Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Low Brow Epicurean: A Primer

I’m no foodie.

To me, the term evokes elitism, snobbery, and condescension. Upon hearing the word "foodie," I think of a fastidious cook, pacing the kitchen, obsessing over minced shallots. He sits with his coworkers during lunch, describing the porcini dust he sprinkled on last night's grass-fed steak. He eschews my beet salad because the beets are not locally grown. He makes me feel like a culinary barbarian.

Though I celebrate food, I feel the perpetual outsider. Perusing the pages of a cooking magazine, I'm lost among the kalamata olives and goat cheese. My eyes glaze over the glossy apples and perfect looking plum torts. I like to eat and cook, but haven't fashioned it into an all consuming life's philosophy.

I've always thought, "Isn't there a place somewhere in the food universe for people like me?

Now I know there is.

I'm the anti-foodie, the low-brow epicurean. Allow me to explain.

Low brow epicureans enjoy gourmet delicacies, but are really at home with the culinary mundane. In fact, sometimes they prefer to mix the two. This seems to be the true essence of who we are—a mutant strain, a hybrid.

Whether it be Bordeaux or brown bag, it’s all good because the low brow epicurean is culinary contradiction personified. He is a hot pastrami sandwich with extra Russian dressing on an open-face bun of toasted spelt; Jack Daniels sipped from a crystal snifter; Kobe steak served with fresh greens over a bed of Uncle Ben’s.

Sensing this about myself, I rebelled against the foodie establishment for most of my adult life. I ate anything I wanted, any time. I scorned exercise. I reveled in foodcrack. I drank cheap beer. I smoked menthol. I saw my weight balloon upwards in excess of two hundred and twenty pounds. At 5'6, I was a walking heart attack.

While the foodie prefers filtered Britta water, the low brow epicurean
prefers to drink it sans cup. Notice the extended pinky finger.

Recently, though, I've made strides towards regaining balance. In doing so, I’ve ironically picked up some foodie tendencies along the way. I've lost 60 pounds, mostly through changing my diet and exercising. I buy local produce, organic meat. I rarely eat anything with more than two or three ingredients in it. I juice.

I’m also now more health conscious than I ever was before. I quit smoking. Gave up alcohol. I enjoy yoga. Ran a half-marathon. I've almost regained my former NCAA Division 1 figure. I can even see my abs again, poking through. They're forlorn, angry at me. Emerging from their long exile, they blink and rub their eyes. They say, "Dude! What the hell was that all about?"

I still consider myself well outside the mainstream when it comes to food consciousness and health. I’ll always identify with the low brow because I’ll never forget what it was like during those dark days. I’ll never forget what I was like—indiscriminate, yet persnickety in my tastes. I recall feasting on omelets made of half a dozen free range eggs, lunches of entire blocks of parmesan reggiano. I remember waking in the middle of the night and staggering into the kitchen where I would stick my finger three knuckles deep into the cashew butter, pulling up a tasty, gooey glob. I was always the voluptuary in my excess, the slob with the golden spoon. No meat without ketchup. No necktie without a stain.

Have you ever done this? You may be more low brow than you think.


When I walk into stores like Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca, I feel like an amateur. I'll never know how to use the smoked salts properly. And I'm sure I'd torch that grass-fed steak.

I look at the neatly ordered rows of olives and spices, the rainbow panache of fruits displayed like a color wheel. I have sudden pangs of self doubt. I begin to sweat. I think to myself, "I can't cook. I don't even know how to eat."

I watch a foodie inspect the Swiss chard. He speaks in soft, knowing tones with the produce boys. They look in my direction, pointing. Noticing the ketchup stain on my tie, they laugh, "Go back to ShopRite! I hear they're having a sale on Wonder Bread!"

I retreat to the frozen food aisle, where I get dark and cynical. In the checkout aisle I fantasize how I would exact my revenge on the entire establishment:

"Do you have a coupon for this?" asks the young man at checkout. His haircut is shaggy, trendy. His expressionless face, slack. "It's on sale this week."

I look around, behind me. He's the only one on duty. The time is now. I lean in, moving my face inches from his.

"What did you call me," looking at his name tag, "Frank?"

He perks, backs up a bit, "Um, nothing, I just..."

"Did you say what I think you just said?"

"Look man, alls I asked was..."

With military precision, I'm behind the register smothering his nose and mouth with a chloroform soaked rag. I guide his limp body downward as it slumps to the floor. I look around. No one has noticed. Stage one, clear.

Switching the aisle light to "closed", I grab the microphone to the store p.a. system. It gives a short, piercing, shrill of feedback. I hunker down, below the checkout lane, out of view. Squatting on my haunches, I straddle Frank's body. Stage two, clear.

Over the store p.a. system comes, "Attention Whole Food's shoppers. Today is our 'Slaughter Your Own Livestock' promotion. Hector in Meat will be assisting people with dogs, cats, horses and goats. It can get a bit messy back there, so please bring your own rubber boots and smocks. We'll provide the buckets and blades."

"Also, starting tomorrow our produce aisle will no longer exist. Instead we'll be offering the finest selection of cigarettes, 40 oz. malt liquor, and scratch off lottery tickets. Pick a winner."

"Please remember to try our deep fried, nacho-cheese flavored fried pork rinds. They're on sale this week from the Amish country, fresh from the farm and straight to you.

"Finally, if anyone needs Frank, he'll be at the ShopRite across town. He says they're having a great sale on Wonder Bread."

Switching off the p.a. I peek my head up. The store is a comedy of errors. Employees sprint across the floor. They smash into one another and fall down in a blind attempt to ascertain the situation. Foodies wander around the aisles confused, not knowing what to do. A stray shopping cart careens into a seasonal display of stacked winter gourds. They scatter everywhere.

Knowing the final moment has arrived, I check Frank. He sleeps like a baby. I leave the money for my items in the breast pocket of his green apron and slip out the front of the store to find my car. The door to my Hyundai station wagon is strategically left unlocked, keys waiting in the ignition. I peel out with screeching tires. Stage three, clear.

I pump my fist in the air. With David Lee Roth singing "Panama" over the car stereo, I laugh all the way home.


Even though I've changed my ways, a small part of that culinary barbarian remains. Something deep inside me still has no time for one who can't make at least a respectable attempt to drink a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I still have a somewhat jaded impression of those who can't deign themselves to ever eat fried foods—at least once in a while.

But I'm cool with foodies now. I think. My wife even says I've become one. She may be right. I have to try hard to keep it real, to always remember where I came from.

Tomorrow I'll have egg whites for breakfast. The Weight Watchers guidebook tells me that three egg whites equal only one point. By my old standards, that means I can eat a dozen, maybe two dozen, and still be well under my point quota for the day.

But what if I cook them with half a block of skim parmesan reggiano? I'd then have to add a few slices of high-fiber, one hundred percent whole-wheat bread. Freshly crushed black pepper corns. Salt. Ketchup. Tabasco. A good, strong cup of Café Bustelo with vanilla almond milk and honey would then just throw it all together nicely.

Oh, the possibilities.


Steve's Curry Rosemary Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

This is the perfect snack for dieters fighting those crispy-textured junk food cravings that can strike at any minute. Feeling the foodcrack binge come on, this recipe has saved me many times.

2 cups pumpkin seeds taken from a fresh, large pumpkin
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
2 tablespoons mild yellow curry powder
2 teaspoons coarse unrefined sea salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Wash and strain seeds in a colander until they are clean and free of all excess pumpkin strands.

Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl. Spread seeds evenly across a broad pan or cookie sheet.
Cook for 15 minutes, or until a deep, golden brown. Shake the pan every five minutes to make sure they roast evenly.

Serve hot, or let cool to save as a future snack.


Jerry & Sarah said...

go back to ShopRite LOL!!!
nacho-cheese porkrinds LOL!!!

Seth said...


You didn't mention Spam...

In many ways, I think the essence of the foodie, or the "new-foodie," philosophy is fundamentally low-brow. Most foodies I know emphasize simplicity and tact: Why would I eat a tomato from Argentina in the middle of the winter? Better wait for August, and the NJ tomatoes.

What you're talking about, though, is a strange hybridization of two cultures. Uncle Ben's is impermissible. Spelt's ok.

Foodies too, I think, are rebellious by nature, as they seek a refinement that conflicts with consumerism's mad rush for ease and speed and quantity.

Steve said...

I didn't mention Spam because it is one of the few food items that just too low and debased. Even if you served it with homemade hollandaise sauce here is no way raise it up and legitimize it.

My memories of it are also too visceral. Those wounds are still open. I don't want to go back to that place.

Mark said...

I've spent most of my life as a foodish utilitarian and now keep the company of a woman who is culinarily and gastronomically sophisticated. I usually feel as though I were wearing plaid bermuda shorts when we go out to eat together. I'm perfecting the art of airily asking "what's good here?" as if I actually have a clue but am willing to defer. In reality I'm just lost.

So although my condition is abject while yours is more "regular guy, plus a little," I still need to thank you for being the voice of a position much closer to mine than that of normative epicureanism.

Jenni Sowden said...

I'm not even close to being a foodie. I wish I could be. I think I lack self-control. Last night I ate more than a dozen oreo cookies. Definitely not the best choice for me or the baby in my womb. How did you make the transition? For me, I always expect things to change or happen immediately. I have to figure out how to accept that change take time. Anyway, I enjoyed reading this blog. Thanks for sharing. Have a great week!

Suzanne said...

I hear ya. We've been through something like this before. Not only do I have foodcrack crumbs in the back of my closet, I also enjoy Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl. I'm still on a bit of a confessional kick, so I thought I'd come clean.

And, Seth, I disagree. Foodies, like so many idealists before them, have grown out of the rebellion phase and established their own fascist regime.

Steve said...


Ha! Food Fascists. Yes. That's great.

Then again, maybe they've even moved beyond their fascism and have begun their age of imperialism, imposing their will on the globe of food culture.

But then with every empire comes the eventual decline, the fall. And there we'd be, throwing that molotov cocktail, that incendiary twinkie to spark the revolution.

xysea said...

Hi Steve - I loved this article! I enjoyed Suzanne's but this spoke to the low brow in me. I do enjoy nice food, and organics, but I don't do food snobbery.

That is, until recently.

See, we ran out of milk. Normally I buy organic milk. I don't mind paying extra for it, to avoid those nasty things that sometimes lurk in antibiotics and hormones. lol But I found myself pressed for time and just swung into a convenience store and bought a half gallon of the 'regular' milk.

No one would drink it.

My daughter thought it tasted 'strange'. And so did I. We finally knew what unadulterated milk tasted like and that was what our bodies wanted. Not this doctored crap that the dairy corporations were trying to pass off on us.

So, in that way I am a food snob now. Not any processed food item will do. Peanut butter? You betcha! But organic. Meat? Occasionally, but grass fed, free range. Seafood? Yes, but wild not frozen or farmed...

I may not know any offhand recipes that require capers, and I may not know my way around Dean & Deluca's, but I'm glad to have finally figured out what my body does and doesn't need. :)


Steve said...


I don't drink milk often, but when I do, I'm a freak about the kind I drink. I agree that milk sans hormones, antibiotics, everything really, is the way to go.

I have a friend who is equally as much of a freak, so much so that she belongs to a raw milk food co-op. Raw, unpasteurized milk is illegal, and her co-op is basically to a dairy black market, thwarting the far reachng arms of FDA and other regulators. I want to get in on it for the cheeses they get.

Sometimes you have to resort to guerilla tactics to get the products we need. I fully support this.

xysea said...

I would definitely dig the cheeses, Steve. I am a cheese-a-holic.

As for me, I limit milk because I'm generally intolerant. I have a 'cut off'. My daughter, though, adores it. I have to 'cut her off' from

But with the organic milk, I just tolerate it slightly better. You're making me wonder if I'm really all that intolerant of milk, or if it's the garbage in it I can't handle.

I don't think I've had raw milk, though I'd be interested in giving it a try...

Stephanie said...

Hey Steve, I just joined a secret club here in NY that delivers raw dairy products, pastured meats, and eggs from local farms to different locations around the tri-state area. I would tell you the name of it, but then I would have to kill you.

Hee. Send me an email if you're interested. :)

scott said...

first off, thanks for the recipe. that's definitely something i can sprinkle on my deep-fried ranch dressing balls.

i sympathize, but i am still 'noob' to these food matters. i got a wok when i got married, just found the farmer's market, have bashed out a decent recipe for curry, can mangle my way through a mahi-mahi dish, and now cook 95% of our families' meals.

i made my own authentic teriyaki sauce once.

but i also will try literally ANY combination that comes into my head. i live in fear of gordon ramsay jumping through my door and screaming "MARMALADE DOESNT GO ON POTATOS YOU GREAT BIG TWAT"

fuck it. i ain't running a restaurant.

for instance, peanut butter and sliced grapes? that's right, it's spectacular.

keep the dream alive.