Dear Helena,
I work in food media, and knowing my job, people often ask me, “Oh, are you a foodie?” I am not sure what they mean by this. Sometimes I think it’s an innocent question; other times I think the word is vaguely insulting. Is it a rude question, and what is a good answer?
—Annoyed Food-Lover

Dear Annoyed Food-Lover,
According to Barry Popik, a contributor-consultant to The Oxford English Dictionary, writer Gael Greene was the first to use the word foodie in 1980 in New York magazine, but British author Paul Levy also used it in 1982 and claims to have come up with the term independently. Levy later coauthored a book, The Official Foodie Handbook (1985). Both Greene and Levy used the term to denote “someone who has a passion for food.” It did not have negative associations.

But the word quickly became ambiguous, and remains so. There is no agreement on exactly what it means or whether it’s now an insult. The author of the Wikipedia entry for foodie claims that a foodie is the opposite of a finicky gourmet: “foodies differ from gourmets in that gourmets are epicures of refined taste, whereas foodies are amateurs who simply love food.” But others interpret foodie to be a synonym for gourmet. Jim Leff, cofounder of Chowhound, defines the foodie thus: “They are a separate breed, an avatar of that 1960’s archetype, The Gourmet. Foodies eat where they’re told; they eagerly follow trends and swallow the hype.”

The term certainly seems to get under people’s skin. Bloggers and food websites love to rant about it. Rebecca Harrach, creator of the blog Kitchen Preserve and author of one such rant, says “Foodie applies to a person who is obsessed with super-high-end food or who would go to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market [in San Francisco] and buy carrots that are $10 a pound.”

It’s pretty obvious why so many people interpret the word as a pejorative: the suffix. In one of several Chowhound threads debating the meaning of the term, Chowhound maria lorraine comments: “It’s the damn ‘-ie’ ending that bothers me. A word with an ‘-ie’ ending usually connotes something small or sweet: doggie, cookie, auntie, bootie, hankie, cutie.” The “-ie” suffix makes it seem as if there is something faintly frivolous, even infantile, about being interested in food. Harrach says, “It makes it sound like food is a silly little hobby, when really it’s the central health concern for most American families. It trivializes how important it is to be thinking about your food in an intelligent way.”

So does the person asking you the question intend to mock your great passion and, in fact, your entire job? Probably not. David Kamp, coauthor of The Food Snob’s Dictionary, says: “When people ask me, ‘Are you a foodie?,’ it’s like nails on a chalkboard.” But, he admits, “Their intent is not malevolent.” The problem is that there isn’t a positive or even neutral term for “someone who is passionate about food.”

These days there are many different ways to be passionate about food, whether you are a compulsive online restaurant reviewer, a home-pickling obsessive, a school-lunch crusader, or an urban beekeeper. But be aware that the person asking the question may have no idea of this, and no idea that food can intersect with culture, history, politics, health, and the environment. To him, an interest in food still may be pretty much synonymous with a love of fine dining.

So how should you respond to this inquiry? You don’t have to accept the label, but there’s no need to flare up either. Just say, “I am really interested in food.” Then go on to explain why in a way that shows that your passion has nothing to do with the truffle tasting menu at Per Se.

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