Sifton Ain’t

A few weeks ago, the New York Times national news editor and former Times food critic, Sam Sifton, tweeted, “Foodie is not a word.”  Eschewing an existential crisis, I brushed it aside—but over time, like a persistent toothache, his tweet began to get me.

What troubled me was not the latently New York-centric, snobbish subtext, which I have come to expect from Sifton, but that the comment was aimed and fired, like an unexpected spit ball in a high school hallway, at people like me. Sifton left he Times food critic post in 2011, so why now? What gives?  I checked with a few New York food media friends, and confirmed my suspicions.  Sam Sifton just needs a hug.

That being said, it’s true that “foodie” can be a troubling word. It’s kinda cutesy. My 6-year old will often add an “-ie” to the names of his stuffed animals. Bear-ie, owl-ie, squirrel-ie…  ‘nough said.  So what then could stand in its place to evince a more serious tone?  Gastronome is too heady and waaaay too French.  Enthusiastic eater? Who isn’t?  Edible epicurean? I love a double-entendre as much as the next guy. But… Sustenance geek? Conscientious caloric consumer?  You get my point.  Even Anthony Bourdain, the bad boy of food and über-hip sourpuss, said to me when he rolled through Milwaukee a few years back, ‘I hate the word, because it has come to mean people who take camera phone pictures at dinner, then go home and blog about it.’  ‘But,’ he said, ‘when I do voiceover for the show, I always end up using it, because there’s nothing else that fits.’ Heavy is the head that wears the crown, Tony.  Heavy.

For my own slog with the term, when Wisconsin Foodie’s first television season launched, I had every manner of acquaintances and strangers approach me to ask something that I myself was still trying to figure out…what is a foodie, anyway? I hadn’t concepted or produced the show.  Yikes. Still, what I said then I stand by.

If you have ever stood in front of a myriad of olive oils in a slightly better grocer and wondered what the taste differences were and how you could maximize them, you’re a foodie.  If you have ever changed your order in a restaurant in favor of something that is “in season,” you’re a foodie.  If you’ve clipped basil for your dinner at home from a plant you bought at the grocery store, you’re a foodie.

Now, I can hear the ardent farm-to-table, eternally-enrolled-in-cooking-classes, I-met-the-pig-my-chop-came-from, I’m-cellaring-this-wine foodies opining that my bar is too low.  Well, this ain’t the ark or one of Moses’ qualifying plagues, people.  It’s a planet—and food and our relationship to it is the single most powerful thing we can change to make it better; a little consciousness goes a long way.

The good news is that, should you dare to flout the “Sif” and walk down the foodie path, your options are vast.  In addition to dining, shopping, and cooking without impunity, or watching the television show I host, here are a few tenets on how to further be guilty of the term. You’re a foodie if…

  • you regularly patronize chef/owner restaurants where you are apt to hear, “For the special tonight, I made…”
  • you don’t just troll the aisles of Whole Foods, but avail yourself to the Outposts and Glorioso’s of the world. At the latter, you not only puzzle over which of the three hundred olive oils to purchase, but whether or not you should select a bottle of wine grown on the same property.
  • you know that timing is everything, and that within thirty-six hours harvest, nearly all produce looses fifty percent of its nutrition, with flavor not far behind.
  • you know the above fact because you appreciate that food can taste not better but best, and recognize that this is more frequently the case with food that is locally sourced.
  • you make a point to leave your respective zip code to enjoy lunch, dinner, cocktails, etc.  Milwaukee has a vibrant culinary scene, yet many people still frequent the same 5 or 6 places. Have your Cheers, get drinks there; try eating somewhere else.

And finally, the black diamond, double-dog, triple-dipped, gold star foodie designation…

  • you compost.  (We generate aprox. thirty-four million tons of food waste annually, and throw out thirty-three.  Just saying.)

As for Sam and his troubles with the organic nature of language and new words, I tweeted back, “Well, okay, Sifton.  But ain’t ain’t either