Pet Names and Aesthetic Communities

foodiesWhen I started thinking philosophically about food and wine  many years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that the wine world had an established, highly developed aesthetic culture and the food world did not. I don’t mean that there is no culture in the food world. There surely is, many cultures and subcultures in fact. There are cultures of cooking and of eating in the food world and thus cultures of taste. But there is little general discussion of the aesthetics of food, no highly developed language for talking about flavors, or attempts to develop richly detailed standards for evaluating dishes. Restaurant reviews, which in the past might have served as a source of reflection about food have of course been replaced by online, crowd-sourced babble. Much of the deep thought about food is done by chefs whose Michelin stars depend on having something to say with their food. Their clientele prefers to shut up and eat.

This is in contrast to the wine world where there is a robust discussion about how we evaluate wine and concerted attempts to develop a descriptive and evaluative vocabulary to facilitate discussion.

I was reminded of this difference between the wine world and the food world while reading Danny Chau’s article in Punch entitled “Drink Culture Doesn’t Have a ‘Foodie.’ Here’s why?”

Commenting on the history of the word “foodie” which was first used in 1980 by restaurant critic Gael Greene in New York Magazine, Chau writes:

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?

The word “foodie” of course is universally reviled in the food world. Yet it conveys an instantly recognizable identity:

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.

Chau laments the fact that there is no equivalent in the wine world and seeks an explanation. He argues that food has a kind of easy accessibility that wine doesn’t enjoy.

“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?….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.

I think Chau is right although I would put the point differently. As I noted above, the wine world has a sophisticated aesthetic culture in which reflection on and conversation about the finer points of wine elevate and enhance the drinking experience. You can call it “intellectualized justification of one’s desires” if you want. That is just what it is. But why shouldn’t desires be justified if by doing so something can be learned? That entails that gaining full access to the community means you have to undergo that learning process. Aesthetic communities have their own standards and norms—that is what makes them communities. It will all seem like a bore to someone who hasn’t put in the time. But if knowledge enhances the experience putting in the time is what one must do.

But a forbidding vocabulary is not unique to the wine world. Try gaining access to the art world without being able to decipher gibberish like this:

“My practice examines hesitation as part of the process of decision-making, where the object is neither the object of objecthood nor the art-object. It is rather the oblique object of my intentions. …”

There is sophisticated sounding nonsense in every aesthetic field because talking about sensations is difficult (and thus is ripe for poseurs who master the language without the knowledge.)

I have long regretted that the food world lacks the developed aesthetic culture of the wine world. But I’m grateful we have no equivalent to “foodie.” Surely “winie” or “grapie” would be beyond the pale.

3 comments

  1. The word “foodie” implies a great love of food, and even a curiosity about food, perhaps more than any real technical knowledge. And on the wine side we have such terms as “cork dork” or “wine geek.”. But these terms convey more a sense of knowing about wine than of loving wine. “Geek” and “dork” are terms for people who have forgone social success to focus on technical knowledge.

    Connoisseur may be the equivalent of gourmet…both terms are far more serious in context than foodie.

    It seems you can love food without taking an exam or gaining a certification. But not for wine. Who says wine appreciation isn’t intimidating? And who’s fault is that?

  2. Dwight,

    I suspect someone in the social media has it as a handle, but “vinthusiat” is an option; but, alas, too many syllables. And possibly down the line, who knows, maybe “wino” will be upgraded with appropriate intellectual justification.

    Cheers!

    Tom

    1. If the late great philosopher Sir Roger Scruton called us all Winos then that word is good enough for me. His book I Drink Therefore I Am is a classic.

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