It means absolutely nothing, but the people who use it infer that some secret group has endorsed their product or food establishment with this special designation. I first began hearing this word in the ’80s when sales people came to see me at Wellspring Grocery. And it was the kiss of the death for them when they started the sales call with, “I have some gourmet products, I’d like you to take a look at.” I’d always challenge them, “What does that mean?” to which they would reply, “You know, gourmet” to which I’d say, “No I don’t know!” And invariably, out of their bag would come some spoofilated flavored vinegar or flavored mustard, to which I’d usually say, I’m really not interested. And they’d say, “But it’s gourmet!”
Here’s the story I’ve made up about how the word came to be used so prevalently. The word “gourmand” is quite a good word and it means someone who takes great pleasure in the food they eat, and are specific about what they like. And out of this word came the traveling food magazine called Gourmet, which was a pretty good mag. But out of this magazine about food and travel, sprung this bullshit word of gourmet, calling forth gourmet sandwiches or gourmet mustard or gourmet whatever, and it’s been downhill ever since. The magazine no longer exists, and now we are bombarded by signs around airports about gourmet items that, as far as I can tell, should be avoided at all costs.
There are a lot of people who say that they don’t cook gourmet or don’t eat gourmet, they are NOT gourmet. I’m not sure what that means either, but it seems like that this word has made them feel less about themselves or has intimidated and separated them from the pleasures of really good food.
Perhaps many people are trying to avoid coming across as nerdy, being super knowledgeable about their food, but what could be better than knowing all about mustard or vinegar? Yet there are many people who know nothing about their product so they throw on this blanket definition, which means nothing, but implies the former grandiose details. Now if someone calling on me at Wellspring had begun by saying that they had some Orleans Method traditional vinegar they wanted me to look at, I’d be all smiles, because that actually means something special.
Yesterday, the word hit a new nerve in me. There was an orange juice in a small 8 fl. oz. container from Florida and the label said “Gourmet Pasteurized” – pasteurization is a scientific process involving temperature to extend shelf life, so when I got home I googled the company, found the phone number and called the product information person. I asked him “what the hell does that mean – gourmet pasteurized” to which they replied that they pasteurized at low temperatures, so I asked why they don’t say that “low-temperature pasteurized”. He didn’t answer that question, but I’m sure that it is because some Americans would be afraid of that and think that there might be some bacteria that they didn’t get. In fact, low temperature pasteurization could preserve the flavor and integrity of the juice.
There is a parallel issue with milk. They used to pasteurize milk in a method called vat-pasteurization that used a lower temperature but it took a longer time, so the scientists invented a cheaper and faster way to do it, which makes the milk not taste as good but the public doesn’t seem to care. I had fun in the early days of Wellspring with the Milk that we carried in glass bottles and got from a family farm in VA because that’s where I saw a vat-pasteurizer and learned the story myself.
Maybe one of the reasons the word gourmet is so prevalent in America and has been I guess “successful” – people keep using it – is because Americans don’t have time to hear the real story and this sound bite seems to work – but its bullshit I am here to tell you, and you should be suspicious of anything that is labeled this way because it is usually just a way to charge a little bit more for something that is often not better at all or to get you to consider buying something that is horrific – like the stuff in the airport.