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Thoughts on “The rise of the new food culture”

December 12, 2012
Denise Simmons, Corporate Chef

I wish I were better able to express myself in writing.  I sit in front of the computer to pen my ‘In
the Kitchen’ blog every two weeks and my mind goes blank.  I do have ideas about what I want to say, but
feel like I get ‘performance anxiety’ about how to write it.  Then I come across an article, such as the
one below, that says all I want to say, in a way everyone can understand &
appreciate.  Maybe one day I’ll be able
to do so, but in the mean time, I’m glad there are authors like Scott
Mowbray
, Editor, Cooking Light , to say it for me.  He says it
brilliantly,  and I have highlighted a
couple passages that really spoke to me.

The Rise of the New Food Culture
Posted: 12/10/2012 9:50 am

So gassy are the arguments
about our food system and its effect on life and health in America — arguments
that hop from obesity to Type 2 diabetes to GMOs to food deserts to e coli to
high fructose corn syrup — that it’s easy to miss a heartening truth, one we
can be thankful for in this season of eating. The truth is that America is in the middle of inventing a
new food culture, and no one, not the foodies nor the food activists nor the
Grocery Manufacturers Association of America, can predict how powerful a force
for change it may be. This food culture, spreading across the land like
the bloom on a soft-ripened cheese, has the power to cure a lot of what ails
us. Deep cultural change is the one force that can overcome generations of
political and market inertia that have led to our overweight condition. A taste
for better food could lift us from the adolescent excesses of our 20th century
eating habits — and begin to reduce the obesity that has been the result.

American food culture in
the last century swallowed the factory-to-table promise whole, a promise that
seemed validated by the triumphs of nutrition science: Diet was perfectible for
the shiny, fast-paced life that was God’s destiny for Americans. Daily we would
rise to vitamin-enriched spongy white breads and toaster pastries and powdered
breakfast drinks; we would lunch on mass-manufactured hamburgers; we would
snack on Hostess Twinkies; dine on huge steaks. We would replace water with
soda, and make our beer taste like water. We would conquer the world on this
high-octane fuel, in vast portions for our growing bodies. The anonymous food
scientist was the de facto head chef of the nation. None of the factory foods,
taken alone, was or is bad; taken together, though, and dominating our diet:
That turned out to be a different story.

The perfectible diet
revealed its fatal flaws when chronic disease rates (first heart disease, much
more recently Type 2 diabetes) rocketed and were linked as early as the 1950s
to the supersized, supercharged, supersalted, superfatted foods we loved. But
we would also awaken, slowly, to the limitations — in variety and in taste —
of the food we ate. Newly prosperous Americans traveled and encountered deep
food cultures abroad, in Europe, India, and Southeast Asia. Maybe pasta in cans
wasn’t the best pasta? Among the travelers were people like Alice Waters, who
brought the real-food word home and insisted that a whole new story about
American food was possible. The environmental movement blossomed, throwing
light on problems with farming and fishing, and beginning to reconnect the idea
that quality of food supply depends on quality of farming practices.

It takes time for values of, and stories about,
authenticity, craftsmanship, heritage and flavor to fight their way through a
system as shiny and robust as the American factory-to-table food culture. It
takes decades to invent a new food culture. We are now 40 and 50 and 60 years past Alice Waters, Julia Child, Craig
Claiborne and Rachel Carson. Do not let that turtle pace blind you to the
acceleration of changes now underway. The variety of foods in any decent
supermarket is astounding. Artisan food-making has become as cool as building
apps for iPads. Young people are finding reasons to farm — and get involved in
food activism — while farmers’ markets are proliferating like zucchini. Chefs
are rock stars, including countless local indie chefs who have no connection to
Food Network Television.

The local/global groove
that defines the emerging food culture — combining immigrant knowledge and
older, regional American traditions with the mashup tastes of the
Internet-nurtured young — is the dominant groove of the new eating. I care
what happens in New York and San Francisco and Chicago and New Orleans, but I
care more that those things are also happening in Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis,
Austin and both Portlands: Name your city. The new food culture is trans-demographic: Good things
come from Korexican taco trucks as much as from the experimentations of Grant
Achatz. Chefs like Andy Ricker of the Portland and Brooklyn Thai restaurants
called Pok Pok: these folks are the coolest of all, as they dive deeper into
what authenticity actually means in America. The emerging food culture is
inclusive, too, revering the knowledge of the grey-hairs: Hipster chef David
Chang worships self-described hillbilly Tennessee bacon god Allan Benton.

Food
companies want to be, must be, tuned to this new food culture. They cannot
thrive otherwise. Critics of the food system fail to recognize that Big Food
cannot dictate tastes to a new generation any more than the backers of Pat
Boone could determine which singer — Boone or Presley — would define the
exploding music culture of the 50 years that followed. We have to hope that
problems such as obesity will, over a generation or two, be ameliorated by a
taste for better food in different proportions; let’s hope so, because there is
no emerging medical or legislative cure. I am not arguing that food activists
should not bother with their fights for social justice in the food system: In
this economy, in this country with its pockets of poverty and its food deserts,
God bless them. But they should be comforted that bigger forces are with them,
stronger winds are at their backs, than mere politics and lobbying. Culture itself is changing.
Taste raises consciousness. Those of us who love food can only marvel and
enjoy. The election may be over, but we vote with our forks thrice daily — not
only in the holiday season, but every day of the year.

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