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Common Foodsense: What’s Trendy



It is again the season for Trends for the New Year, with every self-styled pundit in every discipline making portentous pronouncements. I thought I’d add my own little kazoo to the chorus, but first, I’d like to complain. For some reason my inbox is getting predictions about next year’s developments in over-the-road trucking, shrink-sleeve packaging and industrial design. It’s too bad my kids are grown and gone; I need a reliable pre-teen curator for my digital life.

In the food world, we seem to be heralding the arrival of the Year of the Gut. Honestly; look it up. This felicitous phrase reminds us that, as bad as the world outside may seem, your internal biome is worse. You can begin to fix it with a regimen of pre and probiotics, and probably postbiotics as well, which sounds kind of morbid. In restaurant terms: sauerkraut is good for you. ‘Nuff said. Now you can sell it as health food, with a bigger markup.

Oh, and kimchi, kombucha, yogurt and kefir, pickles, and tempeh, whatever that is. Some prognosticators list these under a trend called “fermentation,” which is kind of a broad category. If people continue to drink alcohol, you’ve called the trend correctly. Same if they eat bread. I think “gut” is a little more focused, albeit a trifle unlovely. The point is that we are diving into our own microbial universes, and trying to rearrange the furniture. And of course, menus will follow.

I’ll take a moment to gloat, if you don’t mind. When I was teaching in the late lamented culinary program at Hennepin Tech’s south campus, my second-semester colleague took me to task once for wasting the students’ time by teaching them how to make sauerkraut. His point was that no restaurants do that kind of stuff, and it’s better to make sure they know how much roux you need to make a gallon of Espagnole. I haven’t made an Espagnole sauce in a restaurant since 1986, and everybody’s fermenting everything, so nyaah, nyaah, nyaah.

The sauerkraut was kind of fun, by the way—they made that and a sourdough starter in the first week of class. As we got to the next-to-last week, we’d grind pork, clean casings, and make bratwurst. Then we’d cook our sourdough buns and eat the brats with kraut. A nice simple meal that only took three months to make. It gave the hardcore idealists a more kindly perspective on value-added foods.

But when you look at this stuff—flour-based sauces less common, house-fermented foods on the increase, continued interest in locally grown, hand-harvested gluten-free octopi—if you just scrutinize these trends themselves, you’re missing the point, and you’re going to have a lot of unused octopus in your inventory. 

So don’t take individual “trends” as any kind of gospel. First of all, many of the pundits’ predictions are the same as last year’s. Sustainable Seafood! Local Produce! Zero Waste! And to make any headway with them, you can either choose to grab them and shove them into your menu, the way some restaurants did with the Adkins diet, or you can look behind them to see where they came from in the first place.

The “sustainability” stuff seems easy to understand. We want to know that our favorite restaurants are demonstrating their commitment to our community by using recyclable or compostable to-go packaging. We want to know that they pay their employees enough to sustain (ahem) a decent life. We want to know that they make an effort not to throw away food in a hungry world. We want to know that they care enough about our health to insist on food that can be traced to its growers.

Or maybe we just think that we do. Perhaps it’s a response to a more existential form of anxiety: if we don’t do this stuff, we’re doomed. Please reassure me as you feed me.

Anxiety comes in minutely specialized forms now, as well. Gluten-free and dairy-free and vegan and peanutseafoodtreenutsoynutcablenews allergies affect everyone’s kitchen, dining room and bar. If “sustainability” is a requirement that you demonstrate care for our planet, the hyperspecialization of individual orders is how you demonstrate your care for me. And believe me, I am going to make it painful. Hiding your aggravation, incidentally, is another good thing to do.

So there are your two trends for 2019: macrocoddling and microcoddling. Don’t just feed me; tell me everything is going to be all right. I think in 2020 we’ll start to see bud vases that play lullabies. 

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