Sunday, December 20, 2009

'90s set the table for a decade of good eats

--> By J.M. HIRSCH Associated PressPublished: 12/20/2009 2:30 AMLast Modified: 12/20/2009

Want an easy way to sum up how Americans ate during the first 10 years of the new century? Three words should do it.

Sushi at 7-Eleven.

For this was the decade of the gourmeting of America, an era when cola wars and burger battles made way for artisanal sodas and grass fed beef, when coffee went from a cup of joe to a double shot-half-caff-soy-latte, ethnic was de rigueur and local became the new global.

It was a fine time to be a foodie.

Not that everything exactly whet the appetite. Contaminated produce and soaring food prices turned our stomachs. And we lost some of the luminaries and institutions — Julia Child and Gourmet magazine — that had worked so diligently to brighten our meals.

More than ever before, issues long treated as the mushy peas on the collective American dinner plate — organics, local and sustainable agriculture, animal welfare — were getting sirloin-style treatment, sometimes in the least likely of places.

Walmart embraced organics — a $21 billion industry, up from $3.6 billion in 1997 — a decision that broadened access, but that critics feared would dilute the industry's standards. And the home of the Egg McMuffin said it would study how to raise chickens without cramped cages.

Meanwhile, books and movies that tore into big industry food and would have been relegated to the granola set a decade earlier — Morgan Spurlock's 2004 film "Super Size Me" and Michael Pollan's 2006 tome "The Omnivore's Dilemma" — pervaded the popular consciousness. Eating became a political act.

Whether prompted by concerns about the quality of school lunches, climate change or worker conditions in the Third World, more Americans started to vote with their stomachs. Suddenly, the carbon footprint of your carrots was an issue.

Slow Food, a highly politicized Italian-born movement dedicated to preserving artisanal and sustainable foods, made its first major foray into the U.S. in 2008. It sputtered shortly after, but that such a Euro-centric group even made it on the American scene is remarkable.

Speaking of votingIt says something about our appetite for good food when the most-watched kitchen is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Following the ketchup-as-vegetable Reagan years, the no-broccoli-allowed Bush Sr. years, eight years of Bubba's burger fixation, and finally the fake turkey faux pas of Bush Jr., America put a Foodie-in-Chief in the White House. Everything from the peach cobbler President Barack Obama ate in Chicago to the arugula harvested from the South Lawn garden planted by Michelle Obama suddenly became sought-after news.

Food also had a lighter side. We were primed by the Food Network (whose viewership jumped 392 percent from 1999 to 2009) and other channels to treat what we eat as entertainment. The era of Child's behind-the-stove television was fading, replaced by an army of reality programs with screaming chefs, cooking throw downs and towering cake creations.

Good luck if you just wanted to learn how to make beef bourguignon. For that, you'd have been better off tuning out and logging on. The Web exploded with food-driven content, much of it fed from social networks and blogs. Even Martha Stewart got in on it, using Twitter to send 140-character recipes.

By J.M. HIRSCH Associated Press

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