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How ‘Foodie’ Culture Survived the Recession

Three theories as to why financial instability didn’t slow down food obsessives

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The nation-wide migraine that was the Great Recession caused over eight million job losses between 2007 and 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Something odd happened, though: Since the crash, millennials, or individuals generally characterized as ranging between the ages 18 to 35, are spending their hard-earned incomes on a specific part of food culture. "I just recently joined because it gives you budgets based on what you spent," said Hannah Kasperzak, a 28-year-old hospitality industry publicist from Chicago, said with a nervous chuckle. "In December, I spent more on food and restaurants than my rent."

Kasperzak, like many others in the millennial generation, considers herself a "foodie," a word that has also come to be one of the industry's most loathed and controversial utterances. Some attribute the coinage to Gael Greene for her 1980 New York article "What's Nouvelle? La Cuisine Bourgeoise." According to Greene, at the time, "foodie" referred to a subculture of people that "were obsessed with food, taking cooking classes, competing to cook complicated perfect dinners, making the rounds of three-star restaurants in France," she said. She added that this was "when many New Yorkers were not especially fussy about what they ate —€” an overcooked lamb chop and canned peas were fine."

Defined one way, being a "foodie" has populist and democratic aspects; defined another, it refers to a form of social currency.

With this working definition, one might have imagined that the blip in job insecurity and financial instability would have been the death knell for the "foodie" culture, where a focus on quality over quantity in food is law. But while the USDA found that the recession was causally related to a momentary decline in dining-out expenditures, from 49 percent in 2007 to 48.5 percent in 2008, it rebounded to its pre-recession levels in 2012, three years after the recession "officially ended" but during a time when incomes were still below pre-recession levels. By 2014, dining out surpassed at-home food sales for the first time.

And many millennials — despite soul-crushing student debt loan, working lower-paying jobs than previous generations, and even living with parents — still splurge on eating out more than non-millennials at monthly bill of $174 (30 percent of millennials also "eat foods that are certified organic"). The recession ultimately guided consumers to approach spending money in a novel way, but not in an intuitive "spend less" manner that one might have expected. With economists predicting en masse another crash this year, it seems there are many reasons why people are going to continue eating their ways through a monetary crisis.

Part of the rationale is thanks to the constantly changing, completely arbitrary definition of "foodie" itself. Defined one way, being a "foodie" — an individual who has invested him or herself in appreciating various characteristics of the food culture, often by seeking to understand the histories and cultural aspects surrounding food —€” has populist and democratic aspects that are approachable. In another, "foodies" may use food as a way to express their identities; food becomes a form of social currency. And for those who entered the workforce during the recession, food offers some millennials a feeling of control over their lives —€” a psychological utility by consuming better-quality foods.

Stock photos show millennial "foodies" in action. Photos: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

From Gourmand to "Foodie"

It's no secret that non-GMO pork chops or organic cane-sugar chocolate milkshakes —€” more often than not —€” cost a lot more than their processed, non-farmer's market-friendly counterparts. As such, Shyon Baumann and Joseé Johnston, authors of the book Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, emphasized that the "foodie" culture is often characterized by, and affiliated with, the upper middle class mindset.

The authors claim that a luxury attitude surrounding food was somewhat exacerbated by the most recent recession, specifically due to the resulting increase in income inequality across America. They state that this trend that has been on the rise since the 1980s — also an era plagued with an economic recession and consistent with Greene's origin story —€” when the food-obsessed cultural mindset first began infiltrating mainstream society.

"We see a lot of innovation and vibrancy in these cultural realms exactly when there are high periods of inequality, because those people who are at the privileged end of that spectrum indulge in culture," Baumann said. But while members in wealthier classes are functioning as patrons for innovation, it's hard to deny that those doing the innovating are, well, not even close to the one-percent line. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a chef is $41,500. Additionally, while some techniques come from previously lauded high-brow European cuisine, many newer styles of cuisine rely on middle and lower-class mindsets: backyard gardens; using scraps leftover from the kitchen; whole hog and nose-to-tail dining.

"We see a lot of innovation and vibrancy in cultural realms exactly when there are high periods of inequality."

Johnston explained that the growing income gap accentuates the paradoxical elements of "foodie" culture: There are moments of status-seeking whereby the food-obsessed pride themselves on hunting for the rarest and most "authentic" of dishes, as well as noveau trends in the molecular gastronomic realms. Yet there are also many democratic elements like eating low-brow foods such as corn dogs and hamburgers.

Both authors, however, recognize that only a small percentage of the "foodie" subculture is able to enjoy a balance where the number of fancy restaurants meals consumed per week far outnumber making meals at home to cut costs. "There are a lot of foodies that don't have the economic capital but have the cultural capital," said Baumann. "And I think they're still foodies but within foodie discourse, but there are clearly things that are off-limits to them. Most of us just live with that knowledge."

These populist characteristics help differentiate the "foodie" from its spiritual predecessor: the gourmand. While a number of economically sound "foodies" do not seem all that different from the gourmand, one can almost see a large majority of self-ascribed "foodies" might fall into the aforementioned "economically-beaten-down" category. When Dwight Furrow, author of American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution, was deciding on the title for his book that explored the way we actually think about our food, he realized a key difference between the sociological affiliations in each of these identifiers. "Gourmand suggests something that's upper-class, that needs money to pursue," said Furrow. "The foodies I run into a lot of the time are people that are simply interested in food."

Experience Is Knowledge; Knowledge Is "Power"

A large driver behind the sustainability of the "foodie" ideology during and post-recession has been linked to the millennial generation's shift in attitude towards material goods —€” namely, they don't really want them. Several reports have highlighted the phenomenon that, unlike the baby boomers and several members of Gen X, millennials prefer consumption of "experiences." Much of this shift in value has been linked to the recession, whereby college graduates and entry-level employees —€” stricken with loans and debt —€” see no purpose filling their bank statements with more red by buying a house or car, objects considered status markers by previous generations. Instead, they're comfortable renting, and thereby using their "excess" disposable income to seek out experiences that can be used as a form of social currency: sharing what you learned from a trip in discussions with friends or colleagues, or using intangible purchases to reflect certain aspects of one's identities.

Several experts such as Fabio Parasecoli, the director of the Food Studies Initiatives at the New School, believe that food nowadays serves the function of a social currency. Humbly bragging about your trips to niche, hole-in-the wall restaurants or your extensive knowledge of the best whisky dive bars is "relevant to show who you are, to distinguish yourself from others, and also to show off your cosmopolitanism —€” your refinement," he says. (This thought has similarly been echoed by Anthony Bourdain in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine.) For the majority of people, often below the one-percenter margin, Parasecoli believes knowing about and eating an ice cream cone made in some basement in Brooklyn, for example, is the means through which they can flout their social status and reveal their cultural knowhow to their peers.

Food knowledge is "relevant to distinguish yourself from others, and also to show off your cosmopolitanism —€”€” your refinement."

Such claims resonate with the research conducted by Baumann and Johnston of Foodies. The former claims that people's interest in a subject is often maintained through the pursuit of the newest product, and that people are often willing to pay extra for the rarest or newest item. One doesn't have to look far in the food and beverage industry for further evidence: beer geeks are infamous for paying hundreds of dollars for limited and exclusive beers.

"The craft beer costs more, but the consumers are saying, 'We're getting something different here and we're willing to pay for it,'" said Ester Kwon, an alcohol industry analyst for Standard & Poor's, in a 2011 interview with CNN Money. Alcohol sales sustained during and post-the 2008 recession: Big craft names like Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Magic Hat Brewing Co., and New Belgium Brewing Co. all saw notable sales increases in 2010 (7.8, 14.8, and 18.3 percent, respectively).

The rise of social media technology during the post-recession era — namely, Instagram — helped further this idea that people are getting some sort of utility by using food as social currency. Eve Turow, a writer specializing in millennials' attitudes towards their what they eat, noted the existence of a tension between showcasing sophistication while trying to cut back on unnecessary expenditures.

YPULSE youth and millennial marketing research reports that on average, millennials are cooking 4.9 nights per week currently. When picking up fiddlehead ferns from a farmers market or shopping at Whole Foods for ramps, many partaking in the "foodie" culture —€” even the recent college grads with entry-level salaries —€” can't but help post the sepia-toned photo of their #farmersmarket #wholegrain culinary achievements. The ongoing trend of people posting photos online of artistically framed, home-cooked meals allows individuals have a means to showcase their knowledge of interesting, eye-candy recipes, even if they did use some industrially farmed produce or meat from Kroger.

"If you post a picture of some awesome kale and goat cheese lasagna that you made, you're saying something about yourself: You're saying you have the ability to cook, you're saying you have the education, you're saying you have the time, that you have chosen to apply your discretionary income on getting organic kale and non-GMO goat cheese," Turow said.

Many "foodies" show off these sort of highbrow aspects of our dietary preferences as means of social currency, according to Turow. The growing inequality, mixed with the rise of our societal obsession with what we eat —€” as well as the use of experience as the new form of superficial communication of one's identity —€” has in turn enabled people to judge each other through what they post and eat, even if it's not a 100-percent accurate portrayal of their livelihood. "You're gonna hide the nights when you're in bed with a Hot Pocket," Turow said. "But it's still happening."

More stock millennials, this time in kitchens. Photos: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Looking for Control in the 21st Century

Beyond just using gourmet hot dogs or homemade ice cream as a means to highlight one's socio-economic status in a post-recession world, "control" is a huge factor in explaining the continued rise of the culinary-minded in the millennial generation. As a Gen Y-er herself, Turow cites the economic recession alongside the inability to control political wars, climate change, and technological privacy violations as historic events that have caused several millennial Americans to see their food as a way to exert some dominance and structure of their own lives.

"We don't trust the regulations of what's in our food," Turow said, describing an attitude she found shared by many Gen Y-ers who prefer sustainably-produced foods. "We want simple ingredients; we want no antibiotics; we want no-GMOs. Because you [Big Government] are not telling us how they work, even if I can't get a job, even if I can't get a date, gosh darn it I can control what I'm eating three times a day."

Ultimately, the role of food and its influence on our culture is one that's constantly in flux, waiting for the next socio-economic crisis to either mitigate or exacerbate the non-nutritional role that our meals play in our lives. For now, however, it seems that food is what gives many in the upper echelon in the world a means of guidance in their lives.

"We want to experience the tops; we want to brag; we want to share," Kasperzak, the Chicago-based publicist, said in her self-evaluation as both a millennial and member of the "foodie" culture. "But at the same time, we're cool with doing that at a lower-end place." But with a cultural definition that constantly adjusts to the present-day's varying socio-economic climates, not even the food critics can know what the next definition of "foodies" will entail.

Matt Sedacca is a writer based in New York City. Matt Shumacher is a freelance illustrator and designer in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Erin DeJesus