsar’s winter palace, either. Your money was literally not good enough. Carême’s world was a hierarchy. He was attached to people like the Tsar by a very personal relationship. His labor was their property, by right of their being monarchs and nobles, and you, you lowly worm, could not have it. Any of it.

By Escoffier’s time, things had changed profoundly. His labor belonged to whoever had the cash to pay for it. He was connected to his customers by the very impersonal relationship of the competitive market. Of course services like his were still frightfully expensive, but that too would change eventually. Now fine food is, at least in principle, and on occasion, within the reach of nearly everyone.

What brought this about? That of course is the entire story of the modern world, and a very long one, but it includes two closely related forces: democracy and the free market. But my point, or the first part of it, is that the curious notion of the gourmet, and the world of high cuisine, did not first arise in the world built by these two titanic forces, it began in the hierachical, oppressive world of Carême.

In that world, most people had to struggle to find enough food to live. The average Frenchman's life expectancy at birth was about 30 years. But there was a tiny group of people who had the time and leisure to, not only eat but, savor the qualities of food as if it were a work of art. The balance and interplay of flavors and textures, the pleasing appearance (presentation, plating), and so forth. This is just what gourmets do. And food-as-art is what high cuisine is.

At last I get to my main point: the gourmet-idea, and high cuisine itself, carry a lot of elitist baggage from the era of caste divisions. The gourmet is a sniffish fellow, who thinks he is better than others. He doesn't just savor that perfect Sauce Béarnaise, he savors his ability to savor -- and your lack thereof! A "foodie," insofar as there is any difference, is just someone who likes to savor the experience of eating. The word, with its diminutive ending, even sounds egalitarian. It sounds like an over-familiar nickname. I think of President Carter telling people, jes' call me Jimmy. Isn't that what the foodie is doing? I'm not trying to be anything special. No nose in the air, no lifted pinky here! I'm just a foodie! Please don't resent me!

You can see the whole foodie culture as an attempt to make high cuisine safe for the brave new world of pan-democracy. Will it work? Well, this is just the question that Tocqueville and Nietzsche raised with such force: can quality and democracy coexist? (Tocqueville: that depends. Niezsche: Nein!). The jury is still out on that one.
By the way, last night I watched the Japanese Iron Chef show for the first time, and I was surprised to hear the people on the show refer to each other as gourmets several times. And without a trace of irony. On the American (Food Network) version of the show, no one would dare to use that word in that way. What a difference a culture makes! ... Meanwhile, on this side of the Pacific, I just noticed a headline for a New York Times travel section article on fine restaurants in Minneapolis: Minneapolis Makes Foodies Take Notice. We're using the word in headlines now!
* Here I am using "gourmet" as a term applied to a person. People do speak of gourmet meals and gourmet foods, but at least in this country they no longer call themselves gourmets.


Anonymous said...

Agreed on most points but one.

The category of 'foodie' may superfically be set up to give and essence of that 'of the people' flavor yet if you delve further into the reality you'll find this is not true at all.

At its core, being a foodie is to be aspirational. Aspirational with a 'of the people' spin.

In other words, aiming at Haute but simpering 'no!' behind one's hand while doing so.

(That is a smile not a simper.)

Anonymous said...

Speaking a little to your last point: "... can quality and democracy coexist?"

Popular or mass movements tend to generate new ruling classes; if a movement endures a while, its leadership may develop into an entrenched and hereditary "aristocracy"; if the movement gains control of a State, they may be top dogs for a long time. The Nomenklatura in the Soviet Union is a prime example.

A privileged New Class in an allegedly egalitarian or classless society seems to mimic "sophisticated", "aristocratic" habits and tastes, or develop equivalents. Such a New Class differs from the old aristocracies by claiming to be unostentatious, mere "servants of the people": royal robes are shunned in favor of military tunics or business suits, wasteful royal banquets are transformed into necessary State banquets, and so on.

So, going around Robin's Hood's barn-workers and factory-workers, we may arrive at a democracy in name only, with new leaders setting new standards, effectively having thrown out democracy and gained a new menu.

Till the Devil whispers behind the leaves: "It's clever, but is it quality?"