Parmigiano-Reggiano is the new Velveeta, prosciutto and pancetta share deli counter space with baloney, and pricey monogrammed kids’ aprons with themes like mermaid, dinosaur and princess are sold on cooking Web sites. If you serve iceberg instead of arugula, don’t be surprised if guests don’t clean their plates.
When did food become so snobby that even people who’ve never cooked a meal know what porcini and paneer are? At least two decades ago, experts say. Now "foodies" - a term coined in 1984 in “The Official Foodie Handbook,” according to Mitchell Davis, VP of the James Beard Foundation - support the Food Network and countless other reality TV shows devoted to food. Chances are, many will be flocking to see Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in “Julie & Julia,” opening Friday, which weaves together the stories of a young food blogger in Queens with the grande dame of French cooking, Julia Child.
Child persuaded Americans to swoon over dishes they hadn’t ever known existed, and she captured the nation’s collective interest in cuisine in her famous TV cooking shows.
As Americans familiarized themselves with exotic ingredients, they became more receptive to buying them. It was a no-brainer that exotic ingredients would fly off the shelves when marketing gurus like Steve Jenkins brought them into the country. Jenkins, Fairway’s cheesemonger and a part owner, introduced Americans to balsamic vinegar in 1978, sundried tomatoes in 1979, and olive oil shortly after that.
“It is really reverse snobbery because these foods are made by generations of peasants for other peasants,” Jenkins says. “Then Americans who are late to the party loot the peasant regions and they espouse peasant simplicity with foods eaten by peasants.”
Now, say some experts, the focus may be shifting from the chefs to the food.
“’Julie & Julia’ would not have happened five years ago,” says food trend watcher Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com. “Julia was a phenomenal person with a great personality but with her, the food came first. Now it’s the chefs who come first, and then the food. But I think we are starting to move away from cute and cleavage back to real food.”
Mitchell Davis says that the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow is finally beginning to blur, and that a “food snob” is very different today than just a few years ago.
“You used to be a food snob if you knew all the different kinds of truffles and foie gras,” Mitchell says. “Now the snob is the person who’s at the taco truck in Queens or the pizza place in the Bronx. This cultural omnivorousness is central among people who want to distinguish themselves through food.”
As proof of the fact that snobbism is going into reverse, he points to Daniel Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen & Bar, the Bowery restaurant that sells more than a dozen kinds of sausages and burgers.
“This never would have happened five years ago,” Davis says. “A chef of his prominence would never have done that. But chefs and diners love it.”
They also love to know a food’s origin these days, says Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder and CEO of the French Culinary Institute. “For years, our food has been manipulated by corporations that treat us like a feed lot,” she says. “It’s all about how to get us the fattest we can be on the cheapest food without any real taste. But now food has the attention of the President of the United States and his wife. It’s getting a lot less snobby.”
Food snobbism originated and pretty much stayed in large urban areas, says Barry Glassner, University of Southern California professor and author of “The Gospel of Food.” “It’s easier to get food in the cities,” he says. “And people will pay extra there for higher status food. Because food can be an indicator of a person’s social standing.”
But some experts say we’re in for some culinary changes.
“We have gotten carried away,” Lempert says. “And I think we’ll see that all these people who’ve been so chi chi about ingredients are in for a reality check.”