Food Education

The Birth of the Foodie Movement


In June 1950, when English cooking writer Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food was published in London, British adults were still living under the war rationing system and were allowed only one fresh egg per week. Leaving stale bread for the birds earned a fine of £10. Britons ate Woolton Pie, made of baked root vegetables, and chalk was a common additive to bread. David’s book reminded readers that food could do something more than keep them alive. She followed A Book of Mediterranean Food with books on French and Italian food, and by the time her fourth book, Summer Cooking, hit the shelves in 1955, Britons, “sick of the grey drabness of England and its shattered cities,” were ready to try her vibrant recipes. They had endured 5,291 days of food rationing.

If America has a recognizable food culture, Elizabeth David is its inspiration.

At the moment David was illuminating a sunnier, fresher cuisine for the British middle-class, two Americans who had spent time in Europe were embarking on similar culinary journeys that would change the eating habits of their home country. One was Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, a fluid writer who split time between California and France, and whose subject happened to be food and dining. She had read David and praised her for exploring “gastronomical planets other than her own.” In the mid-1950s, M.F.K. Fisher published her collection of food-centered writing, The Art of Eating, and like David’s initial work, it was a lyrical presentation of the joys of French and Mediterranean cuisine.

The other was James Beard. After stints as an actor, costume designer, and caterer in New York, Beard found himself setting up officers’ canteens in World War II as part of the United Seamans Service. Subsequent to his posting in Marseille and a visit to liberated Paris, he settled on a culinary career. Beard’s interest in the culture of food had led him to Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, and he recalled how her mastery of the “art of language” combined with her “pure, primitive enjoyment” of food was revelatory. As it had been for Fisher, France was Beard’s culinary training ground, and like Fisher, he found Elizabeth David an inspiration. Upon returning to New York, Beard published Paris Cuisine in 1952. By 1954, the New York Times anointed Beard the “Dean of American Cookery,” and the next year he began teaching New Yorkers to cook in the kitchen of his townhouse on 12th Street in Greenwich Village. It was there that the American foodie movement was born.

Despite the efforts of Fisher and Beard to change Americans’ perceptions of food and dining, by 1960 “food was sustenance, full stop.” French chef Jacques Pépin, who was aghast to learn that the only mushrooms in American supermarkets came in a can, said that those Americans who saw food as “something important, integral to a nation’s culture,” were in the “oddball minority.” Still, the movement towards refinement in taste was underway. In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy hired René Verdon to be the chef at the White House, where he grew vegetables on the roof of the executive mansion and prepared classic, saucy French fare. That same year, La Caravelle and Lutèce opened in New York City, joining La Côte Basque and Le Pavillon as temples to grand French dining.

Just a few months after Verdon went to the White House kitchen, Americans under the sway of the growing fascination with French style had a manual. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in October, 1961, was lauded by the New York Times: “This is not a book for those with a superficial interest in food…[it is] for those who take a fundamental delight in the pleasures of cuisine.” In other words, it was a cookbook for foodies.

The 1970s saw the food sophistication offensive advance on a series of fronts. In Berkeley, California, chef Alice Waters, who thought of Elizabeth David as the one “person in the Anglophone world who was speaking her language,” made the kitchen of her restaurant, Chez Panisse, the epicenter of a new obsession with fresh, local ingredients. In 1976, it was also at Chez Panisse that chef Jeremiah Tower introduced his Northern Californian menu, in English, which included the local birthplaces of the ingredients. California cuisine, with its craftsmanship and idealism, was launched.

Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook was published in 1973; her focus on Northern Italian recipes chipped away further still at the reliance on French cuisine that had existed since the early 1950s. Northern Italian would soon become the darling cuisine of food sophisticates. Prosciutto, Parmesan-Reggiano, bruschetta, risotto, and silky cream-and-butter based sauces appeared in restaurants from Maine to California. The same year, a very different culinary mission opened in Ithaca, New York, as the Moosewood Restaurant. Moosewood’s vegetarian menu appealed to counter-culture cooks, who, in the early Seventies, were cooking out of The Commune Cookbook and The Whole Earth Cookbook. In big cities and college towns alike, new types of restaurants were open for business.

California cuisine, Italian chic, and artful vegetarian cookery were just the beginning: cookbooks for authentic Mexican fare and Middle Eastern food appeared; sushi entered the lexicon, as did Szechuan. Theatrical Japanese steak houses opened and Americans were mesmerized by the fireworks of tapas, pad Thai, and bi bim bap. In 1976, a new restaurant atop the World Trade Center included an international café that served global hors d’ouevres such as sashimi. The monopoly of French inspiration was over. The sense of liberation from la veritable cuisine Française was picked up by M.F.K. Fisher, who had returned home to California to write her memoir, and by her friend, Julia Child. Even though her television program was called The French Chef, Child was compelled to say that “I remain very American indeed.” In fact, Child was on her way to becoming a cultural icon: in 1978, Saturday Night Live’s Dan Ackroyd spoofed her as The French Chef, fashioning a tourniquet from a chicken bone.

The term “foodie” was first used in print in 1980 by New Yorker magazine’s Gael Greene. That same year, the first Whole Foods Market opened in Austin, Texas. In the Eighties, restaurants became ateliers, bistrots, and trattorias, like New York’s Mezzaluna, which opened in 1984 serving wood-fired pizzas with speck, broccoli rabe, and burrata. When James Beard died in January, 1985, his townhouse became the home of the James Beard Foundation. From 1985 to 1995 foodie culture matured into a permanent part of American life. Cooking was not just a household chore; it could be a fulfilling cultural pastime.

The trajectory of the American foodie in the latter half of the 1990s, however, began to split in two. The movement that began with the affluent bon vivants Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher was being democratized. In 1993, Condé Nast bought Bon Appétit, the less literary cousin of Gourmet magazine, and the Food Network launched that same year. If the movement had previously been shot through with a dose of Gallic hauteur, by the mid-nineties, everyone could throw some garlic in hot-but-not-smoking olive oil and start cooking. In 1996, viewers of the Cooking Channel were kicking it up a notch with The Essence of Emeril.

Perhaps in response to the broadening appeal, in 1997, the New York Times replaced the unpretentious Molly O’Neill with polarizing food thinker, Amanda Hesser, who treated her readers to pieces on gastro-chemist Ferran Adrià and precious postmodern recipes for den miso, piadina, rizogalo, and fufu.

Fifty years had passed since Elizabeth David enlightened dreary post-war Britain, and a half-century has elapsed since M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard had brought the French love of food back to America. Like mid-century London, New York City was about to enter a period of disbelief and wreckage. On a spectacular clear Tuesday morning in September 2001, life for millions of Americans would change inalterably. That Sunday, however, they had no idea of this. Readers of the New York Times that day were treated to salt-crusted shrimp and a saline Caesar salad, the recipes that appeared in Hesser’s food diary piece about the joys of dining alone. By Tuesday evening, if they were hungry at all, the last thing Americans wanted to do was to eat alone.

In the years after 9/11, Americans would retreat from Hesser’s postmodernism to comfort foods and embrace accessible food personalities like Rachel Ray, but the post-WWII foodie revolution had changed Americans’ perceptions of the ageless ritual of eating: choosing quality ingredients mattered, cooking could rise to an art, and food could be much more than sustenance.

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Nathaniel Johnson has been in food writing for over eight years. He has been editor of many food-related publications in the US as well as Overseas.