In 1980, the longtime New York Magazine food critic Gael Greene visited Paris to experience for herself a new restaurant movement spearheaded by a band of 20-something chefs who sought to sidestep the pretentiousness of France’s culinary past. That movement would soon be known as “moderne,” straying from the likes of Paul Bocuse and “nouvelle cuisine,” an ornate and delicate style of cooking that itself was a radical response to the rich “haute cuisine” long seen as the French standard.
In the June 2 issue of the magazine, Greene describes dining at the celebrated Restaurant d’Olympe, remarking on the young Dominique Nahmias, a stylish, self-taught cook who gave up studying law to serve zippy, piquant dishes (think citrus, fresh herbs, curry spices) inspired by her upbringing in the Var region of southeastern France. Nahmias ran a fast and furious kitchen with two female sous chefs, and none of her dishes took longer than 15 minutes to serve. “She offers crayfish with white feet or red … three ways, tends stove in high heels, slips into the small Art Deco dining room of Restaurant d’Olympe—a funeral parlor of shiny black walls and red velvet—to graze cheeks with her devotees, serious foodies.”
Never before had the word “foodie” been seen in print; never again, perhaps, would the word carry such quiet dignity.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that “foodie” emerged not with a bang, but as an inevitability. Decades later, in 2012, when asked about how the now-ubiquitous term first entered her lexicon, Greene had no idea. “It’s so obvious: What are you? I’m a foodie,” she said. “[Now] it’s on everybody’s list of toxic words in food writing. When I said it, it was a wonderful thing to be.”
“Foodie” implies that presenting an enthusiasm for food (nevermind knowledge of it) is to possess a compelling, universal form of cultural capital. It is a lens with which to see the world from the last bastion of socially acceptable hedonism, where excess is hardly taboo. “A foodie is a person who is very very very interested in food,” wrote Ann Barr and Paul Levy, the authors of 1984’s The Official Foodie Handbook, a cheeky pronouncement to the world that culinary fanaticism had become de rigueur. If Barr and Levy hadn’t published the term first, then they certainly set its parameters more squarely: “Foodism being fashion, you don’t live with the same menu for years,” they wrote. “You discover, embrace, explore minutely, get bored, move on tomorrow to fresh meals and pastas new.”
What, though, of the foodie’s fraternal twin, the person who is very very very interested in drink? They have not received the same exception, nor do they claim their own pet name despite drink culture’s increasingly democratic westward expansion. From the rise (and rise) of natural wine to the crushable populism of spiked seltzer, drinking has never been cooler or more accessible. Yet, there remains a crisis of nomenclature, if not identity. What gives?
“There is an expectation for those who partake in drinking to insulate themselves with knowledge, lest they be judged for their vice.”
“The word ‘foodie,’ it has this cuteness to it—the diminutive –ie at the end of it. Anyone can be a foodie, and you don’t need to know anything. All you need to know is that you like food and that you want to try more foods,” says Drew Record, the operating partner at San Francisco’s Bon Vivants Hospitality. “But there is this feeling in the beverage world that you need to have these mile markers, and some of it is perpetuated by organizations that give out pins and have certain levels. So, people are intimidated and ask: How do I even start?”
Starting is easy. Through time and exposure, our senses guide us toward the flavors in drinks we find most pleasurable. It’s what comes next that is maddeningly opaque. To explore such pleasures is to subject oneself to an ongoing interrogation without the vocabulary to express one’s truth. Those persistent enough will find language through experience. Experience may engender passion. Some might even formalize their education; we call a number of those folk sommeliers. But what about everyone else? There are a few terms that come to mind, but none quite strikes the same chord that “foodie” does.
Connoisseur. Enthusiast. Bon vivant. All three suffer from a kind of distancing: “Foodie” clearly centers food, whereas the others center qualities of the self, either in demurral or out of insecurity. One cannot be a connoisseur without turning taste into a grand, intellectualized justification of one’s desires; one cannot label oneself an enthusiast without being a bit of a bore. And, in the case of both “connoisseur” and “bon vivant,” negotiating one’s relationship with drinking becomes a bargain with the French language writ large, as if asking for permission to live out a foreign context in the discomfort of one’s own home.
Drinkers tend to find their passion and burrow down, entrenching themselves in history, narrative and experience. Eventually, burrows become silos become fiefdoms. Beer experts differ from spirit experts, who differ from coffee experts, who differ from tea experts. And while the distinctions have slowly collapsed in recent years, the principles of connoisseurship are still present: There is an expectation for those who partake in drinking to insulate themselves with knowledge, lest they be judged for their vice. It’s this foreboding sense of judgment that presents drinking culture’s most significant barrier of entry.
“It’s no wonder there remains no satisfying analogue to ‘foodie’: Any word chosen would need decades of therapy just to unpack and unlearn the indignity woven into its existence.”
Even the earliest adopters of the word “foodie” knew that the word’s easy-access promise didn’t apply to drinks. “Foodies are careful not to fall into the trap of getting too interested in wine. Wine is too big a subject, too old a subject. Literally time-consuming,” Barr and Levy wrote. “When a Foodie sees a wine man in his cellar full of dead air, gently holding up a cobwebby bottle horizontally to the light to examine the sediment, it somehow sums up for you how far behind you would start if you tried to master that world.” (They then suggest “grapie” as foodie’s wine equivalent; thankfully, we dodged that bullet.)
There is the shame of simply not knowing, then there’s the shame internalized by all Americans—of knowing all too well the country’s fraught relationship with alcohol. Having a drink or two is often posited as an escape from the day-to-day, a making-up of lost time, tilting the scale back in favor of pleasure rather than the drudgery of work. A national history of temperance movements, a government system with puritanical roots and an industrial mindset enforcing a strict division between work and play has relegated the acceptable consumption of alcohol to specific days, hours and locales. Consider the ensuing bottleneck, pressurized by an ambient sense of shame and repression, and it’s no wonder there remains no satisfying analogue to “foodie”: Any word chosen would need decades of therapy just to unpack and unlearn the indignity woven into its existence.
There is no hope of rehabilitating “foodie” as a term; there aren’t many sharks left for it to jump. Still, it has played an essential role in food culture over the past half-century, and to not have an equivalent for drinks is a pity. Consider the clientele of Restaurant d’Olympe that Greene took note of more than 40 years ago, who relished in Nahmias’ smoked duck and sea bream crudo. Greene was among kindred spirits, all gathered to reaffirm their capacity for delight. And she knew it. It’s so obvious. What were they? Foodies, those born in the shut-eyed Proustian moments that, however brief, provide access to an unburdened lightness of being. Of course, the same could be said of someone experiencing the bittersweet symphony of a Negroni for the first time, or someone inured to the sameness of sauvignon blanc after tasting their first trocken riesling. The world of drinks is fraught with pitfalls of language; the lexicon is constantly being reworked to be more evocative, more nuanced, more inclusive. But that ever-elusive clarity might never come if there remains no way to recognize one’s identity within that space.
“Words have power,” Record says. “A lot of these terms that have come to define drinking culture, they ignore the actual culture of it.”