The Headline Story

Those damned foodies are at it again

By Robert F. Moss

In my first column for the CHS Menu newsletter from the Post & Courier, I discuss Vivian Howard’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, in which she uses the news of famed Danish restaurant Noma’s pending closure as a hook to explore the challenges of the fine dining business model. In the process of researching the column, I noticed something curious about the headline to Howard’s piece.

It’s always wise to remember when reading a newspaper or magazine article that the author doesn’t necessarily write the headline. For some of the publications I write for (including the Post & Courier), I often will submit a story with a suggested headline, but that’s always just a suggestion. At some publications the editors will workshop a headline with authors, but at many others headline writing is the editor’s domain, and author doesn’t have much (if any) input.

This is especially true for digitally-savvy publications that have fine-tuned the science of headline optimization. They publish a story under multiple different headlines, measure which attracts the most clicks, and make that the permanent one for the piece.

The New York Times is very good at this, and I happened to notice the second time I read Vivian Howard’s essay that the headline seemed different than I remembered. I had a little fun digging into Google and the snapshots of the article on Internet Archive and seeing how the headline evolved.

The so-called “slug” for an online article (the words at the end of the URL that uniquely identify it) can be revealing, for it often reveals the editor’s original thinking. The slug typically gets generated automatically from the working headling when the story is plugged into the site’s content management system. For Howard’s piece, the slug was (and still is) “noma-restaurant-future.”

This aligns with the headline captured by Google’s search bot when it first crawled the page: “Noma's Failures Are the Restaurant Industry's, Too.” Noma’s announced closing, after all, was the news hook that opens the piece, though the rest focuses mostly on Howard’s own restaurant and on the American (not Danish) restaurant industry.

“Noma”, it seems, just wasn’t driving the clicks. By the time Internet Archive snapshotted the editorial at 5:24 a.m., it was running under a more dramatic headline, “The Impossible Art of Keeping a Restaurant Afloat.” Before the day was out, it had changed again, to “Foodie Fever Dreams Can’t Keep Restaurants Afloat,” which remains the headline today.

For me, the progression is telling. The final headline does pick up on a phrase from Howard’s piece: “while guests sipped and savored their painstakingly created foodie fever dreams, the people behind the scenes got slammed.” Even in the context of that sentence, the “foodie fever dreams” bit seems a little odd. The typical diners at The Chef & the Farmer were hardly a bunch of bearded, fedora-wearing Brooklynites. (As a quick spin through the photos on Yelp attests, they definitely skewed toward the white, 50-and-up demographic, but most look like regular folks out for a nice evening meal.)

Ripped out of context and inserted into a headline that dramatic phrase brings a convenient villain into the story: foodies.

Ah, yes. Those foodies. So easy to dunk on. The term first emerged in the early 1980s. Gael Greene used it in a New York magazine article on nouvelle cuisine in 1980, and Ann Barr and Paul Levy helped popularize it with The Official Foodie Handbook (1985). The word was originally self-applied by those who loved eating, going to restaurants, and talking about food but didn’t limit themselves to just expensive, refined dining experiences. They needed a new word to describe themselves, since older terms like "epicure" and "gourmet" had taken on too many connotations of snobbery and elitism.

Before long, though, "foodie" took on pretty much the same negative connotations: obsessive fandom, judgmentalism, and insufferable elitism. By the middle of the 2010s, food writers were insisting that “we need to stop using the word foodie” and that “the-word-foodie-is-terrible-and-needs-to-go-away.” (That last one, by the way, is from the slug for a Washington Post article, not its actual headline.)

Now, apparently, those damned foodies and their fever dreams of butterbean hummus and wood roasted Brussels sprouts have wrecked the entire restaurant industry.

Mind you, this is not at all what Howard’s piece is saying. Most of it is devoted to delving into the “unsustainable business model” of fine dining—the constant upward pressure of expenses, the risk of raising prices, the need to experiment with new formats. But that’s what happens, I suppose, when you let the bots loose on the headlines.

Ultimately, though, we only have ourselves to blame. The grievance-laced, blame-pointing headline is the one that collectively we clicked on the most, and that’s the diet we’re going to keep getting fed.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.