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Don't use the f-word around here

Confessions of a non-foodie food writer

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It happened to Frank Bruni a few weeks ago. It happened to me years ago.

For Mr. Bruni, who can write a mean article, until recently as the New York Times' restaurant critic and now as a more general food writer or op-ed kind of guy, a line was crossed at a restaurant called the Romera New York.

It's pretty easy to extrapolate from Bruni's recent NYT piece that Romera, named for its chef, Miguel Romera, made him nothing short of crazy. Straitjackets, he suggests, rather than blazers, would be a fine idea there.

To explain, Romera opened in September on West 16th in Chelsea, now the transplanted heart of New York's art scene after SoHo became too tiresome, too mainstream. (Remember the infamous old brick Hotel Chelsea? Now closed, it was once home to many a writer and rocker in its glory days, including Dylan Thomas and a wasted Sid Vicious, accused of killing his girlfriend there.)

Romera's location was well chosen. The district's avant-garde vibe couldn't have been lost on Mr. Romera who, before his incarnation as chef there, worked as a neurologist in Barcelona, a two-hour drive from Roses on the coast of Spain.

Roses, if the name vaguely rings a bell in your gastronomic belfry, is home to the famous, pretentious, undeniably influential elBulli restaurant and its "molecular gastronomy" created by chef Ferran Adrià and described in last week's Epicurious? column. It, too, is now closed, as of this past August.

Romera — and I'm sure the parallel construction to the pseudo-scientific "molecular gastronomy" was also not lost — is home to neurogastronomy, described on the restaurant's web site as embodying "a holistic approach to food by means of a thoughtful study of the organoleptic properties of each ingredient." "Organoleptic," according to my handy dictionary, is from the French organoleptique, meaning to act on or involve the sense organs.

Mr. Bruni's article jumps right in to his impressions of his organoleptic feast. "Dinner and derangement" is the title, and it picks up speed from there. Early in the 11-course meal, the waiter invited Mr. Bruni and his dining companion to "make a memory" of their water. Huh?

Apparently, among other curiosities, including flashcards bearing long-winded explanations on ecology, etymologies and philosophies you're supposed to squeeze in between actually eating and conversing with your dinner companions, each of the 11 dishes was paired with a lukewarm, flavoured water — one flavoured with leek and radish, another with jasmine and seaweed.

The line was drawn.

Romera, Bruni concludes at one point, demands notice "mostly because it's such a florid demonstration of just how much culinary vanity we've encouraged and pretension we've unleashed." When does our food mania become a food psychosis?, he asks in his tweet about his Romera column. When, indeed, and when did it start?

My line in the sand was drawn in the awful, not awesome, '80s. We still suffer the fallout of that embarrassingly decadent decade of the garish "big hair" and even bigger shoulder pads on sequined suit jackets, no less, which saw too much too-muchness and overt greed saturate just about every aspect of Western society, from culture to the Reaganism and Thatcherism of politics.

Even our attitudes to food weren't spared.

The word "foodie" reared its head in the early '80s, about the time the then-22-year-old Ferran Adrià joined elBulli. He started there in 1984, and so began the phenomenon where diners would line up, figuratively — for one of the rare reservations offered during its short season — to pay hundreds of euros for meals that might run to 30-some, 40-some tasting dishes, and a chance to ooh and aah over the excesses of "molecular gastronomy".

To step back for a minute, when I landed this gig writing this column a few years back, people would congratulate me. No doubt they were well intended, but invariably the f-word popped up. They didn't know I was a foodie (I'm not); or they were glad I could now turn into a foodie (I didn't). They couldn't figure out why I cringed at the mention of "foodie".

Recently, I heard a 1985 CBC Radio interview with Ann Barr, the former deputy editor of Harpers & Queen and the woman who quantified the UK cultural phenomenon known as Sloane Rangers.

Barr, who often gets mentioned in the same breath as Tina Brown for her cultural power, coined "foodie" in 1981 along with Paul Levy. The two of them went on to write The Official Foodie Handbook in 1984.

It ["foodie"] was all to do with ambition, competition and rivalry, Barr said in her 1985 interview. Like people once bragged about their latest stereo equipment — that would now be their iSomethings — or sexual conquests as signifiers of social status and power, it meant you were able to manifest your ambitions — and your resources — in food.

"Foodie" has gone on to have another, looser connotation, mainly someone who is just "into" food. But maybe because I actually lived through the grossness of the '80s, I can't shake that horrible pretentious connotation still clinging to "foodie" and all its permutations. It's my own personal, crazy line in the sand.

Simply look at elBulli, the original "foodie" altar, put on gastronomes' and many a three-star map by chef Adrià.

In a good sense, elBulli blurred the line between food and art. Critics lauded its cultural legacy. One year, the world's biggest and some would say most prestigious "intellectual" art show, Documenta, flew visitors to elBulli as part of that year's exhibition.

But there was more — the kind of self-conscious, self-involved conceits that make most authentic artists run like hell in the opposite direction.

Take elBulli's bizarre constructions that married a surrealist food science and architecture to create the foams, famous and infamous — one like smoke; the "olives" that exploded in your mouth; the rabbit served with a glass of its own blood. Please, take them — quickly — and don't you dare cut a new notch in your foodie belt, if you wear one.

Food is fascinating, an entry point into so much about being human, from health to culture and politics. But there are lines drawn in the liquid nitrogen-frozen, powdered vegetable sand where not only me or Mr. Bruni, but just about anyone who can tell when the emperor really has no clothes, knows that we've gone more than a little crazy.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who is an anathema to foodism.

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