I love trying to be a futurist. That is - I like to try and forecast the future, predicting fads and watching trends. So, I love it when I spot something exciting going on... seeing a revolution or even a common consensus form. It was so cool in the nineties to see grunge become widely popular coming from small northwest indie labels. There is a moment when you first hear about something, whether it's Teletubbies or Hannah Montana, and all of a sudden it's everywhere - tv, bumperstickers, and in jokes by Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. And I think that's magical, and a lot of fun trying to second-guess the vox populi.
So, I've been thinking about food lately. I blogged a while back about Fleur de Sel candy. Basically, caramels with sea salt embedded in them. I thought they were going to be *hugely* popular. Guess I was wrong. I was also mistaken when I thought that Gogol Bordello would be a hit rock group. So, please take all my advice with a grain of salt. Or sea salt, if you prefer.
A lot has been written about the economy and how it is affecting foodies. The idea is that in a bad economy, people turn to comfort food. Fast-food restaurants with dollar menus are actually increasing market share lately. There has also been a movement for the last decade about "slow food": Alice Waters and the eating local movement. Combining these two trends makes me think that the country is turning back to cheap down-home eating.
Personally, I find that a little boring. It's a solace for yuppies who think their city is somehow unique - that things can be grown in Portland, Oregon that appear nowhere on earth. If anything, there have been wonderful advances in shipping and just-in-time delivery that allows exotic fruits and vegetable to be sold anywhere in America. Heck, when I was a boy in Minnesota, we couldn't buy oranges in the wintertime because most grocery stores couldn't carry them. To me, "regional cuisine" is a backlash against progress. Sure, I have qualms on whether the energy expense needed to ship pineapples to Hawaii is worth it, but I find the ability to get starfruit in Detroit a lot more interesting than eating fiddlehead salads in a small town in Vermont and pretending I am unique. See only thing it says about me is that I have enough money to travel a lot.
Having said that, I find it interesting to see products in my grocery store that are simple, combining only two- or three-ingredients and forgoing the use of binding agents, preservatives, and artificial flavorings in most processed food. Häagen-Dazs® has a new "5" line of ice creams that only contain five ingredients. Unfortunately, they aren't very good. Without the gums and fat, the ice cream has a pretty bland monotonous flavor on my tongue. I'm not sure I can finish the pint of "ginger" version I bought at the store last week.
When I was at the Coachella music festival last month, the biggest selling food at the carnival-style booths was fresh fruit. Now, I know Coachella attracts vegans and hippies, but I love the idea that good produce, prepared attractively can command a higher price and demand that fried shit on a stick.
Now, don't brag that your home town has had Pinkberry for months, and that you're "over it". Part of the thing I like about trying to be a futurist is to pick the point at when something crosses over from quirk to acceptability. Just because a tiny bodega in Queens is selling something that made it into the New Yorker doesn't make it a trend. When I can buy it in Topeka, then I'll say it's made it to the major leagues.
Pinkberry is just frozen yogurt. So why am I blogging about it? Didn't that go out of style with TCBY? Well, there are lines around the block to get this stuff, like when Krispy Kremes made it to Colorado. Pinkberry is in New York and LA, and now San Jose just got their first one. The yogurt itself is extremely sour. The only thing that makes it palatable is that it comes with two or three kinds of fresh fruit on top.
And that's the secret. The stores are beautiful, with modern furniture and lighting. But the fruit is cut well, and the result is a low calorie dessert that hipsters will think is good for them. Will this chain surive? Well, Ellen Degeneres and the Jonas Brothers have raved about it, so many it's about to jump the shark. To me, they have to maintain high standards of quality and food preparation that may not be possible outside of boutique urban zones. But I'd buy stock... I'm guessing Pinkberry will expand across the US before flaming out and dying in 2011.
3. Single Origin
In a similar trend, I'm seeing products that brag their ingredients come from only one place. It started with coffee, and now at this very moment I'm eating chocolate made exclusively from cocoa grown in Madagascar. Can I tell the difference? To be honest... no. At it's worst, this trend devolves into a "princess and pea" mentality. The idea that my pallete can differentiate between sea salt collected from the east side of the Orkney islands vs. that cultivated on the vulgar west side means that I am a hypersenstive little freak. I'm just pretending that I'm so sophisticated that only cigars from Cuba will do, thank you very much. Nothing domestic shall pass *these* virgin lips.
I admire the trend if it means we're going to save the rain forest and create a demand for food grown in economically depressed areas. But I think we're doing the food a disservice. Some of the most interesting things happening in wine today are with bizarre varietals: serve your guests a glass of Sémillon, Viognier, or Gamay in order to be trendy lately. True, single origins are taking the art of cooking away from the producer and giving it back to the consumer. But there is a lot to be said for mixing crap together in order to produce a better, and more consistent blend.
4. Brazilian food
Recent magazines have told me that Peruvian food is the Next Big Thing. And I *do* love the hip Limón restuarant in Denver, or the shabby-but-delcious Los Cabos Restaurant II downtown. But in my opinion, I don't hear people raving about Peruvian food, nor could I name you a single outstanding dish I've eating there. It's like Mexican food, but not quite, and that's faint praise indeed.
Instead, in the last month, I've had at least a dozen family members and coworkers talk about going to a Brazilian restuarant. I know, I know... this is nothing new. The shtick is that you get an unlimited salad bar, and then waiter walk by with all-you-can-eat skewers of meat. It's perfect for US diners: slighty healthy and incredibly fattening at the same time. The price point is high ($20 to $30 for a dinner), but it reminds me of hearing about Japanese steakhouses in the seventies. All of a sudden, Benihanas were everywhere and the whole idea of food prepared as a "show" at your table became mainstream.
I'm waiting for a chain like Fogo de Chão to make it big. I'm not a fan of eating way too much food, so I avoid Las Vegas buffets when I can. But I love hearing the tone in my mom's voice when she described her first Brazilian, "They had a little flag... and you put it down when you are full, and then you can raise it up again!" It's the sound of delight colliding with novelty, and I think the combination is a winner.
5. Molecular gastronomy
No, no, wait! Don't walk away. I know, you've watched too many episodes of "Top Chef" where hip young people make dishes that 1) you wouldn't eat on a dare and 2) you couldn't cook in your own home if you tried. But stick with me for a second. I am constantly amazed at the disparate ways Americans eat. In our own homes, we cook with basic ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, milk, meat, cheese, butter, garlic, spices. It's basically the same stuff our ancestors ate one hundred years ago. But when we go to the grocery store, we buy stuff made solely of stuff not found in kitchens.
You couldn't make a real Oreo or Twinkie even if you wanted to. You don't have the ingredients - giant vats of chemical engineering - nor do you have the ovens and specialized robotic cooking machines. But I am telling you that soon you will. Or at least, you will if you are incredibly rich.
Americans love gadgets. And we have evidently more money than we need, or kitchen space to spare, but we keep buying crap that only cooks one or two dishes at the *most*. The bread machine used for a season before moving to the garage. The bagel slicer we can never find when we actually have bagels in the house. But with advances in technology, I see cooking toys becoming affordable (well, they will cost as much as an iPod, how about that?)
Griddles that are cold instead of hot, super-cooling your food in seconds. Pressurized ovens. Robotic arms and conveyor systems that do creative cooking maneuvers automatically, allowing the user to bake some amazing stuff they couldn't ordinarily create. Trust me, they will be like little CAD/CAM machines, and you will download new recipes off the interent to teach your little cooking robot new tricks. or at least you will until the novelty wears off and you sell the thing on ebay and buy a newer model.
I searched all around Japan for this stuff, and my Japanese friends thought I was insane. It was cheap swill for lowbrow Koreans... didn't I want some nice sake instead? Or maybe a cold beer?
Nope, I know a trend when I see it. And sure enough, a year later I'm seeing Soju (or "shochu" or "shoju" depending on the lanaguage) coctails at every trendy bar in California, home of The Trend. Does the stuff taste good? No, not really. It's like a bad vodka. And I expect the fad will pass away. But hipsters have tried absinthe and ginger drinks, and liked those for a while. I predict that soju will hit big in 2090 all over the US, and then fade away. And then not even afficiandos will drink the stuff.
7. Stevia/ agave nectar
I'm not a fan, but there will always be new sweeteners on the market. Do you like Stevia? I have not tried cooking with it, just in Coke and other products. I think we'll see more Truvia and PureVia in the future. As for agave, I think it will have more of a niche market share. Some new products will be introduced, but no existing foods will switch over. But I think you will see more "now with Agave!" stickers at the grocery store, at least for the next year.
8. Noodle bars (Pho)
These are huge out here in California. My favorite ones have slightly dirty names: "Pho King" and "Pho Queen". I personally am underwhelmed. It's a watery beef noodle soup. I have no idea why these places are so popular. Though it's kind of fun to hang out with friends in their sushi-bar atmosphere, I hope this fad doesn't catch on.
So, what the hell is this, and why do they keep sending spam to my in-box? If you don't know already, Açaí (pronounced ah-sah-ee) is a berry produced from a South American palm tree. Does it taste very good? Um, like a blander blueberry, maybe. Health nuts rave about its antioxidants, but all beneficial effects of the fruit are entirely made up. Since the berry itself is mediocre at best, I'm judging this to be the latest "blue-green algea" of the new millenium - a foul-tasting fad that will pass away when the novelty runs out. I'm guessing six more months, after Coca-Cola or Fanta makes an Açaí flavored beverage.
Now you're just playing with your food. I think cooking is boring to you if you have to start asking basic questions: "Why *does* a hamburger need a bun?" This food is interesting as an intellectual exercise, but it's nothing that you'd like to eat. It's more like a prank you can pull on your friends: they order eggs benedict, and what comes out from the kitchen is uncooked eggwhites and an yolk cooked into the shape of a cube. Har-dee-har-har! I wouldn't eat this stuff if you paid me.
3. Pomegranite juice
Yawn. Though the story behind POM Wonderful is interesting. The couple behind the company created something out of nothing. Through a cool bottle design and good store placement, they single-handedly created a brand new popular beverage. They paid off a bunch of scientists to cook up non-existent health benefits of pomegranite juice. Too bad about the animal testing they performed on their product, too. I hope I never see another "pom cosmo" in a bar ever again.
4. Green tea
I hate when things I love get blown out of proportion: cool bands, placees I love to visit, and the tv shows of my youth have all been raped by remakes and over-promotion. I am a being fan of genmaicha, green tea mixes with toasted rice to give it a wonderful burnt Rice Krispies flavor. But I can't find it in stores lately, because nine thousand new types of green tea have flooded the shelves. Worse, they are mixing green tea with things like lemon and mint, as if it didn't have enough flavor as it is. I guess I'll have to hit the asian markets near my house until the green tea fad cools off.
5. Power foods (drinks, gels, bars)
This fad won't go away... there will always be health foods for atheletes and weekend warriors. I'm sure they will come up with something every few months that will shock me. Never underestimate the buying power of people who want to spend their way to looking thin. I used to have a web page devoted to energy drinks. At its height, I was high-enough ranked on Google that I was getting free samples from distributors in exchange for a review. But I lost interest when can after can had similar versions of sickly-sweet slop. I'll still have a Red Bull and Jagermeister from time to time at the bar, but my love is gone.
6. Fusion cuisine
Again, fusion will always be with us. But I think the idea is rather dull. In my mind, I imagine a Random Restaurant Generator somewhere churning out ideas for future chefs. Tahitian Polish cuisine! We can call the restaurant "Polynesian Polonaise!" Or how about Chinese Mexican? Australian pizza? Russian tacqueria? These places are fun once or twice, but nothing that I'd go back for. I don't care if your mom was Irish and your dad was from Venezuala. Pick a region, and stick with it.
I've never had a foam I liked. I'd rather suck on a can of Barbasol than be exposed to tomato slush again. There is a school for "architectural food", where the idea is to pile things and high as possible, in Dr. Seuss-like structures of sticks and platforms. If you are a fan, maybe you should buy and erector set, and leave my dinner alone, please.
8. Beard Papa's
I still haven't been to this place. But talking to my friends, none of you have either. Or you went in there, bought a cream puff, and thought it was way too expensive and way too much. It's a shame, 'cause I love the store name and the logo. But I never get hungry at night and say to myself, what I really want is a pricey eclair.