Food Trends vs. Food Culture

by dcc

food.jpgChow, a magazine of Food, Drink and Fun, published a list of major food trends that were taking place in 1999 and those that are taking place today. Granted I was not such an independent foodie at the time: I never really dug Asian fusion, but I did have my fair share of sushi and drank plenty of Starbucks. While I still enjoy my sushi, I find myself engulfed in many of the hottest trends that are all the rage as we end the year – from the butchering bandwagon to the pie.

But like all trends, they come and go. Food culture on the other hand takes generations to create and dedicated communities to foster. Looking to other, older societies like France, China, Italy or Argentina we see events that are focused on food grown, prepared and consumed in a particular way. That doesn’t really happen in the United States all that often.  Due to our “melting pot” status, celebrations are often influenced more by the “home” culture of a particular family than that of this country. This goes for food too. Even quintessential “American Food” tends to be hotdogs or hamburger (which are really German) or Pizza (also from Italy) or even some Nachos (bastardized Mexican food) – in short we don’t really have something to call our own.

However, I would also posit that another trend, not covered by Chow, is the painfully slow adoption of an American food culture. 

Americans are watching more food TV, reading more food books and eating more well-crafted food. We are learning to cook more complicated food and beginning to enjoy what our country has to offer. Yet, like with all trends, these changes could come and go.

The food culture trend is worrisome to me as a foodiophile. If it is just another trend like tuna tartare or food trucks, then the concepts that are put forth by eating in a more focused and meaningful way will be lost.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie outlined during his 2009 Biennial sermon that food shouldn’t be secondary to other actions. As in all aspects of life, we need to be intentional with our choices and know what we are consuming. Rabbi Yoffie called upon Reform Jews to eat less meat and participate in localized food production and other very hip food trends.

But that won’t do it alone. People need to start eating with awareness and joy. Just like any social activism, if you do it just because it is “right” odds are you will stop doing it after that “I-am-doing-good” feeling wears off. There is a reason why there have been so many homes have been built in New Orleans after Katrina: not only is it the right thing to do it is also fun and rewarding.  

Eating should be a joyous experience filled with new sensations and expressions. But most importantly food should be enjoyed with other people. Culture needs to be fostered by communities. Sitting at a computer, doing work late at night while eating dinner does not a culture make. You could be eating the latest molecular gastronomic invention of Wylie Dufresne, the classically French fish of Eric Ripert, the newest Southern masterpiece from Art Smith or even something you put together — but if you eat this by yourself you are missing something essential to fostering food culture.

The Just Table, Green Table initiative is a first step in an environment fight, a healthful fight and a social justice fight.  But for this fight to make it past the next wave of trendy initiatives it must also become a fight for culture.


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4 Responses to “Food Trends vs. Food Culture”

  1. avatar

    I’m puzzled by the assertion that we Americans don’t have a food culture to call our own, especially after linking to and rereading dcc’s post on his own blog about Thanksgiving.
    If turkey and corn bread stuffing and cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes are not quintessentially American, what is? Maybe I shouldn’t be invoking it on a nice Jewish blog, but if your typical New England clambake menu isn’t quintessentially American, what is?
    One of my memorable Thanksgivings was spent in Munich, when a group of Americans staying in a suburban inn took over the kitchen and cooked Thanksgiving dinner for our group but also for the innkeeper and his family. Although the turkeys were local, most of the ingredients had been brought from the US, because they were unavailable locally — and new to the chef of Der Alter Wirt.
    But an even older Thanksgiving memory, showing how entrenched in our culture some customs are – goes back to my first Thanksgiving with my new wife’s family. As a finicky and unadventurous eater at that time (I have improved), I wouldn’t touch pumpkin pie (which had been a staple of my Aunt Ethel’s Thanksgiving menu during my childhood) — but nonetheless, I felt deprived when my new sister-in-law served chocolate ice cream cake and there was no pumpkin pie for me to reject.
    On the other hand, I do sort of miss the once-trendy Thanksgiving casserole with the green beans and mushroom soup topped with french fried onion strings.
    Going back to dcc’s thoughts, I don’t think anyone can quarrel with the idea that eating with other people is more joyous than eating alone at one’s desk — nor with Rabbi Yoffie’s suggestion that we be mindful of the world around us in our consumption. But, trends to the side, those German hot dogs and hamburgers, that Italian pasta and pizza, that Chinese moo shu and pot stickers — they all have become quintessentially American, beyond the finitude of trends.

  2. avatar

    Indeed, German brauts, Italian pasta and Asian moo shu and pot stickers are as American as apple pie. One of my favorite signs, seen in a New York deli, reads: “Ham and Cheese on a Bagel.” If that’s not American, I don’t know what is!

  3. dcc

    Thanksgiving is an American eating holiday. Very true. But one day of eating (and its leftovers) isn’t enought to support a food culture. Just look at France or Japan for a good example. There is a difference between American food and American food culture.

  4. avatar

    Looks absolutely delish! thanks!

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