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Apr 28, 2010 05:11 PM

Where do you draw the line between loving good food and being an elitist or a food snob?


An increasingly pervasive stereotype of food lovers is that they're all elitists and snobs that turn their noses at anything not the most expensive. "Foodie" is a perjorative term (in some senses), and "organic" and "local" have some unsavory connotations. I feel uncomfortable talking with family or non-food lover friends about food and cooking, because most likely, they will think of me as elitist. I think the problem is that bad food has become so ubiquitous that having a different (though not unreasonable) standard isolates you from the rest of society.

For instance, my friends and family criticize me because I...

- keep a selection of herbs and spices in the pantry. (thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, coriander, cassia leaves, fennel, fenugreek, black pepper....and I've only used saffron once in my life)
- use olive oil. (Not the top-notch quality extra-virgin ones though, just a decent one for cooking and vinaigrettes.)
- prefer Dijon mustard over the yellow-turmeric-hot dog version that most people hate.
- prefer wine or balsamic vinegar (not the expensive aged ones) in vinaigrettes over distilled white vinegar or bottled dressing. (My dad once scoffed, "Vinegar is vinegar!")
- value thick-bottomed pots and pans (I have a few) and a sharp knife (which I don't have).
- like good French bread from a bakery and criticize Subway and Quiznos for using soft, yeasty-smelling bread.
- use decent cheese (usually <$10/lb...I've never bought luxuries like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Sottocenere, etc.) over processed, sliced cheese like Kraft

I think these are all basic, reasonable standards for producing decent food, but my friends and family think that you can produce good food with cheap, bad ingredients. And ironically, a lot of the bad ingredients you find at major grocery chains are actually MORE expensive than the good ones. In my opinion, one is an elitist or a snob only when one's standard's are based more on price than quality, though this isn't a perfect definition. For example, Strauss dairy products are pricey, but of top-notch quality. I don't have Strauss milk with my cereal, but if I need to make a very good yogurt, I will look for Strauss.

  1. I'd modify that slightly.
    One is an elitist or a snob when one's definition of good food is based more on what's supposed to be good (fresh, organic, local, expensive, "authentic," "traditional," etc.) than on what actually tastes good.

    4 Replies
    1. re: racer x

      I like this. Not only well said, but well thought.

      I would add however, that I have no problem with people being very opinionated about their preferences and antipathies. But some people--ironically enough--get mighty condescending and condemnatory when one criticizes a particular dish, ingredient, type of food or method of preparation. Personally, I find the abdication of one's critical faculties in an attempt to be more tolerant than thou borderline farcical.

      1. re: Perilagu Khan

        "Personally, I find the abdication of one's critical faculties in an attempt to be more tolerant than thou borderline farcical."

        Well said.

      2. re: racer x

        this was in the comments section recently when a noted west coast critic revisited his old home town for some fried chicken:

        "I find it amazing that, despite the Bay Area's progressiveness, it allows this "food critic" to write articles on greasy deep-fried chicken places without once mentioning whether the chickens were raised organically or free-range, 2 conditions I think should be "de rigeur" these days, given the exposes of factory-farming. But apparently all that matters to Mr. Bauer is how good things taste. To me, animals taste surprisingly better when I know they've been killed humanely and not injected with hormones, not to mentioned deep-fried in artery-clogging oils. But what do I know? I 'm not the paid food critic here."

        1. re: bbqboy

          And here I thought so-called "progressiveism" was all about standing firm with the podunk little guys. lol

      3. Where do I draw the line? I don't criticize other people's taste in food. I eat what is put in front of me when others are cooking and compliment it. I keep in mind that while I know the differences in vinegars, coffee, cheese, etc, I don't know a good truffle from a bad one. Good food is quality ingredients, technique and a sense of what goes together but it is served with a graciousness and wanting your guest to have a pleasant experience. Yes I will give a guest ketchup with his steak if it will make him happy. While I like red leaf lettuce or mixed greens, there are applications more suited to the maligned iceberg lettuce. I use many oils-olive,peanut,corn oil,sesame. All vinegars have characteristics that make them useful- even white vinegar- for various applications. I even like yellow mustard sometimes. It is actually mostly mustard seed with very little tumeric in it. Check the label for the list of ingredients. I am a total snob about chocolate-but I would not let anyone know this except my hubby and I have evangelized him. Patric and Askinosie are my favorites.
        You are right in that often good quality food is cheaper than the processed stuff. One of the best meals I've had this year was eggs from the Amish. It was bitterly cold and we stopped to get eggs. The lady said, I don't have any in the house and went out and gathered the eggs from under the hens-they were still warm. We went home and fried them with some local bacon and made toast from home made bread. I think you would be in danger of being a food snob when you quit learning-because you know it all!

        1. On the one hand, you're certainly entitled to your culinary opinion, and you make some good observations. Your preferences are your preferences, and everybody has them.

          On the other hand, you (forgive me for making presumptions but i have to go on what you wrote), it appears that you pass a LOT of judgement on things you don't like, which may tip you into the food snob category. Why criticize (your word) the Subways and Quiznos because you don't like their bread? You don't like it, Fine, but that doesn't make it bad or invalid, because a lot of people do like that fluffy yeasty bread, another notch on the food snob scale. I'm going to say that a true gourmet (or fill in your preferred term) doesn't proselytize or refuse to eat certain things that they feel is beneath them, especially when somebody is serving it to you. You certainly have the right to buy whatever you want and eat whatever you want, or not.
          I can't understand why anybody would criticize you for having a lot of herbs, spices, vinegars, oils, etc, I have way more than I need of all those things, but nobody criticizes me (to my knowledge), they just consider me a pretty good cook, and even if they try to passive-aggressive their way into having me make thanksgiving dinner, I know it's because they think I'm a rockin' good cook, and I don't care if they have the best palates in the world.
          One last thing- I have a friend at work who likes to think of himself as a foodie (or whatever), but his food snobbery as evolved via his descriptions of what he likes and what "he'll never go to again" is based on price, and he has unrealistic expectations. He loves Japanese food but is a real skinflint (my words) and if he pays $9 for an all you can eat Sushi Garden lunch buffet he comes away disappointed- no, actually pissed off, because the sushi wasn't the kind you pay $3-6 per serving for. I like the guy, but he declared himself a goober when he told me that story. He's routinely critiquing the lunches at work, also- by the way, we work at a hospital and eat at the cafeteria. He just makes himself look silly a lot of the time.

          But I don't say anything to him about it, because he's entitled to his opinion. And I'm entitled to mine. I learned a long time ago that knocking other peoples' food preferences out loud doesn't make you a shining star.

          3 Replies
          1. re: EWSflash

            I do pass a lot of judgment on things I don't like, but I never scoff at people for eating things I find disgusting. To my friends who visit Quiznos or Subway occasionally, I've said that the breads have a disgusting yeasty smell, but I never said or implied that they're ignorant people for eating there. I have suggested them to try the breads at the local French bakery, which is cheaper and better, but I certainly don't tell them to give up their existing food preferences. I don't see it as proselytizing, but it may come across that way, I guess. I'm sure we've all had that desire to share something good when we've come across it. My friends have always been eating the sliced, yeasty breads, and I just wanted them to know about something better out there, get them to try something new. They can choose to like or hate it.

            About the herbs and spices, it's sort of funny actually. One of my friends is a complete cooking-phobe, and his cooking is limited to reheating frozen foods and boiling vegetables. So one day when he opened the pantry cabinet and saw my jars of herbs and spices (things he obviously doesn't use), he commented half-jokingly, "Wow, all these elitist herbs and spices." I think it's more of a misunderstanding than anything. He must've thought, "If I'm to learn to cook, I'll seriously need ALL OF THIS?!!" I guess I should've just told him then, that you don't need all that to cook, and that you can have as little or as many spices as you want. Every cook has his own combo of spices in the pantry.

            1. re: michaelnrdx

              Personally, I agree with you about the strange-smelling breads at Quizons and Subway, but I would never say that to people who frequent both places. Because just saying so implies a certain snobbism and judgment--"how in the hell can you eat that?"--that doesn't go over too well.

              You may want your friends to know there is something better out there, but I think this is one of those situations where, unless your friends actually ask for your advice, it's better to not say anything.

              Problematic too is the term "good" food. "Good" is a totally subjective word. What's good for you may be crap to others, and vice versa.

              In the end, I think it's better to just eat and let eat. And even though I am no fan of Anthony Bourdain, I agree 100% with his comment (see Davwud's post below). There is no need to analyze everything we eat to death and to think that fresh and organic are always better than the alternative, or to distill what's "good" or not into those cute, annyoing soundbites (a la Michael Pollan).

              1. re: michaelnrdx

                No man is an island. Humans are social animals and we define ourselves not just by our likes and dislikes, but in our relationship to others. There's a human need to create identity based on affection and similarity, as well as opposition to those who don't agree with our perspective. We gravitate towards those with similar interests and seek to distance ourselves from those whose views stand opposed to ours. How boring it would be if everyone agreed on everything!

                As to the crack about "elitist herbs," that sounds like a sort of reverse snobbishness. I think there's a valid point in that some people seem to cultivate a level of sophistication that approaches snobbishness; this isn't just limited to food. I think so long as you can appreciate something for it's tastefulness (be it expensive/exclusive or cheap/readily available) snobbishness won't really become an issue.

                I'm reminded of a book about last meals, where the author asked chefs from all around the world what would be their last meal. Almost all of them chose something simple from their childhood: a roast bird, a simple soup, fresh fish. It's telling that most of these experienced chefs, given the choice, would choose something unsophisticated over some exotic, expensive meal.

            2. Well let's see I:

              -only buy good cheese, not supermarket brands and NOT kraft but the pricey stuff.

              -Check the back of my Balsamic to make sure it's real balsamic not the stuff with caramel added.

              -order spices online from a company in Brooklyn

              -Go to the farmer's market.

              -buy at least three type of vinegar

              -make sauces from scratch, like teriyaki and bbq sauce

              -Am contemplating buying d'artagnan meats for fun

              -ALWAYS buy duck when I have the money

              -Don't use MOST canned veggies

              -Have black truffle oil on hand.

              However despite my love of all things D'artagnan, I will not a regular basis buy organic free range meats. I just can't afford. Also I don't want to be locavore because I enjoy to many things and flavors from other countries. My Grandmother who grew up during the depression doesn't get it. She says I'm pauper with gourmet tastes. She's right. Luckily my family is passionate about food and mostly gets me. So do my friends, they ask me to cook for them. Sadly, a friend I like had a short breif affair with cooking foods and is now buying frozen foods from the dollar store ugh. I feel sorry for him. I try to open my co-workers eyes to things like goat cheese and gazpacho but well no. And they don't think I can cook. I work with children. I try to get them to try new foods and encourage them to talk abbout veggies and strange (non-kiddY) foods they like.

              1. Boy, you've opened a can of worms here.

                I guess for me you stop being a foodie (or whatever term we can all agree on) and start becoming a food snob when you stop enjoying the simple things in life. Or, when EVERYTHING has to be a high quality ingredient. It's also about casting judgement on those who don't agree with your ideals.

                I've always remembered a quote from Anthony Bourdain. "It's good because it's good. Not because of how much it costs or what it's called." I think a true foodie believes this.


                40 Replies
                1. re: Davwud

                  Some of the best cooks and diners on CH (jfood and MMRuth first spring to my mind) proudly admit to chowing down on a White Castle burger or an Egg McMuffin or whatever.

                  And describing bread as having a "disgusting" smell sure sounds judgmental and snobbish to me.

                  I have a Chow-buddy who has 30-something vinegars but will eat those cheese biscuits at Red Lobster with great joy.

                  1. re: c oliver

                    I'm inclined to agree that describing Subway's bread smell as "disgusting" sounds snobbish. But don't most people find tripe and offal "disgusting?" I'm not one, but I can understand how the average person's reaction to eating organs, intestines, brains, etc would be disgust. That's not necessarily a judgemental reaction, though.

                    1. re: monkeyrotica

                      There's a difference between thinking it and saying it to the friends who like it. I read once (and fail regularly) that one should offer unsolicited advice only if someone's in physical danger, i.e., "look out, the roof is collapsing!"

                      1. re: c oliver

                        all of this could be avoided with the simple phrase "seems to me"

                        as in "seems to me that subway bread smells disgusting"


                        1. re: thew

                          Seems to me that doesn't quite work when you say something like, "Seems to me that Subway sandwiches are worse than Hitler" as I am wont to do.

                        2. re: c oliver

                          I think that people should be able to discuss differing opinions without taking offense. You should be able to say, "I like Subway!" and I should be able to say "Subway sucks!" without any harsh feelings of judgment. After all, we're discussing Subway here, not the person who likes Subway. It would be a little different if I had said, "You like Subway? I can't believe you! You should be ashamed of yourself!"

                          My reaction to the smell of Subway's bread is somewhat judgmental, somewhat visceral. There is a Subway that I pass every day, and I always smell a strong sweet, yeasty odor outside the door. It's sort of like fermentation or something. That's a huge turn-off.

                          1. re: michaelnrdx

                            good grief, I had no idea so many people gagged upon passing a Subway. I drive right by one on the way to work every day- never noticed.

                            If you think something smells or tastes disgusting, or putrid, or sickening, what possible joy could you get out of telling somebody who happens to like something that you find it disgusting? My mother appeared to think it made her appear more knowledgeable or superior somehow, but in fact she was very rude a lot of the time. It's a hot button with me for that reason. I associate that behavior with people who have no class, so beware, I'm probably not the lone ranger.

                            You could get your point across by saying "not a big fan" or I don't care for it" when asked, which doesn't mean it should be the first thing out of your mouth when somebody says they like an offending substance. You're trying to one-up everybody, aren't you?

                            Everbody here has strong opinions about food. I spent too many years up close and personal in operating rooms and at autopsies, and except for chicken gizzards and menudo (white menudo being my favorite), I can't picture myself ever deliberately eating offal- human organs don't smell any different than animal organs, and the thought of eating heart at a Korean barbecue is way, way down there on my to-do list. But if you want to, go right ahead I do hope I'm upwind from you, though. But I wouldn't tell you it was disgusting,because it's rude.

                            1. re: EWSflash

                              Agreed, EWSflash. Declaring something someone is eating to be disgusting in one's opinion is not exactly launching a debate, or expressing a difference of opinion, even if that's what one wishes to believe. It's rude and belittling. What you suggest as alternatives are ways of expressing a difference of opinion that does not levy judgement on the person with whom one speaks.
                              I don't know if I'm making sense. Perhaps I should have just left it at +1.

                            2. re: michaelnrdx

                              So I take it you don't like the smell or taste of fresh made beer. Most smells evoke wonderful memories for me.

                              I never would tell anyone that their choice or preparation of food was wrong, stupid or disgusting. They, and I, eat what we like and none of us is starving. To this day, I crave Spam and my brother won't touch it. Other people were brought up differently than I was and may crave certain foods.

                              If I am in a situation where the choices are limited, I will find something that is edible, or will take what is offered, eat some and ask to take the rest home. (You can get a salad, no bread, from Subway). When I prepare food for others, I will use the ingredients I like to use. If questioned as to how I made it, I will tell the ingredients used and leave it at that. I don't brag about what I purchase. In fact, I may even see that as an opportunity to mentally note a Christmas or birthday gift I can give to that person or family, if they seemed to enjoy a certain, pricy ingredient.

                              1. re: Cathy

                                And by my family's code, you would be described as "gracious."

                              2. re: michaelnrdx

                                I agree. It seems like life gets to be awfully bland if you can't ever have conversations like this with people. I guess the trick is you need to know that the people you are having the conversation aren't the kind to be easily offended - and SO many people are too easily offended these days.

                                1. re: flourgirl

                                  SO many people are too easily offended these days - and in the past days too - and will be in the future.

                                  societies and cultured may change, human nature - not so much

                            3. re: monkeyrotica

                              I can sympathize with the posters talking about Subway bread being "disgusting." I find the scent of Subway's bread completely nauseating. Even walking past a Subway when that scent is billowing out the door can induce a slight gag reflex. But I swear I'm not trying to be a snob! :-D It's just super gross to me for some reason.

                              1. re: antennastoheaven

                                I like Subway and I fully support your right to tell me to my face that their bread is funky. And I promise not to call you an elitist--forfend!--or even to think it. ;)

                                1. re: antennastoheaven

                                  But I bet you don't walk in there and shout that out to the people eating it, do you?

                                  1. re: c oliver

                                    Thanks Perilagu. :) And you are correct, c oliver, that I do not walk in there and make a "stink" about it (hehe) to those who are eating it. But if my friends want to go, they are going without me. :-)

                                    1. re: c oliver

                                      Taste is such an individual thing. It can be affected by so many things including, genetics, medication, illness, other things you have had to eat, what you've been breathing etc,etc. Add to that preferences in variation in texture and color and emotional connections and that is why there is such wide variation of what people like. I never think twice about it if someone doesn't have my same taste. Some people just look at food as something to satiate hunger and nothing more. You are wasting time even trying to educate them because they just don't care. I had to laugh at myself last year because my SIL was cooking something with what I thought was all the "wrong" technique-It was delicious! Another thing will happen if you come off as a food snob is no one will invite you for dinner because they will be intimidated.

                                  2. re: monkeyrotica

                                    I'm going to second "disgusting," as in the guttural reaction one has to maggots and rotting flesh. I cannot walk into a Subway at all. To describe the smell as "yeasty" sounds like a euphemism to me. I'm not going to elaborate, it is probably inappropriate.

                                    I actually don't mind their subs all that much, but I have to send someone else in to pick up lunch while I wait outside.

                                    1. re: lunafish

                                      @lunafish, it's not a euphemism. baker's yeast has a very distinct aroma, and it's sometimes quite noticeable in the type of doughy, spongy bread served at places like Subway.

                                      1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                        I bake all the time, using yeast, and my kitchen does not smell like Subway.

                                        1. re: pikawicca

                                          i don't imagine it would, and that wasn't my point.

                                            1. re: pikawicca

                                              that those of us who describe the bread from Subway as having a "yeasty" odor actually think it smells like yeast.

                                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                To me, a "yeasty" odor is a good thing. A Subway odor is not.

                                                1. re: pikawicca

                                                  well, much like taste, sense of smell is subjective ;)

                                                  i like the aroma of properly baked yeasty bread too. what i don't like is the overpowering, fermented, almost sour odor of excess or under-baked yeast. it actually makes me sneeze.

                                                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                    Funny, but I cannot connect w/ the smell of Subway, since I've never been, but prefer the smell of beer yeast over bread. Wasn't bread invented when a guy spilled his Brewski into some flour lying around?

                                                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                      Does this mean that you don't like the aroma of sourdough bread? I know people who don't like the taste of sourdough, but don't know any who object to the smell.

                                                      1. re: pikawicca

                                                        Due to dietary restrictions, I can only take my carbs in liquid form.
                                                        Come on, I love homemade breads. Male humor.

                                                        1. re: pikawicca

                                                          actually, i'm not crazy about the smell because it's another one that makes me sneeze! i used to love sourdough as a kid, but i stopped eating it even long before i gave up all gluten because it's no fun to endure random sneezing fits throughout the entire eating experience. bizarre, i know. something about that particular sour yeast aroma gets me every time. really yeasty champagne does it to me too.

                                                          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                            That's really interesting. I hope someone's lurking who might know what's going on here. I'm not particularly interested in food preferences, but I'm intrigued by people who simply cannot eat something (allergies aside), that most people eat with abandon.

                                                            1. re: pikawicca

                                                              i'm guessing it's a mild allergy to Saccharomyces - the strain of yeast used in baking and brewing. maybe there's some immunological connection to the Celiac disease. i honestly haven't thought about it in a long time. yeast, gluten, this point i'm just thankful there are still foods i can actually eat!

                                                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                                Have you seen Kim Boyce's "Good to the Grain?" Many great recipes for folks who cannot eat gluten. the author was pastry chef at Spago, and worked with Nancy Silverton. Serious chops, and serious recipes.

                                                                1. re: pikawicca

                                                                  thanks for the rec - i just did a little Google sleuthing, and i can't seem to find a recipe index or details about how many of the recipes call for some proportion of gluten-containing flour. i have a pretty solid arsenal of GF resources, but i'll take a look the next time i'm at the bookstore.

                                                                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                                    The recipes in Good to the Grain as written are not appropriate for gluten avoiders, as almost all of them call for whole-wheat and/or AP flour in addition to the various specialty flours, presumably *because* of its gluten content. I recommend you take a look at it anyway, because I'm sure some of her flavor ideas will appeal to you, for inspiration if nothing more (as will the general restraint in sweeteners), as I know we have similar tastes in this area.

                                                                    I started a thread on it recently, which will give you some idea:

                                                                    1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                                      Caitlin, thanks so much for confirming my suspicion. and as you suggested, i'll still take a look for inspiration :)

                                            2. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                              I guess I meant that there are other things that smell "yeasty," the discussion of which does not belong on a food forum. That is what a Subway store smells like to me. Yechh.

                                              I bake bread, have been around plenty of homebrew operations... and I've endured brewers-yeast-on-top-of-everything cooking of hippie housemates, and, well, none of those things smell quite like a Subway store.

                                              1. re: lunafish

                                                It seems to me that the smell in a Subway store is more attributable to the sliced onions than to bread or yeast. Sort of the body odor aspect of onilon smell.

                                      2. re: Davwud

                                        i love that Bourdain quote...and i absolutely agree with Davwud's statement about passing judgment.

                                        i think there are a couple of additional important distinctions to make here...
                                        - it usually seems to me that while many of us quietly appreciate some of the finer elements of cuisine, snobs/elitists are boastful about it and want everyone to know where they stand.
                                        - there's a difference between being diplomatic/helpful and critical. when asked to recommend a brand of pasta sauce, a snob or elitist would typically respond with a horrified "Ugh, I would NEVER buy jarred pasta sauce. You don't make yours from scratch?!" on the other hand, a food nerd/Chowhound who also makes their own sauce would likely say something more along the lines of "I generally like to make it from scratch when I have the time, but in a pinch I'll use/my mom likes/i've seen other CHers recommend Brand X."

                                        do i wonder why others eat certain things? of course! but i'll only comment or ask them about it out of genuine curiosity or a desire to understand where their affinity for a certain food comes from. i'm also thoroughly aware that some people question certain food choices i make, and knowing that doesn't bother me at all. what DOES irk me is the tendency for some to JUDGE my choices.

                                        we all have the right to *think* whatever we want to, but it becomes an issue when we start to communicate these thoughts in a critical manner, or think "less" of someone based on their choices. i think it really boils down to respect, and snobs & elitists reserve it only for those who agree with them and share their tastes & opinions.

                                        1. re: goodhealthgourmet


                                          I bake all my bread, try to use as many whole ingredients as possible, shop at the farmers' market, buy meat from local farmers, etc. My students, 8th and 9th graders (some of the most judgmental creatures alive, bless 'em), immediately assumed I was a snob for those things. Until I told them that I value courtesy and good manners MORE than all my food preferences, and that if someone put a casserole in front of me with non-local meat, cream of mushroom soup, canned green beans, and tater tots in it, I'd eat it and thank them for going to the trouble! Since then, they've asked me a lot of non-confrontational questions about why I make the food choices I do, and I've had several opportunities to "proselytize" -- or, hopefully, just get them to think a bit more about what goes in their mouths.

                                          The key is, I think, to make sure that you have just as high an opinion of courtesy as you do of your own taste! :)