The most hotly debated word in the culinary world

This word didn't appear in Taste pages until 1988.

The pressure was on to impress “world-class foodie” Paula Wolfert when she visited the Twin Cities in 1988.
The pressure was on to impress “world-class foodie” Paula Wolfert when she visited the Twin Cities in 1988.

— Star Tribune file

The term “foodie” has had a relatively brief life in Taste.

Its first use in any publication appeared under the byline of Gael Greene, restaurant critic for New York magazine, in a June 1980 article, “What’s Nouvelle? La Cuisine Bourgeoise.” For this, she wrote about her visit to a Paris restaurant, where she had dined on the food of chef Dominique Nahmias, who is described entering the dining room “to graze cheeks with her devotees, serious foodies ... ”

By 1984, restaurant critic Paul Levy and editor Ann Barr, both of Harper’s & Queen magazine in London, wrote “The Official Foodie Handbook,” and the term gradually filtered into the mainstream. As defined in their handbook, “A foodie is a person who is very, very, very interested in food.”

Still, the word didn’t appear in Taste pages until 1988, when restaurant critic Jeremy Iggers wrote about a visit from cookbook legend Paula Wolfert to Thrice, a cooking shop and school in St. Paul (now Cooks of Crocus Hill).

Iggers starts out his story with “Where do you take a world-class foodie to lunch?” before describing the dilemma of wining and dining someone with a fine palate.

Merriam-Webster New Collegiate defines “foodie” as “a person having an avid interest in the latest food fads.” Many in the food world roll their eyes at the expression, including the three pairs on the Taste staff.

Still, its use grows. As a search term, the word has been on a steady upswing since 2006, reaching its peak in popularity last November, according to Google Trends.

Blame the growth on technology, particularly anywhere that’s hashtag-friendly (we’re looking at you, Instagram: #foodie #foodiesofinstagram #foodiepic #foodietribe and 50 more variations).

By late 2014, Lake Superior State University in Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., had added “foodie” to its annual “List of Words Banished From the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.”

In 2016, Roberto A. Ferdman of the Washington Post wrote, “There is a great irony in describing yourself as a food insider in a way no actual food insider ever would.”

Mark Bittman, then with the New York Times, wrote in 2014 that this self-naming ritual reflects more “new-style epicures” than it does people who care about food activism.

Where are they, he asked, with food issues of labor, wages, environment, affordability and ethics for people and animals?

“It’s rewarding to find the best pork bun,” he wrote. “It’s even more rewarding to fight for a good food system at the same time.”

Let it be known (if it isn’t obvious) that the Taste section has planted its flag of protest in the avoid-the-word camp. On rare occasions, the noun in question has slipped through our editing process. Blame it on vacations, politics or perhaps magnetic activity on the sun. We regret our occasional lapses.

Exciting dining in 1988

So where did Wolfert eat in 1988? Lois Lee, Thrice cooking school director, took her first to Tejas, the Southwest restaurant then in downtown Minneapolis. Wolfert wasn’t impressed. She later said, “That was a joke.”

The second strike came at Primavera in International Market Square in Minneapolis. “It was OK. I wouldn’t go back,” she told a surprised Iggers, who notes in his story that “[Primavera] may be some of the most imaginative cuisine Minneapolis has to offer, but Wolfert insisted the same kind of cuisine is being prepared in similar restaurants all over America.”

But the third meal put a smile on Wolfert’s face. The Dakota Bar & Grill, then in St. Paul’s Bandana Square, served up a meal with chef Ken Goff at the helm with his all-Midwestern ingredients approach to dining: rainbow trout sautéed in pecan oil with sun-dried tomatoes, dill and cider vinegar, fried duck in a buckwheat crust and his family recipes for coleslaw and a wild rice pudding. “Absolutely delicious,” she said.

Had Iggers been in charge of reservations, he would have chosen differently, he wrote. That likely would have included a visit to a Vietnamese restaurant (almost unknown in the Big Apple then) or what he referred to as a “Midwestern yuppie cafe like Loring Park, Cafe Brenda or Lucia’s Restaurant, or maybe Shelly’s Woodroast, which has a North Woods flavor.

“Or maybe I’d just take her to a church supper for lutefisk.”