At around 10:30 a.m. on a recent weekday, Todd Kennedy, a 31-year-old product developer at a major New York media company, walked down the hall to the office of his co-worker, Antony Petersen, and without so much as a “Morning” or “What’s up, dude,” abruptly inquired, “So what’d you make for dinner last night?”
“Oh, I got some beautiful rock shrimp,” replied Mr. Petersen, who is 39 and Australian. He explained the meal down to the smallest detail, but the abridged version, both gentlemen recalled, went something like this: Sautéed some onions and garlic in olive oil; added Chinese cooking wine and a dash of chili oil; threw in the rock shrimp and cooked them until they were perfectly crunchy and firm; and put it all on top of some fluffy white rice.
Mr. Kennedy proceeded to describe his own entrée from the previous evening, ordered from the pan-Asian Williamsburg hot spot Red Bowl on Bedford Avenue, just as elaborately. In a nutshell, as it were: salt-and-chili prawns—not soggy at all considering it’s fried delivery food, he noted—steamed string beans with oyster sauce and, same as Mr. Petersen’s concoction, white rice. (“We didn’t talk much about the white rice given that white rice is kind of boring,” Mr. Kennedy told The Observer.)
Before they knew it, more than half an hour had gone by.
“I can’t explain what took so long about the conversation,” said Mr. Kennedy, who lives in Greenpoint. “I think I just ended up going on and on about how awesome salt-and-chili prawns are.”
New Yorkers’ water-cooler chitchat has changed. They used to talk about sex and politics and TV shows. Now they can’t stop yapping about what they’re shoving down their pie holes.
We see it in the meticulous record-keeping of eating habits on personal blogs. The ubiquitous Facebook updates and tweets about subscribers’ most recent meals. (Surely you also have those five or so friends whose feeds are 90 percent food-consumption-related?) The requisite iPhone pic before a certain kind of diner—let’s call him a foodiot—ravages his plate.
A Giant Taco
Things were different 10 or 15 years ago, when most of us were, to put it bluntly, eating like shit. But now that we shop at the farmers’ market, now that we know the name of the cow whose flanks we’re about to sink our teeth into and the type of grass on which it was raised, now that our neighbors keep organic chickens on their back patios and stock their refrigerators with handmade pickles and artisanal cheese, what we eat has become a dominant, and perhaps obnoxious, part of our everyday cultural discourse.
One Brooklyn Heights IT professional documented each course at Le Bernardin with his iPhone—escolar for the appetizer, monk fish and striped bass with langoustine as the main courses, and panna cotta for dessert.
Indeed, “I think about a third of all my conversations are about food,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Posted on his Facebook “wall” are the photos from Mr. Kennedy’s Flickr album: a close-up of a giant taco covered in grated cheese, a salad smothered in creamy dill dressing, a slab of seasoned shark meat, next to a side of corn on the cob on a large white plate. (It’s worth noting that food, no matter how delicious it tastes, can look kind of, well, disgusting when shot by an amateur. As Paul Grimes, a food editor–stylist at Gourmet, told The Observer, “There’s a lot that goes into making food look good,” and that usually doesn’t involve a point-and-shoot camera.)
Then there are Mr. Kennedy’s status updates. Recently, he was in a “taco truck coma.” He was also “so full of awesome thai food.” And he spent seven hours in the kitchen cooking “homemade tagliatelle, meatballs and tomato ragu, a triple batch of pizza dough, pancetta sauteed with brussel sprouts, a grilled zucchini & scallion, grape tomato and feta salad.” (Not to mention his one update about the raw squid!)
“I’m not always talking about food,” said Mr. Kennedy. “But I’m always more than happy to talk about it.”
So is Stacey, a 25-year-old financial analyst for a major Wall Street firm who said she constantly chats with friends and co-workers about where and what she has been eating.
“Here’s my thing,” said Stacey, who asked that The Observer use only her first name—perhaps so her employer wouldn’t realize how much time she spends on food blogs. “If I’m out with some people and we’re talking, and someone has a friend from out of town or something, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, you have to go here to get this particular food because it’s so good and so delicious!”
She continued: “Like last week, I went to this really good place called Westville, which has a really good soul-food factor but also a pretty good overall variety of food and caters to all tastes, and they have a really good vegetarian tasting menu. I didn’t want something super-heavy, so I got a turkey burger and we shared brussels sprouts and mac and cheese. It was delicious!”
Stacey’s repast certainly sounds tasty, but all this persistent food-talk, for whatever reason, can be enough to make some people’s stomachs turn.
“All my really skinny friends will post Facebook updates about, like, some giant steaks they just ate,” said a 28-year-old fashion publicist. “It’s totally annoying!”
“If you’re eating something fantastic, I want to hear about it. But there’s a clear delineation between people who will say something interesting about food,” Mr. Petersen said, “and people who are complete wankers about it.”
‘No One Cares’
A 36-year-old graphic designer who lives in Manhattan painted a vivid picture of your average foodiot by describing a former colleague.
“He was obsessed with everything deep-fried,” said the source, who asked to remain nameless so as not to disparage a co-worker. “He would go to all these barbecue places and take pictures of the food, pictures of what he ate, and he’d email them to everyone or print them out. And he’d constantly send us recipes for all this nasty stuff. It was just soooo gross and I’d think, ‘Why are you talking about this so much?’ It was unbelievable.”
Understandably, none of the people interviewed for this piece cared to be characterized as foodiots per se. But as Melissa Clark, who writes the column A Good Appetite for The New York Times Dining In, Dining Out section (recent sample: “I had only a few ripe tomatoes. But I planned to savor these last few gushing beauties sliced and piled on buttered toast, letting the nectar drip down my chin”), told The Observer, “Behind every foodie, there is probably a foodiot. We all have our own inner foodiots. You just have to stamp them down.”
For Ms. Clark, that moment came a few months ago when she let all of her Twitter followers know about the homemade baby food—pear tofu purée seasoned with nutmeg—she’d just made for her 8-month-old. “That definitely should have been filed under ‘Too much information! No one cares!’” she said.
“I feel like these technologies have totally unleashed the foodiot,” Ms. Clark added. “People have this outlet now that they’ve never had before. And something small, when talking to two people, takes on a whole other magnitude when you’re tweeting it to your 1,000 friends. You may not think you’re bragging, but because of the number of people you’re sending it to, it takes on a greater weight.”
For Terry Jinn, a 38-year-old IT professional who lives in Brooklyn Heights, the braggadocio element of his food chatter is more overt.
Like the time back in March when Mr. Jinn got to be a friend’s last-minute dining companion at the exclusive West 51st Street seafood palace Le Bernardin. He documented each course with his iPhone—escolar for the appetizer, monk fish and striped bass with langoustine as the main courses, and panna cotta for dessert—and posted the pictures to a Facebook album titled “food prOn” (that’s the Internetty way of saying “food porn”).
“For whatever reason, it seems O.K.” to brag on Facebook, Mr. Jinn said. “With social networking in general, it’s kind of this self-absorbed thing anyway. As opposed to, if you’re at someone’s party being a braggart about what you ate, that’s uncomfortable.”
Mr. Kennedy offered a more earnest explanation for his food preoccupations.
“I want people to ask me about what I’m cooking, or to want to come over and eat my food,” he said. “It’s sort of about the positive reaffirmation of being recognized for doing something that’s kind of nice,” even if “to independent observers, I may seem just as obnoxious as I find other people to be obnoxious. Like when it becomes, ‘I just made the best food ever because I’m a genius for using the most secret, hard-to-find ingredients, and they were perfect!’”
A 29-year-old downtown Manhattanite who works in the music industry also defended the habit. “A lot of my friends are also home cooks, so we talk about what we’re making and trade ideas and techniques and all that stuff,” he said.
He suggested that while it’s “very bourgeois” to constantly talk about food, it’s also very bourgeois to criticize people’s enjoyment of talking about food.
“I mean, I get it. I understand the douchy aspects, I really do, and your little super-artisanal South Brooklynite can make anyone want to kill themselves,” he said. “But if you have things that captivate your interest, then whatever. Go ahead and talk about 800 varieties of cheese, or be some asshole talking about how he kills pigs in his own backyard. Go for it! Have a blast! It’s nothing to hate on.”