Curb Your Foodieism: How pretentiousness undercuts Louisville’s food scene

“What I always want, what is crucial for me, is casual. I want everybody to have fun,” said Bobby Benjamin, executive chef of Butchertown Grocery, to the Courier-Journal in the midst of a media bonanza around their fall opening. Local media, ahem, ate this place up. Fun tops the menu at Butchertown Grocery, exclaimed one of the headlines, and less than 20 words later, Benjamin said “with our menu, we will constantly be researching Butchertown and constantly researching this city and the state.” Earlier this year, Butchertown Grocery then, apropos of nothing, released a $50 burger — at a restaurant in a neighborhood whose annual median income falls between working and lower middle class. Perhaps this was a move to generate some headlines after the buzz quelled, rattled by the lull after local media bequeathed 40+ features. Or it’s some of that “fun” topping the menu. If shelling out half a bill for cooked cow guts is the chef’s idea of fun, I shudder to think what he’s like at a child’s birthday party. LEO’s food critic, Robin Garr, also noted the exorbitant prices in his review of lunch there, headlined: “‘Honest, simple’ fare commands white-tablecloth prices at Butchertown Grocery”

The notion of a restaurant synthesizing the history of a city with its menu, entrenching itself conceptually into the fabric of a neighborhood through a defined concept, is nothing new and, in theory, offers a laudable direction for a restaurant’s vision. But then either hubris, or “playing jazz” a little too hard, sullies the entire effort. Many undoubtedly-talented, classically French-trained, young gun chefs fail to strike the proper pitch of constructing a unique dining experience also informed by the culture of their surrounding environment. And thus, we see Louisville’s rich agricultural history beget the over-fetishization of bacon in gourmet restaurants dressed in Edison bulb-chic throughout town . 1 In a neighborhood between the Kennedy Interchange and an industrial meatpacking plant that permeates the air with wafting putrid pig shit, peppered with beautiful historic property, mixed-used structures and also homes that could use a little love, Butchertown Grocery’s aforementioned research into the neighborhood or any incorporation of its fabric is, at best, comically tone-deaf (it did install valet parking within direct line-of-sight to where JBS Swift murders the pigs, after all). The burger is gone, but it now boasts a $25 chicken and waffles plate for brunch. This beloved collision of sweet and savory has its roots in either northern African-American soul food or the Sunday meal of early Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants, depending on who you ask. If you approached any given member of either group asking for a quarter of a Benjamin to grip that dish though, both would laugh you straight into that valet lane.

The local fever pitch amongst frequent diners — the (ugh) foodies — and torrents of press coverage, in concert with these sorts of ham-fisted concepts, marked the exact moment, here in 2016, that Louisville’s artisanal, small-batch, farm-to-table, serve-it-on-a-board, or in a mason jar, M.O. amongst fashionable dining crossed the Rubicon into self-parody, summoning the spirit of the most precious corners of Pinterest into real life like a locally-sourced Demogorgon. Perhaps beating up on Butchertown Grocery is admittedly insolent or heavy-handed, but the restaurant’s high-profile, and various textbook examples of a cringeworthy New York Times trend piece, make it hard to ignore when highlighting foodieism as a scourge on local culture. They are hardly the only offender — Louisville has seen and will continue to see similar concepts popping up throughout the city.

Of course, larger markets have already experienced the revolt, and, as Louisville’s phenomenal foodscape gains traction with too many national and international tastemakers to list, the free-range chickens will come home to roost here too. Louisville’s restaurant scene is world-class, and congruently, its unpalatable foodieism has begun to take seed across social media, Yelp, and excruciatingly adorable blogs. It’s ugly, and it’s an existential threat to the blossoming, legitimately cool dining scene in Louisville.

Identity Politics

Mom. Free Thinker. Capitalist. Coffee ninja. Foodie.

Runner. World Traveler. Student of life. Foodie. 

Word salad like this permeates common bios throughout the social media. And sure, these sort of personal associations are gauche on their own, but identifying as a foodie is particularly exasperating. Though it began more as a descriptor for an interest, like one might have an interest in watching Storage Wars or collecting butterfly knives, it became a lifestyle, a (warped) ethos.  A foodie is different than one simply “one who enjoys food.” Foodies consider themselves refined gourmands and epicureans with an eclectic palate for adventurously plated dishes paired with a complex yet balanced drink who mash the LUX button on Instagram while seated in the trendiest restaurants in town. They want you to know what they’re about.

Additionally vexing, many people who fall somewhere on the spectrum of the creative class often toss around this term carte blanche, even though there’s nothing particularly creative about being a foodie. You’re not creating something — that’s what the chef just did, even though “foodie” is a badge worn proudly with at least a modicum of self-congratulatory importance by the same folks. Identifying as a “foodie” does not define anything about an individual, save for one simple fact — it is a public proclamation that a certain amount of disposable income is available for you to eat at trendy restaurants at will. And that, friends, is an odd thing to brag about in the same sentence as your preferred sports franchise, unless actively posturing a sense of exclusivity based on your means is worthy of note. In which case, nuts to you. A pox on your loft.

Welp isn’t the first column to take the pretension of foodieism to task, nor will it be the last. B.R. Myers’ widely read essay for The Atlantic, The Moral Crusade Against Foodies, takes a more academic approach. But my favorite, Freesia McKee’s personal narrative for Food Politic, Why I’m Not a Foodie, will always serve as the most salient.

“Calling myself a foodie would signify that the duck nachos, the seven-dollar cocktail with pounded basil in the bottom, the gluten-free tater tots made with local sweet potatoes are experiences that anyone could choose to take instead of monetized privileges that are gifted to some and not others,” McKee wrote.“[Foodieism] loves to take food out of its context. ‘We want your fried plantains but we don’t want you,” the movement seems to be saying … we don’t want to think about who foraged or picked and why. What does it mean when the tagline of a white-owned restaurant is something like ‘Modern Mexican Cuisine?’ What does it mean when that restaurant charges three times more for enchiladas than the family-owned place down the street that has been there for 25 years? It means that ‘modern’ equals white, and that ‘ethnic’ equals antiquated and dirty.”

In other words, McKee calls out, without being overly woke about it, a sort of culinary gentrification that foodieism engenders — pining for exotic foods borrowed from other communities, cleaned up for the foodie palate at a blogger-approved chophouse whose logo espouses extremely clean typography and priced above many socioeconomic strata, which often includes the same community in which the cuisine originates. A veritable Santa Maria with access to Zomato.

She concludes with a simple question about how food-scene enthusiasts are “voyeuristically buying food from ‘ethnic’ 2 or ‘authentic’ people. But why do we never call the ‘ethnic’ people foodies? And, really, who doesn’t like good food?”

Right. Who doesn’t like good food? 3 There’s nothing exclusive about this notion. You don’t need to bring home a certain size paycheck to love good food — undoubtedly a majority of people enjoy a nice dinner out, when the money’s available, from a repertoire of diverse cuisine touching each corner of the globe, everything from brats to Pad Thai; tapas to dim sum; huevos to falafel; and red beans and rice to fish and chips. Some may enjoy the (unjustifiably overpriced) $18 Proof burger 4, while others don’t have the means. But to suggest that a self-described foodie has a deeper appreciation or more refined palate than anyone else is cognitive dissonance thick enough to concoct a decent roux. 5 In the aforementioned piece for New York Magazine, Michael Idov trenchantly sums up the foodie phenomenon as “a legitimate option for a hobby, a topic of endless discussion, a playground for one-upmanship, and a measuring stick of cool.”

Essentially, identifying as “foodie” means absolutely nothing. It’s perhaps a worse descriptor than “hipster,” a term that’s become so ubiquitous and convoluted that it’s become a catch-all that can describe any given human being on the planet who doesn’t listen to Phish. Well, being a “foodie” means nothing except for one thing — you have money.

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Waiter carrying plates with meat dish
Being a “foodie” means nothing except for one thing — you have money.

In Possibility City, Some Neighborhoods are More Possible than Others

Taste of South Louisville celebrated its seventh event last weekend, a large-scale Churchill Downs powwow that sees under-celebrated gems like Little Jerusalem Cafe and Shack in the Back enjoy some culinary limelight. A number of people inside the Watterson like to crack wise on the South End. I’m sure you’ve heard your share of Dixie Highway “jokes.” 6 To that end, I recently saw a local humorist on social media try to make a joke about the Taste of South Louisville event, quoting a news story about it on Twitter with “why would anyone want that?” Besides a quip that doesn’t even work on comedic terms, it illustrates a specific disconnect in Louisville.

The latest issue of Food & Dining, “Louisville’s foodie magazine” features yet another lengthy article on Proof on Main, some recipes from Corbett’s and a whole lot of white dudes with their arms folded. Nothin’ new or exciting there, because Louisville’s food coverage, by and large, is a giant bore served on a bed of exclusivity. As of writing, Yelp’s Best Food in the City list sees the typical representation from The Highlands, Butchertown, Clifton, Crescent Hill, and St. Matthews — all the usual dining corridors that, admittedly, do feature phenomenal cuisine worthy of recognition. Another amazing dining corridor, though? Preston Highway. South Third Street. The farther side of Bardstown Road — that stretch in Buechel that serves the city’s far-and-away finest Indian (Dakshin) directly adjacent to the city’s far-and-away best taco truck (Las Gorditas).

If we assume a high correlation between self-identified foodies and Yelp activity because of its high-visibility and platform to let people tell you what they think dammit, the foodies, in search of dining bliss, have either willfully, or circumstantially, neglected an entire side of the city, one that happens to bolster the most authentic versions of cuisine that will later get the aforementioned “modern” upcharge, because that’s where many of the blue-collar and immigrant business owners who bring the flavors of their families to the States live. Last month, Welp explored some of the taquerias, which are ample in this area, to preach the gospel of delicious tacos, sans the foodie-washing. The feature also served as a response to local media’s painfully predictable coverage, oft in collusion with the foodie community, that ignores an entire swath of authentic Latinx eateries in their “best of” listicles to make room for takes on Mexican street fair from El Camino. Buddy, no. A taco should never cost $5 a pop.

Certainly there are a couple of factors at play for the lack of love with regard to both the media and Louisville’s shared psyche. The South End, in particular, suffers from the sprawl of many Southern and Midwestern communities designed for automotive travel, so a trip to Thai Noodles might feel arduous to some. That argument still seems a little flimsy, though, as Louisville loves driving and the city makes it easy — a recent census analysis found almost 83 percent of Louisvillians drive alone to and from work, while enjoying third shortest commute among the nation’s 30 biggest cities. It ain’t hard to get where you’re going here, and certainly sprawl creates for easy parking, a commodity Louisvillians unequivocally value, seeing as the city lost its entire shit after Hopcat opened their 600-capacity restaurant with only a few scant spots to deposit the gas guzzler.

More important, though, Louisville remains textbook segregated in all the societal aspects, food included. And we know it. It’s become an established joke. On the western edge of downtown sits a generally well-liked 7 gastropub called Over the Nine. On the surface, the name is a portmanteau of Cincinnati’s renaissance neighborhood Over the Rhine and (the) Ninth Street (divide). The unspoken ribbing is, of course, the notion of crossing “over” the border between the West End and the rest of the city — by one (1) block, mind you — is some significant adventure like it’s Machu Picchu. The jury is still out on whether Over the Nine’s nomenclature is subversive or oblivious, but folks, this is where we’re at as a community — cracking wise on the extreme socioeconomic fragmentation in Louisville that encompasses a wide array of effects on small businesses and people’s livelihoods.

And the people who get their jollies eating pureed food on wooden boards are much less likely to live on the South or West ends. Stephen Marche succinctly digs into the foodie label as personal identity and taste in his Esquire piece on not being obnoxious at the Thanksgiving table, writing “[t]oday, your attitude toward pork belly is a clearer statement of who you are and where you come from than any television show you watch or band you follow. Tell me what you know about pasta, and I’ll tell you how much your parents made, how much education you managed, how much is in your savings account.” Unfortunately, that sect drives much the conversation, and thus media attention, around which spots are worthy of news copy … and your dollars.

food in the restaurant, table, background
Louisville remains textbook segregated in all the societal aspects, food included.

Food as Art and Community…

McKee delivers a deathblow that I want to scrawl in sidewalk chalk down some of the city’s dining corridors: “When we say the only entities that get people excited about sustainable food systems are the ones that attract thirty-year-old bankers, we are just replicating the racism/classism our food systems already holds strong.”

Lots of interests like foodieism could be classified as expensive and pretentious, but what makes foodiesm’s exclusivity stickier than the sorghum braised on the, I dunno, deconstructed muffin you had this morning, is the notion that nutritional awareness and concern about how supply chains affect your community are good, important traits in a person. Foodie dingdongs just happen to ruin it, like when Hot Topic started selling Joy Division shirts. Factory farms are gross and unethical. A totally meat-based diet is unsustainable. CSA programs and the explosion of the organic market (as buzzy as it may be) help make families healthier. Farm-to-table, artisan craft, slow food — these institutions provide jobs locally and generally yield a better and more memorable experience as a consumer. It also rewards chefs as artists — it is culinary arts after all — applauding creative execution and adventurous takes on common dishes. The arts: also good! This is all good!8

The issue with a restaurant like Butchertown Grocery and a few others in their league is that they place more emphasis on the value-added rather than the community-enhancing. Not all do. The Table in Portland is perhaps the most viscerally-interesting and important restaurant in the local dining scene, and if its success continues, could shift how restauranteurs conceptualize new ventures — as well as offer a proof-of-concept for its relatively utopian mission statement. As I wrote in my feature during its opening week last fall “The Table looks Nulu-ready. But it’s not in Nulu, and it’s not a hot, new offshoot from an established chef. It’s an experiment in social entrepreneurship.” In the heart of transitioning Portland, The Table provides a bright, warm dining experience in a well-designed — heck, cool — space that survives on both a pay-what-you-can model and sweat equity. This is crucial, because as Portland has been a long-neglected neighborhood until recently, dropping a $20-per-plate spot ripped from Bon Appetit in the middle of an economically-afflicted area of town and hope to force some sort of tide turn would be ill-advised and monumentally tacky. The Table, however, is a smart, incremental step to address the plight of food deserts 9 on The West End, while embracing the timbre of the neighborhood.

Germantown’s slow gentrification accelerated from zero to 60 this year with the opening of massive new lofts projects amongst the sea of early 20th-century shotgun houses. Yet Monnik successfully bridged the old and new neighborhood together with its gastropub. It’s casual and clean, yet still retains character. Yes, the storefront features reclaimed wood interiors and bright directional vectors, but the menu, stocked with beautifully-presented food and thoughtful execution, doesn’t pinch out brain-burnin’ buzzwords that only hardcore Chopped viewers understand. The price points, with most entrees between $8 and $15, reflects the neighborhood pre-“urban living communities” while also offering smart, healthier fare than Germantown’s traditional sausage-and-fried-food standards.

…Not as Social Yard Stick

A satirical artist collective in Providence engineered a Nathan Fielder-worthy goof last fall. After cultivating a groundswell of hype for a stylish new restaurant called Lura, they opened the doors not to a small collection of tables with French-pleated napkins, but a manifesto stenciled on the door. “Lura: Swedish for fool, trick, deceive, lure, cheat, befool. ‘Lura’ is a statement project targeting the rising phenomenon of the elitist subculture of foodies.” 10

The collective told The Atlantic, anonymously obviously, “[p]eople are so into this foodie culture because it does give you a sense of belonging [and] social hierarchy. [Foodieism] is food no longer just being something to sustain a life. It’s looking for the most exclusive, unique dishes and then telling everybody that you had this thing online.”

Being excited about food is awesome! Being informed about how food is prepared, and where the ingredients are sourced, is important. But foodieism, though rooted in these interests, has become a different animal in Louisville — and everywhere else for that matter. It’s not about food. It’s about hype and building a facade of importance. It’s about being seen and sharing your presence at a raved-about new spot. It’s about getting swept up in trends. It’s about curating your identity like you curate your Instagram. It’s about $25 chicken and waffles. It’s supporting the idea that anything local that ticks certain boxes and/or approved by certain social strata must be good, even if it misses the mark.

Let’s try to 86 foodieism — or at least stop pairing it with any degree of self-importance.•

Footnotes:

  1. I recently grabbed a handful of popcorn at a chic downtown bar, and rather than a simple light and airy snack, I bit into a cluster of kernels congealed together in a glaze of chunked bacon. I also accidentally tried bacon pudding on an appetizer that was supposed to be just cheese and crackers. What in the actual fuck, Louisville? Pump the brakes on the bacon.
  2. Another important discussion that’s both too broad and too nuanced to tackle here is the idea of ‘ethnic’ food — a term with a certain fluidity that places value and monetary judgements, often arbitrary, based on the origin of the cuisine. Check out Krishnendu Ray’s book The Ethnic Restauranteur.
  3. OK, sure, there are some outliers who eat food purely as sustenance and some who are total creatures of habit, content with a turkey sandwich everyday (not doggin’ a classic turkey sandwich, mind you), but for the sake of argument, this assertion is not unreasonable.
  4. The service, it should be noted, at both the bar and restaurant is always remarkable at Proof. Great staff. But the food is zzzz.
  5. This point was reinforced with splendor by two Dutch pranksters who altered the presentation of McDonald’s food and offered the fast food fare to culinary convention foodies.
  6. The word “jokes” appears in quotations because a cardinal rule of comedy suggests good punchlines punch up or laterally, never down. Trying to concoct some yuk-yuks about a working class neighborhood, unless you yourself live there, is snooty and, honestly, boring to boot. And boring comedy is the worst.
  7. 4 out of 5 star average Yelp review!
  8. The Food Literacy Project is an initiative that aims to distill these values in a diverse group of communities sans the pretension, and that is fantastic and laudable.
  9. Though the project suffered through some blunders, like the methane biodigester controversy, the Food Port was a worthy project to address the West End’s food desert issue without bursting through the wall like the Kool Aid Man to gentrify the shit out of the place. Too bad it didn’t come to fruition.
  10. In the same lane as Lura is Fuds, a pitch-perfect fake menu distributed at The Great GoogaMooga in Brooklyn. Thinking about “Tickled shrimp with basil bark and tartar pyramids couched on a sand sheet” causes me to cackle on command. It’s the stuff of legend.

About the Author

Curb Your Foodieism: How pretentiousness undercuts Louisville’s food scene

Michael C. Powell keeps his spear sharp in many creative endeavors, freelancing as a writer, designer, and photographer whose work has appeared in VICE, The Guardian, PASTE Magazine, The Daily Swarm, IMPOSE, Consequence of Sound, and many others. Michael, who sometimes authors under the nom de plume Kenny Bloggins, loves Twitter and actively abuses the platform at @kbloggins. He is the creator of Welp!, LEO Weekly’s food features gone gonzo.

  1. I recently grabbed a handful of popcorn at a chic downtown bar, and rather than a simple light and airy snack, I bit into a cluster of kernels congealed together in a glaze of chunked bacon. I also accidentally tried bacon pudding on an appetizer that was supposed to be just cheese and crackers. What in the actual fuck, Louisville? Pump the brakes on the bacon.
  2. Another important discussion that’s both too broad and too nuanced to tackle here is the idea of ‘ethnic’ food — a term with a certain fluidity that places value and monetary judgements, often arbitrary, based on the origin of the cuisine. Check out Krishnendu Ray’s book The Ethnic Restauranteur.
  3. OK, sure, there are some outliers who eat food purely as sustenance and some who are total creatures of habit, content with a turkey sandwich everyday (not doggin’ a classic turkey sandwich, mind you), but for the sake of argument, this assertion is not unreasonable.
  4. The service, it should be noted, at both the bar and restaurant is always remarkable at Proof. Great staff. But the food is zzzz.
  5. This point was reinforced with splendor by two Dutch pranksters who altered the presentation of McDonald’s food and offered the fast food fare to culinary convention foodies.
  6. The word “jokes” appears in quotations because a cardinal rule of comedy suggests good punchlines punch up or laterally, never down. Trying to concoct some yuk-yuks about a working class neighborhood, unless you yourself live there, is snooty and, honestly, boring to boot. And boring comedy is the worst.
  7. 4 out of 5 star average Yelp review!
  8. The Food Literacy Project is an initiative that aims to distill these values in a diverse group of communities sans the pretension, and that is fantastic and laudable.
  9. Though the project suffered through some blunders, like the methane biodigester controversy, the Food Port was a worthy project to address the West End’s food desert issue without bursting through the wall like the Kool Aid Man to gentrify the shit out of the place. Too bad it didn’t come to fruition.
  10. In the same lane as Lura is Fuds, a pitch-perfect fake menu distributed at The Great GoogaMooga in Brooklyn. Thinking about “Tickled shrimp with basil bark and tartar pyramids couched on a sand sheet” causes me to cackle on command. It’s the stuff of legend.
  11. I recently grabbed a handful of popcorn at a chic downtown bar, and rather than a simple light and airy snack, I bit into a cluster of kernels congealed together in a glaze of chunked bacon. I also accidentally tried bacon pudding on an appetizer that was supposed to be just cheese and crackers. What in the actual fuck, Louisville? Pump the brakes on the bacon.
  12. Another important discussion that’s both too broad and too nuanced to tackle here is the idea of ‘ethnic’ food — a term with a certain fluidity that places value and monetary judgements, often arbitrary, based on the origin of the cuisine. Check out Krishnendu Ray’s book The Ethnic Restauranteur.
  13. OK, sure, there are some outliers who eat food purely as sustenance and some who are total creatures of habit, content with a turkey sandwich everyday (not doggin’ a classic turkey sandwich, mind you), but for the sake of argument, this assertion is not unreasonable.
  14. The service, it should be noted, at both the bar and restaurant is always remarkable at Proof. Great staff. But the food is zzzz.
  15. This point was reinforced with splendor by two Dutch pranksters who altered the presentation of McDonald’s food and offered the fast food fare to culinary convention foodies.
  16. The word “jokes” appears in quotations because a cardinal rule of comedy suggests good punchlines punch up or laterally, never down. Trying to concoct some yuk-yuks about a working class neighborhood, unless you yourself live there, is snooty and, honestly, boring to boot. And boring comedy is the worst.
  17. 4 out of 5 star average Yelp review!
  18. The Food Literacy Project is an initiative that aims to distill these values in a diverse group of communities sans the pretension, and that is fantastic and laudable.
  19. Though the project suffered through some blunders, like the methane biodigester controversy, the Food Port was a worthy project to address the West End’s food desert issue without bursting through the wall like the Kool Aid Man to gentrify the shit out of the place. Too bad it didn’t come to fruition.
  20. In the same lane as Lura is Fuds, a pitch-perfect fake menu distributed at The Great GoogaMooga in Brooklyn. Thinking about “Tickled shrimp with basil bark and tartar pyramids couched on a sand sheet” causes me to cackle on command. It’s the stuff of legend.

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