Author Dana Goodyear is clearly at the top of the food chain.
In her new book Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters and the Making of a New American Food Culture, Goodyear spends time dining with foodies who, to put it mildly, have a wide variety of tastes: fried stinkbug, venison-heart tartare, chicken testicles, live octopus and grasshopper tacos.
Her reporting took her deep into the various subcultures of the foodie movement; she attended secret gatherings of raw-milk fanatics, met with black-market butter dealers and visited underground restaurants located in loft apartments. What all these groups have in common, she says, is the idea that we should be eating more broadly than regulations currently allow. From her home in Los Angeles, Goodyear spoke with The Globe about what she experienced.
What inspired you to write Anything That Moves?
I observed that going out to dinner, fancy dinners in particular, had gone from being an indulgence and something that was a purely sensual experience to something more akin to an intellectual experience. In certain instances meals often solicited a psychological response that had to do with how challenging the ingredients were. The food that began to be presented a few years ago in the finest restaurants in America had this dark side to it. I realized that the notion of edibility was undergoing a radical revision.
What's the driving force behind the foodie movement?
There are several dimensions to it. One is that the United States is a place of experimentalism and self-invention. I think that has entered the culinary sphere. For a long time, fine food in this country was an imitation of fine European food. America is coming into its own as a food culture. I believe that the bigger driver, however, is a real sense of anxiety in America right now. Our institutions are faltering and we're beginning to eat like survivors of an apocalypse. It's not a coincidence that this movement really began to take shape after 2008.
If a large part of extreme foodie-ism is due to a certain collective anxiety, how do you reconcile the fact that in most cases people are forking over hundreds of dollars to try these foods?
There's a fascinating irony that I think is very revealing. Elite eaters, the richest people in the world, are beginning to eat like the poorest people. Foods of poverty are being exulted within the foodie movement. I think that demonstrates a discomfort with prosperity. There's a sense that it's unsustainable.
So do you have to be rich in order to be considered a foodie? What does it mean to be a foodie today?
There's always been the notion of a gourmand or an epicure. What that conjured was always an older white guy with a gold pocket watch. Foodie is a word that annoys people sometimes, but to me it's exactly the right word for what is going on. It's a democratic word, it feels youthful and can apply to anyone. What's different about this is that it's a mass movement. People from all walks of life are making adventurism in food part of their social identity.
How does the average person who wants to try food that's outside the norm go about doing so? There can't be too many butchers selling pig's uterus….
The best places to go are small ethnic restaurants where you've never heard of the chef, where you do not speak the language and where the menu isn't even translated. Look at what the people around you are eating and feel comfortable pointing and grunting if that's what you have to do. That experience is so much more preferable to what it was 10 years ago because people have begun to recognize that that's an interesting way to eat.
Do you identify as a foodie?
I consider myself an observer. My stance was anthropological.
In that case, did you feel any pressure as an outsider to eat foods you might not have been totally comfortable with?
Definitely. Like the undercover drug cop who needs to inhale, there were many moments where I felt compelled to taste a few things so that I'd be allowed to stay in the room. These were important opportunities to prove that I wasn't judging them. When I did refuse things I had people turn to me and say things like: "Are you a government agent?"
Where there any safety issues? Anything you refused to eat for reasons other than squeamishness?
I wrote most of the book while pregnant and my doctor advised me against trying raw milk. That said, my pregnancy gave me a unique lens with which to approach this subject. I knew I wanted to write about why people are flirting with danger in their food and what that feels like as an eater, although I didn't have such a heightened sense of risk myself.
How much further can we push the envelope in terms of what's edible? In your introduction you mention that it's only a matter of time before American chefs start serving dirt.
There's nothing inherently disgusting about anything, at least that's my view. A big part of it is suspending your cultural biases. Anyone who eats is a hypocrite at some point. I think jellyfish presents a great culinary opportunity and I find it delicious. Eating jellyfish is an elegant solution to a problem that was created by appetite. We have fished out the major predators in the ocean. Jellyfish are thriving and eating them is a great way to deal with it.
While it's hard to predict the future, what aspects of this movement will eventually make it into the mainstream?
A couple of years ago, organ meat was totally outrageous and I think in a few more years it will be normal. Maybe not mainstream, not McDonald's yet, but moving in that direction. For example, as recently as 2009 when a restaurant put pig's ear on the menu it was a real provocation. It was a conversation starter, a reason to go to the restaurant and a reason to profile the chefs. Already those same chefs are starting to wonder if it's not a little cliché to serve it.
What, if anything, has changed in how you approach your personal diet?
I'm more aware of how food is sourced, especially meat. I don't think you can research food and not turn into a bit of a skeptic. I'm an omnivore but I never order a steak in a restaurant any more, mostly because I think that it really is wasteful. I think I've now done the most adventurous eating that I will do, but I still enjoy trying new things.
What's the last thing you ate today?
A raw oatmeal, raisin and almond bar that I got at Whole Foods and is usually what I eat when I'm incredibly busy and don't have time for a proper meal!
This interview has been condensed and edited.