The Origin Story
If I told the Todd of five years ago that he had to cook and eat the way I do right now, I don’t think he could do it. My menu now is full of foods I had never heard of back then, and many more fresh ingredients and homemade items than I would have even considered making. I’m by no means an expert chef, nor am I as nutrition-conscious as I’d like to be, but the point is that my lifestyle now is pretty different than it was then.
To be fair to five-years-ago Todd, it’s pretty much a requirement of college-age males to have an unhealthy (and completely clueless) food lifestyle. We didn’t count calories until they reached a number absurd enough to brag about, passing up a free slice of pizza was an offense against the Universe, and the cooking advice we exchanged had a lot to do with the wonders of using barbecue sauce AND ranch dressing. We were hopeless.
But then two things happened simultaneously that started to change everything. The first was that I went from being a fancy college sophomore with a meal plan, to a poor third-year bachelor who had to somehow get his own food hot. Luckily for me (and my sous chef, Mr. George Foreman), I was optimistic about this new challenge – and by “optimistic,” I mean “sick of cafeteria food and little dorm microwaves”.
The second important event was that I had a friend who actually loved to cook. And he was good at it. In a world where our biggest gourmet experience was getting two toppings on our pizza, this guy would have us over for classy steak dinners and bring his own shrimp to fry up when he visited our apartment. He loved pickup trucks, power tools, and fancy cookin’, and we couldn’t get enough of it. Suddenly cooking was cool, just in time for me to be desperate enough to try it. And thanks to five-years-ago Todd taking the plunge into that new hobby, my diet, health, and general lifestyle have improved in great ways.
The point here is that food matters, and having “foodie” friends matters just as much. Cooking for me was an entry point to a great skill and healthier and simpler living, and my entry point into cooking was a good friend who thought it was awesome. Learning to cook brought up questions about the food I was eating that I probably wouldn’t have asked otherwise, and the answers to those questions have led me to be both more cautious and more adventurous about what I put on my plate. In the process, I’ve ended up becoming that same kind of foodie friend who can (and does) inspire other people to try new things and ask more questions. The point is that I think a lot more of us need to be that kind of friend, because a lot of people could really use it.
See, food isn’t just a hobby. Skiing is a hobby; reading is a hobby; golf is a hobby. Like all good hobbies, they add richness and fun and joy to our lives, which of course is true of food as well. But the difference is that those things aren’t really important or central to living, whereas food definitely is. Obviously you can get along pretty well for a long time without skiing, but food seems to come up a little more often. In fact, almost everyone I know eats on a pretty regular basis.
Food is central to our lives: it keeps us nourished, it’s a connecting point with our communities, and it defines the expressions of our cultures. All of us. Golf isn’t important to everyone, but cooking is, whether you admit it or not. Even if you’re hopeless in the kitchen, or don’t think you have time to ever make anything, you still appreciate good food. You’re still relying on the person who manufactured your frozen dinner or assembled your Subway sandwich to do a good job and make a good meal. Hardly anyone is a professional chef, but everyone is a veteran food critic. No one says “Well, I can’t pretend to know what goes into making a pizza, so I’ll reserve my opinion about the one we’re eating!” Not a chance. Seriously, next time you eat a pizza with friends, try to find even one person who doesn’t immediately become a gourmet expert on its exact qualities and shortcomings as a food. All of us, foodies or not, are very involved in what we eat.
And what we eat is very involved with us as well. Moms and sociologists everywhere have for a long time been lamenting the fact that families and friends and coworkers don’t sit down and eat together as much anymore. It’s true, and it strains our community. When we eat a quick lunch at our desk, or have takeout in the car, or spend every night with a sandwich in front of the TV, we’re cutting ourselves off from a basic need to be around people and eat good food and laugh at stupid jokes. Food is our medium for interacting with others, and we need to use it often.
On a more basic level, food is our medium for interacting with ourselves as well. Many of us have lazy (or awful) eating habits, and no matter what people tell us about how it affects our bodies, we just keep going with those same habits. Food is supposed to be fun, but we pretend that an appreciation for quality cooking and the joy of sharing a meal can be replaced by the endorphin enjoyment of rich foods or fun restaurants. We’ve lost part of what food should be, and we’re trying to put all the weight of community and tradition and the joy of cooking onto the simple act of eating. I’d honestly rather have raw veggies and water with friends than great steak and fine wine on my own, but too many times I’ve let a doughnut substitute for stress relief or a burger replace companionship. It’s dumb when we do this, and we make excuses for this kind of behavior way too often.
Foodies and Spider-Man
So, where do foodies come into all this? Well, let’s look first at what being a foodie means in our culture today. Since this is the internet, let’s look to good ol’ Wikipedia for our definition:
Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, foodies differ from gourmets in that gourmets are epicures of refined taste, whereas foodies are amateurs who simply love food for consumption, study, preparation, and news. Gourmets simply want to eat the best food, whereas foodies want to learn everything about food, both the best and the ordinary, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food.
Got that? So foodies aren’t restaurant snobs; they’re more like hobbyists or devoted fans of food and food trivia. A gourmet wants to eat at the top steakhouse in town. A foodie has tried the top five, blogged about them, looked up 27 recipes to recreate the same meals at home, and knows the best way to cook meat from anywhere on the cow.
And to me, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a hobby, it’s fun, and I wouldn’t joke so much about it if I weren’t such a ridiculous foodie myself. Going to the grocery store is one of the highlights of my week, I know an embarrassing amount of things about spices, and I’ll get excited about eating at ethnic restaurants even when I have no idea if I’ll like the food. I’m such a food nerd, and I’m glad that there are so many people right now who also love learning different things about what we eat.
The problem is less about what we’re doing and more about what we could be doing. You’ve probably heard the saying that “knowledge is power.” I know in my case that it’s true. One of the main things that motivates me towards living simply, cooking happy, and eating healthy is the knowledge I have. Until I got excited about making things better at home, or including certain ingredients, or the history and culture surrounding various foods, I didn’t care as much about what I ate or how I made it. Until I learned what good food and good practices were, I didn’t know enough to notice all the bad ideas behind so many foods at the grocery store and fast food restaurants. Knowledge has been power for changing, enriching, and simplifying my life.
Those of us who have that power need to use it better. We have the same challenge that faced Spider Man: with great power, comes great responsibility. We live in a culture battling with obesity, heart disease, and loneliness. We idolize immediacy, and pass up quality meals for over-processed convenience food. Our culture makes excuses about our workload and our money and our time, and downplays the importance of simple living and right eating. People aren’t inspired to change, and part of what they’re missing is the knowledge to empower them to do so.
The world needs better foodies. Why? Because foodies are the ones who are excited about some of those greater things, and only excitement inspires change. Foodies know exactly how food can be better, and how much easier it is to cook than people think. We thrive on the pride of a meal well made and the joy of sharing it, and that kind of pride and joy are exactly what a lot of our neighbors need. We have a chance to coach others, to inspire them, to be an entry point and a resource for people on their own journey to simpler living.
But instead we find ourselves sometimes spending our time watching food on TV and drooling over food pictures online and spending way too much money on food for ourselves. We like having the coolest dish at the potluck, but are we sharing – or bragging? Are we drawing people in and spreading the joy of good food, or are we intimidating people with how complicated it seems to cook things? Are we empowering others to eat and live more simply, or acting like we joined an elite club of home chefs? Are we doing our part here?
We’re not — but we can! Here’s a secret: anyone can cook, and everyone can enjoy it. Start talking about what you’ve learned, and watch how interested people get once it doesn’t sound snobby or overcomplicated. Share your excitement, and you’ll see that everyone kind of secretly wants to know how to cook. There are plenty of cultures where it’s still a point of pride in every family to make their food well, and where people still like to spend hours creating a meal together. We need to believe that food and cooking and nutrition are not just a hobby or extra credit, they’re a life skill like driving or reading or managing our finances that everyone can learn. There are just low standards in our culture for what constitutes “feeding yourself”, and we as foodies can help inspire our friends to spread the word and raise that standard.
The Foodie’s Arsenal
So if we’re ready to accept that “great responsibility” that our food powers call for, we should start developing simple skills and tools to have at the ready for spreading the joy of good food. We need to have that “arsenal” of meal ideas, creative hospitality, and inspirational lifestyles that can spur our friends and neighbors on to better food and simple living. Here’s a few to get you started:
Invite people over for dinner: Don’t fall into the habit of letting dinner guests be an excuse to show off or impress. Invite people you hardly know (or even like), invite groups of people who don’t know each other, have pointless parties, host a quick dessert and a game of cards. Ask people to bring stuff, and make awesome homemade food for them.
Do things the “easy way” too: I’m guilty of trying to make the most complicated recipes I can find, and it makes it hard for people to share in my cooking if it’s too difficult for them to do it themselves. Learn to make low-key foods and snacks that are delicious but extremely homemade: fresh vegetables, fun snacks, homemade bread, and simple recipes. Let people see that cooking can be easy and a better alternative to pre-packaged foods, and share your recipes like you’re getting paid to give them away.
Be a teacher: Don’t be afraid to share what you know. I tend to get embarrassed when I get “outed” in the lunch room for making some crazy dish I’m eating, and I tend to either get mumbly or pretend to act like some cocky expert and make a joke out of it. Don’t do that. Tell people what you made, and why you made it, and explain how you went about it. Let people be interested in your lifestyle and be ready to teach what you know in a friendly way.
Live responsibly: Eat well and be wise with your lifestyle. Don’t spend way too much money on your food, or eat lots of rich foods and desserts just because you know how to make them yourself. It turns people off to see someone being irresponsible; it makes your food look more like a selfish hobby than an inspiring adventure. Make a food budget and stick to it, watch what you eat, and be a good example.
Keep learning: We all have a lot to learn– so keep adding to your arsenal of recipes, concepts, facts, experiences. Let food be the first step towards living simply across the board, and keep finding new ways to enjoy life in natural, sustainable, uplifting ways. Rachel and I have goals of learning to make our own natural cleaning products and starting a huge garden this year. Maybe you want to try a new ethnic cuisine, or learn to cook vegan, or go hiking more often, or get more involved in your local community. Whatever it is, keep learning and simplifying and enriching your life. Do it well, and do it with friends.
So, foodies, that is our mission, and through this site my desire is to be a resource for getting inspiration and resources for your own journeys. I’ll keep talking about this stuff, and sharing what I encounter along the way, and we’ll all have a great time. I’d encourage you to join the mailing list as well (see the box below), so you can get even more personal insights from me and the people I learn from.
Hope this gave you some food for thought (no pun intended…?); I’d love to hear what you all are thinking. Happy cooking!