Many foods, spices, ingredients and even particular dishes, are kinda like shoes (very close to the top of my list of favorite things, after food). Once it becomes fashionable, a style tends to hang out for a while and then, no matter how big it became, eventually it grows less important or even fades out completely. However, with shoes and other things sartorial, trends don’t come on very gradually. Shoe and clothing styles get stuffed down our fashion conscious throats in one season. I am sure there is some invisible panel of fashion nazis who decide that starting next season, patent leather with studs is going to be in. If we don’t fall in line, at least somewhat, others look at us and label us as “old school” or, even worse, just old!
Thankfully, I don’t think it works this way with food. Culinary trends and specific foods sneak into our consciousness and down our gullet more slowly and quietly. One might see an ingredient or a particular dish show up once or twice over a period of time, especially if you travel and eat in urban environments. Then bit by bit they seem to mushroom out in the culinary landscape. I don’t know who decides or why, but when a food fashion finally takes hold, just like square toes or pointy, we regularly find ourselves eating in step with the trend.
I like to refer to these ingredients and dishes as “it” foods. Some people might call them “food fads.” I don’t want to belittle them this way. Even though, in the most non-belittling way, I have to admit they seem to permeate our consciousness in a very faddish manner. Then again, once the meal is over, nobody cares about what you did or didn’t eat – we are not seen as out of step with the fashion, just because we don’t want to eat a particular food or ingredient. We are far more tolerant when it comes to what we eat than regarding what we wear.
I think, more important, is the fact that we can learn something about what is going on in our society by focusing on these foods. Take the example of one “it” food that I love to moan about: the molten chocolate cake.
This dish got a complete hold on menus in the US sometime in the (I’m guessing here) early/mid 90’s. It is, IMHO, a perfect representation of the excesses of that decade: too much chocolate, too much sweet, too much gooey, gloppy goop, often made even gloppier and sweeter with someone’s idea of gourmet ice cream (which often turns out to be uninspired, or in other cases and very telling, the best part of the dish). For years and years we have been subjected to this over-rated, often badly executed and now totally unexciting dessert. There is nothing new to be done with it, no new flavors, shapes, garnishes, or brands that can salvage the thing, it is just done.
Sometimes, whole groups of foods are “it” foods. Within the fast few years, comfort foods have started to regain importance. Showing up on the menus of better restaurants, a lot of pub food, whether or not reinvented as haute (i.e. gastropub food) is typical comfort food. Not only is comfort food chef and eater friendly, it brings to mind our fondest childhood memories. Our mom’s fixed comfort food – even if they made it badly and even if we didn’t call it by that name, we loved to eat it. Tuna noodle casserole, meat loaf, chicken with rice, beef stew: kids of all generations become utterly nostalgic when thinking of the one that became the signature dish of their household. Formerly limited to the diner, these foods are now being offered as menu staples as well as daily specials in restaurants of all levels. The trend is in full swing and comfort food is “it!”
At least for now, you won’t find me moaning about this trend one bit. I think that our society needs some comfort NOW. After all that has gone on with our political system, with the turmoil and constant discomfort of our economy, with the rising tide against all that we worked for in the 60’s and 70’s, our society needs some mothering!
Next up: Chicken Pot Pie with help from the Sous Vide Supreme