Apr 26 2012
Last weekend, while getting dressed like an extra from the Broadway show Newsies for a 20’s-themed surprise party at the Manhattan club Prohibition, my thoughts drifted to the resurgence of trends and nostalgia for times past. Bell bottoms, leg warmers and moon boots have all had their questionable rises and returns to cultural popularity. Food generally follows a different path. While it isn’t removed from fads or trends, there seems to be more of an evolution that continually moves forward balanced with centuries old traditions.
Molecular gastronomy pushes the boundaries of techniques and challenges basic ideas of food that we take for granted, but we are also seeing a return to traditional methods from homemade pasta to home cured meats. The Oldways Preservation Trust is passionate about preserving food’s past in the face of advancement. It grew out of a concern over the diminishing health of our population and a belief that it was related to the growing chasm between our modern food supply and its heritage, which was slipping away.
Return of the Artisan—It used to be you could spot an authentic Italian restaurant if they made their own pasta. Now, pizzerias are making their own mozzarella in-house, and chefs are curing their own meats. Big brands are already trying to tap into this trend with the Dominos line of Artisan Pizzas and Tostitos Artisan Recipe chips. The higher prices of artisan products have stalled growth in recent years, but gourmet specialty foods continue to gain popularity. We should all be careful of consumer fatigue with the word and skepticism as it proliferates across product line extensions of big brands. However, I don’t see any slowdown of an increasingly educated populace about the food they eat and where it comes from. Technology is lifting back the veil and making this information more easily accessible than ever before. Artisan products have a story to tell, and ironically, it is new technology that is helping them tell it.
Classic Cultural Flavors—Curry from India, mole from Mexico and kimchi from Korea all have a few things in common. They are incredibly flavorful, ubiquitous in the cuisine of its native country, and they take a long time to make. Perhaps that is why they have been slower to capture the American palate, but as traditional flavors are adjusted and convenient bases are developed, they will fit in nicely to the growing market for bold, flavorful foods. We are seeing kimchi proliferate in expanded permutations across menus. As we delve deeper into regionality of global cuisines we will discover more nuanced variations of these flavors.
Lost Foods Rediscovered—I’m not referring to that M&M tucked down in the couch, but rather quinoa and other “ancient grains” that have seen a rebirth in recent years and have broken out of natural food stores into supermarkets and manufactured foods. The term “ancient grains” (spelt, farro, Kamut) has been popular to describe these foods, especially by food manufacturers. It denotes a certain authenticity to them and is easier to pronounce. Though some are not truly grains they can get lumped together for simplicity. Manufacturers of breads, crackers and cereal bars are riding this wave of “Ancient Grains” and like with terms such as “Artisan” and “Natural” the lack of definition and overuse by aggressive marketers will lead to fatigue in consumers’ minds.
With food there is a stronger desire to look to continue traditions. Fashion is all about the next seasonal line or new designer while food has a past that it is reluctant to let go. While there is always innovation and momentary fads, there is a sense of cultural and family history in which it will always be rooted. For food marketers it is important to balance trends with the past, but as my colleague Roasalie wrote yesterday about Trader Joe’s, it is always better to set the trends…especially if they have a few thousand years of staying power.