To be a “foodie” is to be in a somewhat defensive dance with the word. It’s been reduced in recent years to an image of some Bourdain-emulating hipster seeking out a “hole-in-the-wall,” but to be a foodie, when the word was first printed by New York magazine in 1980 by Gael Greene, was to bring positivity and excitement to the experience of eating. Of course, many soured on the word, which with its cutesy “-ie,” was sort of insufferable from the start. In the Washington Post, Roberto A. Ferdman notes that while in the 1980s to be a foodie was novel, now it is the way many more people interact with food. Foodies, even if the word itself is a much-debated nickname, or spat out with disdain, or barely discussed, are now ubiquitous. It had been a while since anyone around me used the word “foodie” seriously — we all have better things to debate — but recently, I was forced to reconsider.
When I first saw a police recruitment poster that called to “Foodies, Gamers, Techies, Influencers” like the four horsemen of some Twitter apocalypse, I assumed it was a joke. It was early April after all; perhaps it was an April Fool’s prank left up for too long, or at least one of those fake ads for some in-world aspect of a TV show I’d never heard of. But no, it appears to be a legitimate ad for the Washington, D.C. police department, using subway advertisements to recruit New Yorkers to move south. In a statement, the Metropolitan Police Department says it is trying “to be creative and use innovative strategies to attract high-quality candidates,” and its ads ask that anyone who embraces any of these identifiers “join the next generation of DC police.” These four adjectives make it clear the cops are trying to recruit people who perhaps have not traditionally thought of policing as a career option — people who hadn’t considered their interests could coincide with the job.
However, the specification of “foodie” belies something the police don’t understand about themselves. Yes, as the word spread, self-described foodies, especially white foodies, became guilty of all sorts of annoying behaviors — pretending to be experts about cuisines to which they had only recently been introduced, acting as arbiters of authenticity (and in turn stifling creativity), upholding toxic chefs and industry structures. But at its core, to be a foodie means to have a fundamental curiosity about the world, which means having empathy for other people’s experiences. Embodying true enthusiasm about food is antithetical to policing.
“Defund the Police” has become a household phrase, whether that particular household agrees with the call to action or not. Many have always known police, from their origins in the U.S. as a “slave patrol,” as an occupying army targeting the most marginalized. But since the George Floyd protests erupted in 2020, fewer people believe police use force appropriately or think police do a good job of protecting people from crime than in previous years, and more and more are calling for stronger ways to hold officers accountable for misconduct. Police departments across the country are reporting declining numbers (though data says they’re not declining that much) and are desperate to recruit.
The D.C. police’s usage of “foodie” — to signal someone untraditional and unique — is an interesting usage of the word, and part of a long history of interpreting the word to satisfy one’s interests. Originally, per Greene, “foodie” described people who “were obsessed with food, taking cooking classes, competing to cook complicated perfect dinners, making the rounds of three-star restaurants in France”; said people were more of a novelty at a time when plenty were content with under-seasoned meat and potatoes. It was different from being a critic, or an expert, or a gourmet. Foodies were not necessarily snobs, nor did they have to be particularly knowledgeable about the cuisine they were enjoying. They just thought cuisine, as a cultural phenomenon, was important.
The phrase grew in popularity throughout the ensuing decades, and grew to encompass not just an appreciation of three-star restaurants, but anywhere good food could be. A foodie wanted to taste everything, and learn about it at the same time. A foodie wanted to order one of everything and ask their friends to rank their favorites, or to ask the chef what they loved and leave their meal in expert hands. “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,” Matthew Sedacca wrote for Eater in 2016. Being a foodie is an act of making food a hobby, an obsession, something to devote your life to exploring.
But defined another way, Sedacca writes, foodies “may use food as a way to express their identities; food becomes a form of social currency.” I would argue the latter definition has won out. Somewhere along the way, foodie changed from meaning someone who ascribed importance to the food they ate, to just someone who likes eating. The phrases gamer, techie, and influencer have gone on similar journeys, from identifying someone who found it important to dig deeper into each pursuit, to someone who just enjoys consuming that particular thing.
If foodie now just means someone who likes eating different things, then of course cops have an easy time using it to court potential members. Being a foodie becomes a matter of personal consumption preferences, devoid of any connection to the wider world. It is populist in a different sense, in that literally anyone who likes food can reasonably claim it — including people who have never thought twice about the seasonality of their produce, how much the person canning their soup is paid, or the history of their chicken tikka masala lunch.
At its core, populism is a good thing. It prioritizes the many over the elite, the community over the individual; it’s about creating a world where the rest of us thrive. For food, it means caring about the land where ingredients are grown, the ecological impact of how things are made, the historic methods of production in need of protection, and that the people who create your meal every step of the way are treated fairly. The pandemic made more people aware of the hardships facing restaurant and delivery workers, and question how restaurants should be run. Ongoing supply chain issues are forcing more of us to look at where our food comes from, and what it costs to get it to us. Food workers are unionizing and striking across the country, shining a light on systemic issues within the industry, and showing how everything — including the food — could be better if we didn’t put profits above people. Just as it is harder than ever to look at policing in America and condone it as a whole, it is harder to eat without thinking about everything that goes into a meal.
This is why real foodie-ism — the populist version outlined above — does not align with policing. To create a world rich in culinary experiences requires a heterogeneous population. It requires plentiful resources, shared ideas, and a society that prioritizes creativity and mutual support. Policing cares for none of this. Under the guise of “safety,” police harass immigrant street vendors and throw away their food, fine struggling bars and restaurants in the middle of a pandemic, dump houseless people’s sole belongings into a garbage truck, and are used as a tool by corporate managers to arrest people they do not think belong. Police keep mutual aid organizations from feeding their communities. Police surveil and deport undocumented workers, who make up a massive percentage of restaurant workers.
Individual eating enthusiasts may indeed be cops, and I’m sure at least one person has thought about answering that subway poster’s call on their way to an underground Korean barbecue joint. But to be a foodie means looking at a fundamental human experience from new points of view, understanding what you know and do not know, and letting someone else’s experiences guide you into a new understanding of the world. It means being open to a world in which all of us thrive, and share, and devour. The ideal definition of foodie exists beyond the police state.
Leonardo Santamaria is a freelance illustrator based in South Pasadena, California.