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I frame this chapter by asking three questions. First, is it new? One way to problematize this subject for readers is to challenge the notion that “foodie-ism” is a late 20th century phenomenon. I think it is a common misperception that this is a new development/trend/interest/hobby, and while it is certainly arguable that it has reached new heights and gone mainstream in unprecedented ways, foodie-ism (but must find a more timeless word for it for discussion!) has really ebbed and flowed in varying waves over the 20th century (and earlier) and therefore is not entirely new. Food and cooking have been seen as forms of entertainment long before the Food Network, in both radio and magazine formats. The advent of new technologies – television and now the internet via blogs, webcasts, social networking – have allowed the interest to proliferate and to reach new and larger audiences.
This essay will focus on some of the crucial points in the 20th century that led to apparent peak at beginning of the 21st century, some of them perhaps less well-known or preserved in the cultural mythology. This includes the different “waves” of food interest throughout the century and what spurred them as well as what effect concurrent technology – radio, TV, internet, social media – had on each wave. Examples of “waves” include the advent of radio, Gourmet magazine, television, interest in ethnic identity and health, restaurants and celebrity chef, organic/slow food movements, etc. There may be other, lesser known tipping points to discover.
Second, is it passive? The concept of the passive/active in food as entertainment can also be complex. It is passive? If not how not, and what is the impact of either active or passive consumption and proliferation of food as entertainment? It is a common but questionable assumption that the consumer-viewer is passive. The essay would discuss ways in which the viewer has helped to shape the culture and television/media offerings as well as the ways in which he or she uses the information possibly for creativity or self-improvement. Just because someone might not be cooking while watching TV (it’s all too common to hear people describing their spouse who watches the Food Network all day but never cooks anything) nor dive into a recipe as soon as a program ends, does not mean they are not actively learning something while watching. A parallel is when consumers began eating out in restaurants more (1980s), where they broadened their horizons just being seeing everything offered on the menu even if they ordered the roast chicken. In sum, it’s a challenge to outdated, simplistic theories of mass media effects. When it comes to blogs and social media, it becomes even more difficult to argue that consumers are passive.
It is also crucial to examine exactly what people are learning when they watch food TV. In addition to recipes and food knowledge, there are plenty of intangibles. I argue that they are learning what it means to be an ideal middle-class or upper- middle class consumer and citizen in today’s world (according to programmers).
And third, is it democratic? While many perceive the present day to be the apogee of the “foodie” phenomenon, what is really being witnessed is the saturation or mainstreamization of this culture of heightened awareness and attention paid to food and cooking (“foodie-ism?”). What may seem like a democraticization of food culture still propagates a hierarchical system that might not be immediately observable (the way high society restaurants in the early 20th century would be clearly off limits to those who were not rich and did not read French). Food is still a divided, classist arena with a high dose of aspiration (vs. the much inspiration as touted by programmers) with political, economic and cultural causes and effects.
This work was originally published in"Routledge History of Food," edited by C. Helstosky.