Food Snobbery Explained
Part groupie, part aesthete, part stark raving loon, the Food Snob is someone who has taken the amateur epicure’s admirable zeal for eating and cooking well to hollandaise-curdling extremes. He wears Bastad chef’s clogs even though he works in publishing or property law. He owns an $8,000 gas range with six burners and a griddle. He’s collected the cookbooks not only of James Beard’s first-tier protégés, Marion Cunningham and Barbrara Kafka, but also of the all-but-forgotten second-tierers John Clancy, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, and Maurice Moore-Betty. He makes his own stocks, has taken a night course in mycology so that he may forage his own mushrooms, casually alludes to the “sugar work” he performed in the course of whipping up his famous homemade Christmas confectionery, and bakes rustic sourdough loaves daily from the pain au levain starter he’s had going since 1996.
In other words, he has gone to great lengths to distinguish himself from you, the mere food enthusiast, for whom watching Giada De Laurentiis on TV and cooking Mark Bittman’s “Basic Pot Roast” is kinda fun. Whereas you favor potatoes and onions, he traffics in celeriac and garlic scapes. Whereas you’re keen on Granny Smiths, he insists that you haven’t even tasted an apple until you’ve sampled a Newtown Pippin. Whereas you regard your outdoor gas grill as just wonderful, he grills only with fruitwoods and mesquite, brushing the coals with moistened vine cuttings when available. He considers Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, and Fernand Point his greatest influences, in particular the latter’s masterful Ma Gastronomie, in the original French, which— What’s that? You don’t know who these people are? Then...then shame on you!
The Food Snob’s Dictionary has been developed to function as both a defensive aid in dealing with such a person and as a primer for aspiring Snobs who wish to lord their knowledge over others. In either case, it will help you keep romesco straight from romanesco, which, on rough days, is difficult even for chefs.
Theoretically, the Food Snob’s body of knowledge should be vast, bordering on infinite. Human beings have been cooking and eating since time immemorial, which means that the Food Snob should have much more turf to cover and act smug about than, say, the Rock Snob or the Film Snob, whose chosen fields of specialized orneriness have relatively short histories, measurable in decades. But the good news is that Food Snobbery in its modern form is a relatively recent pathology, with a very manageable history and vocabulary. Only academics and kooks need concern themselves with ancient flatbread preparations and how the Byzantines manufactured the fermented-fish condiment known as garum. For the rest of us, this book will do.
A Brief History of Modern Food Snobbery
In the United States, Food Snobbery as we know it dates only to the period after World War II, when G.I.s returned to America besotted with French culture, and Americans visiting France as tourists found a populace that, in gratitude for the war effort, restrained its urge to condescend to its guests, instead graciously initiating them into the ways of its culinary riches.
Prior to that watershed moment, Americans were insufficiently curious about food to become Food Snobs. The Gilded Age produced a rash of robber barons who patronized the fanciest dining palaces in the big cities (such as Delmonico’s in New York and Locke-Ober in Boston), but these gourmands were by nature vulgar and undiscriminating, pitchforking every variety of viand, oyster, langoustine, game bird, aquatic turtle, and sweetmeat down their gullets with scant consideration of the quality of what they were eating; for all but a few connoisseurs, the sheer quantity and expense of what one ate was proof enough of one’s social eminence.
But with the postwar emergence of a prosperous, Francophilic middle class in America, both fancy cooking and restaurant-going emerged as leisure activities. Julia Child’s first flush of popularity in the early 1960s alerted Americans to the fact that it was possible, if one had 36 hours of one’s life to set aside, to prepare at home a Mousseline de poisson, Blanche Neige—a molded fish mousse adorned with shellfish and covered with sauce chaud-froid, a gelatinous reduction of heavy cream, fish stock, and tarragon, applied in a succession of layers that had to chill and set before the next layer could be spooned on. Concurrently, an enterprising Californian named Chuck Williams was building up a kitchenwares empire called Williams-Sonoma in whose stores one could purchase copper collanders and specialized pastry molds without the inconvenience of hand-toting them from Paris and clearing them through customs. And Craig Claiborne began writing thoughtful, carefully evaluative restaurant reviews in the New York Times, read by millions, in which he actually mentioned the names of the chef and proprietor of the place he was critiquing. Crucially, he also assigned each restaurant a star rating, which was then a novelty.
For sane, well-adjusted people, these developments were embraced in a spirit of joy and good fun. But for a certain, less stable segment of the population, the starting gun had sounded on a new social competition: Who could be the Food-Snobbiest? In this group, it became a mark of status to know the difference between a daube and a navarin (the former is made with slow-cooked beef, the latter with slow-cooked lamb), to know how to prepare both dishes, and to know not only that “Craig” (the last name never uttered) had praised the daube at a Manhattan bistro called Le Poullailler, but that le poullalier means “the chicken coop,” and that the bistro’s owners were Robert Meyzen and Fred Decré, who also owned the more upscale restaurant La Caravelle, and who had previously worked at Le Pavillon, where their employer was Henri Soulé, who had made his name running the restaurant of the French Pavilion at the 1939-40 World’s Fair, and who had before that managed the Café de Paris in France, and as a young man had waited on Escoffier, who was the founding father of classical French cuisine, unless, of course, you chose to bestow that honorific upon Carême, who worked for Talleyrand.
By the 1970s and ’80s, Food Snobs had moved beyond France as their primary focus of interest. Paradoxically, this only made them snootier. Whether they were exulting in the superiority of Northern California’s produce, baking hippie whole-grain health loaves, grinding their own coffee beans (Sulawesi, Sumatra, or Kona, depending on the hour of the day), or demonstrating that they had evolved beyond outmoded red-sauce perceptions of Italian cookery by making pesto and redoing their kitchens with Tuscan terra cotta tile flooring, Food Snobs were broadening their portfolios, forever looking for new arenas in which to showboat. At the same time, food journalism became more conversational and knowing, with such magazine writers as Gael Greene (at New York) and Ruth Reichl (at New West, later called California) treating chefs like Hollywood personalities—thereby arming Snobs with insiderist knowledge about food people (“Have you heard that Wolf is leaving Ma Maison to open a pizza place?”) to complement their culinary learnedness. Newspapers, too, got in on the act, expanding their dining and cooking coverage from a page or two to a splashout weekly section—compulsory reading for any Snob worth his sea salt.
The 1990s saw Food Snobbery come under threat. Suddenly, as of 1993, there was a TV network devoted entirely to food, and the ranks of celebrity chefs, once countable on two hands, grew to dozens, then hundreds. Fine food and serious chefs vaulted into the realm of popular culture, and what had once been carefully hoarded knowledge was now in the public domain. That coarse but promising young chef in New Orleans who had livened up the comatose Commander’s Palace and then opened a fabulous New Wave Creole place in the Warehouse District? Now he was on TV, America’s darling, joking with his house band and shouting “Bam!” That bearded, ponytailed smartass with the red hair who served remarkably creative Italian food in a tiny storefront Greenwich Village joint? There he was in a studio kitchen, hamming for the cameras in all his molto-ness as he rolled out pasta dough for orecchiette. Wolf Appliances, the venerable manufacturer of deluxe cooktops and ovens for professionals, moved into the consumer market, and compounded the pain this caused Snobs by merging in 2000 with Sub-Zero, the Wisconsin-based maker of fancy home fridges for rich dilettantes.
The Snob’s proprietary grip on gastro-knowingness seemed to be loosening. And as the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first, this situation was only exacerbated by a climate newly hospitable to reality-television programs set in professional kitchens (“Fire two branzino and one monk! Now!”) and salty, bestselling memoirs (e.g. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Bill Buford’s Heat) that clued in even noncommittal eaters to the juicy facts that A) kitchen staffs are rife with volatile drug users; and B) most actual cooking in fine-dining establishments is performed by undocumented Ecuadoreans and Mexicans. Was there anything left for a Food Snob to act Snobby about?
Yet Snobs are nothing if not resilient, and the recent spate of foodist pop-culture offerings has only hardened their resolve to stay ahead of the pack. If it’s a Sub-Zero that Joe Financier and his wife want for their new McMansion, then the Snob will purchase a restaurant-grade Traulsen refrigerator. If mere mortals are getting into making fresh pasta, the Snob will out-artisan them with a basement affinage cave for his homemade cheeses and a custom walk-in for the prosciuttos he’s curing. You think you’ve got bragging rights because Chef Boulud gave you a tour of the kitchen at Daniel? Snob Dude has been to Ferran Adrià’s taller, the laboratory workshop in Barcelona where the molecular gastronomist conjures new foods (fruit pastas, smoke-filled ravioli, pine cone mousse, talking ice cream, etc.) during the six-month-long offseason of his restaurant on the Costa Brava, El Bulli.
As in the days when Julia Child first electrified the nascent Snob community, sending its members clambering for poêles for browning meat and mandolines for slicing vegetables, the Snob sets himself apart from the pack by being a pretend professional. It is enough for an ordinary food enthusiast to master a simple zucchini quick bread and maybe a basic white loaf; the Snob must master the impossible croissant. It is enough for the casual reader to idly page through Saveur and Food & Wine at the doctor’s office; the Snob spends hours dialoguing in the pretend-professional forums of Chowhound and eGullet. It is enough for an average home cook to take away a few simple principles from Thomas Kellers’s The French Laundry Cookbook, such as the importance of flash-blanching vegetables in a large pot of salty water at a rolling boil, then shocking them in an ice-water bath; the Snob must essay the restaurant’s foie gras torchon, which involves procuring a fine, raw, fattened duck or goose liver, soaking it in a milk bath for a day, butterflying and deveining it, marinating it in brine for another day, rolling it into a log, wrapping it in cheesecloth, poaching it in stock, and hanging it in a fridge for yet another day before serving.
It is often the case, in fact, that acute Food Snobbery is a prelude to a radical career shift into the professional kitchen. The editors of The Food Snob’s Dictionary make no objection to those who wish to use this book as a preparatory guide for such purposes. Readers will have to look elsewhere, however, for checked pants and a cocaine supplier.
The Future of Food Snobbery
Food Snobbery finds itself at an interesting juncture at the time of this book’s publication. The rise of food politics and the mainstreaming of organics, along with the related increase in public awareness of food sourcing and production methods, has added a moral dimension to what had previously been more or less a hedonistic pursuit. Food Snobs are no longer just aceto balsamico obsessives, radicchio growers, crêpe fryers, and truffle sniffers, but fair-traders, farm-to-tablers, and sustainable-istas; a vast wealth of new possibilities for righteous humorlessness has been created. Correspondingly, The Food Snob’s Dictionary addresses the lingo of this new, symposium-friendly Snob Set (e.g., “compost tea” and “heritage turkey”). The editors have also paid heed to the parallel rises in primitivist and futuristic cooking methodology, examining, for example, both the importance of live-fire grilling and the vogue for sous-vide. Even so, the editors are aware that the food world moves faster than that of book publishing, and that new techniques, ingredients, and concepts emerge on almost a weekly basis. As such, we promise to be joylessly vigilant in continuing to chart trends in sustainability and expensive kitchenware for future editions.
Finally, let us express our sincere hope that this brief volume serves not only as a handy reference, but as a tool for understanding. Though they are sometimes impossible to live with and are wont to sharply order us out of the kitchen, Food Snobs are often our friends and loved ones. We must understand that theirs is a heavy burden to bear; uneasy lies the imaginary toque. By letting them select the fingerlings at market, by indulging them as they geekily articulate their fantasies of someday meeting the food-chemistry guru Harold McGee and preparing a capon with him, we not only validate their passions but indulge the little bit of Food Snob in ourselves. For isn’t it true, after all, that every one of us can admit to preferring artisanal bacon over Oscar Meyer?