Lately I’ve been having problems with self-definition. I have an easy identity as a college professor, and another as an editor. But when I try to explain the kind of research I do, titles fail me. Sometimes I say I’m a food scholar, but that makes sense only to like-minded people in academia; others stare at me blankly. I used to call myself a culinary historian, but that term began to sound quaint, like someone who studies antique foods, stuck not only in the kitchen but in the past.
This problem isn’t mine alone; it’s shared by many with an interest in food. Cookbook authors are covered, and chefs have it easy with their toques, white jackets, and hierarchies. But the rest of us are ill defined. We are usually referred to as foodies, a term coined by Gael Greene in 1980. But this word doesn’t carry much weight: that little -ie suffix immediately trivializes the person it names. Just think of other popular words that end in -ie, and you’ll see what I mean: Commie, hippie, Moonie, groupie, preppie, yuppie. All of them have a mocking edge. And they all sound dated now, very much of their times. We need a new word to describe people who think seriously about food, a name that will stand the test of time.
Words are great clues to social concerns. Take the eighteenth century. With that era’s newfound focus on the individual, gourmand and connoisseur came into the English language—both describing an ability to judge in matters of taste. Gourmand, connoisseur, and the later gourmet (1820) derive from the French, which makes them a bit ponderous and pretentious. They also remain too closely focused on taste alone, which is not at all wide-ranging enough for our current concerns. Words with Greek or Latin roots don’t fare much better. Following the introduction of gastrophilist and gastrophile in 1814, there appeared in short order gastronomer and gastrologer (1820), gastrologist (1822), gastronome (1823), and gastronomist (1825). (And, in 2001, Gastronomica!) Aristologist (one versed in aristology, the art or science of dining) was introduced in 1835. I kind of like palatician (1821) for its resonance with politician—except the latter is too afraid to voice strong opinions, whereas lovers of the palate definitely are not.
After all the nineteenth-century’s fumbling for the mot juste, terminology quieted down until the appearance of foodist in 1909. I love this ad from the London Times: “Young interested gentlewoman wanted to assist proprietor in progressive herbal business: no ‘foodists’ or faddists considered.” Today, the word foodist refers to anyone knowledgeable about food, as in Bon Appétit’s “BA Foodist” column. But the word grates on my ears. If the -ie ending is trivializing,-ist implies something clinical: think agronomist or nutritionist. I suppose we could coin foodster, on the model of hipster or napster, but that sounds truly silly. Back in 1987 Bryan Miller of the New York Times suggested gastronaut. Though the word hasn’t yet made it into the OED, it has been given frequent play, especially in regard to the so-called molecular gastronomists, the food world’s explorers, our supposed counterparts to astronauts. Still, I have to agree with the respondent to Miller’s column who found the word “much too flatulent to be appetizing.”
So where does that leave us? Am I a food scholar, a foodie, or a foodist? Sometimes I say I’m a food person, but then I think, aren’t we all? So I have a proposition: I invite you, my dear Gastronomica readers, to come up with a better term for those of us who read cookbooks in bed, seek out the finest ingredients, and love to surprise our palates but also care deeply about where our food comes from and demand that it be equitably produced. You will probably be describing yourself!
Please post your ideas on Gastronomica’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Gastronomica. The winning suggestion will be awarded a year’s subscription.
UPDATE: Voting closed in late 2011, and the winning term was “Culinarian”! Thanks to everyone who voted.