In 2009, Americans appeared to be more preoccupied with food than ever—food as entertainment, lifestyle, politics and, oh, yes, sustenance.
Be it on the small screen or large, in the bookstore, backyard or the kitchen, food dominated the conversation. Witness, along with the cult buzz of the “Food, Inc.” documentary, the smash popularity of the film “Julie & Julia,” and the wild resurgence of interest in Julia Child‘s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which hit the best-seller charts 48 years after it was first published. Some 18 reality shows were devoted to the (at times competitive) craft of cooking.A recession-wracked America pared back on luxuries and sought the warmth of home, hearth and comfort food—and in Julia Child the country rediscovered its bona fide domestic goddess (sorry Martha). With jobs and shelter in jeopardy, amid growing unemployment and wide-spread foreclosures, the one essential that no one could do without in 2009 was food—buttressed by the reliability of craft, technique, knife skills and certain truths we all hold to be self-evident, that, as Amy Adams’s character Julie Powell in “Julie & Julia” puts it, you can “absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick.”
Time to savor the four signs of foodie ascendance in 2009, and see what 2010 dishes up.
The Kitchen Stink: Reality Cooking Shows
As one reality TV cooking contestant and wannabe culinary superstar put it, “Chefs are the new rock stars.” A heaping helping of drama and competitive fervor were foodie offerings that drew in A-list fans like Natalie Portman, who got a personalized menu from “Top Chef” contestants. “Hell’s Kitchen” (Fox) may have reigned atop the Nielsen charts, but cable network. Bravo had two entries in the food fray.
Its standby, “Top Chef” captured water-cooler buzz about whether the Voltaggio brothers’ rivalry would outshine pro barbecue scion Kevin Gillespie‘s good-guy emphasis on flavor, playing nice with others, and Southern cooking. Its newest addition, “Chef Academy,” featured the “World’s Sexiest Chef” Jean Christophe Novelli overseeing neophytes.
And there’s no such thing as too many cooks. Coming soon to VH1: Three 6 Mafia, who memorably won a 2006 Oscar for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” takes it indoors to the kitchen with “Cooking Ain’t Easy.”
Slow Slow—Quick Quick: Grow Local, Eat Slow
Given the obesity epidemic, UC Berkeley professor and author Michael Pollan penned about the irony of Americans settling down in front of the flat-screen for a hearty food fight instead of doing some actual cooking for the New York Times. Yet even as Pollan bemoaned the decline in actual hand-to-hand food preparation, awareness about the locavore movement, slow food, and sustainable seafood awareness did grow. Organics established their place in mainstream supermarkets and a gardening boom was fed by cash-strapped and/or foodie growers’ interest in cultivating their own crops, using compost culled from their kitchen bins.
The new back-to-the-land movement was supported by a recession-fueled DIY wave of urban dwellers, who went to the Web for research as they contemplated canning the tomatoes growing in containers on their fire escapes and raising chickens in their puny city backyards. The most high profile lawn vegetable garden? The one on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.
Taking It to the Street Carts: Gourmet Meals on Wheels
Offal and butchery fans like Mario Batali, Fergus Henderson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Powell (The “Julie & Julia” author’s “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession” also came out in ‘09) aided and abetted home charcuterie efforts and “whole beast” eating. And even real estate and credit crunch woes couldn’t stop intrepid chefs from getting their chow to the people: street-food-peddling carts and guerilla wagons serving all manner of grub ranging from French cuisine and creme brulee to adobo and cupcakes hit the streets in foodie-centric cities like San Francisco and Portland, Ore., often alerting the game and hungry to their whereabouts via Twitter.
Eating Their Words: Food Bestsellers
Conde Nast eschewed haute food mags for homey, shuttering the prestigious “Gourmet” and maintaining the middle-market “Bon Appetit.” Besides Julia Childs’ return to cookbook dominance, chef Thomas Keller‘s pricey new tome, “Ad Hoc at Home,” still managed to gain traction on the New York Times best-seller list.
You didn’t need to be a cook to weigh in on consumption. Michael Pollan took his back-to-food-basics crusade took to bookstores: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” were doing just fine, thank you, in serving the country’s consuming interest in eating, taking up long-term residence on Amazon’s list of top 25 food books.
Literati like author (and non-meat eater) Jonathan Safran Foer felt compelled to jump into one eternal foodie debate with “Eating Animals.” Apparently discomfiting food had as much of a place at the table as pizza, meatloaf and mac ‘n’ cheese.
Is there life after haute burgers, molecular gastronomy and a swine-fevered frenzy for bacon in everything from cookies to lattes? Food obsession shows no sigh of abating. The “Gourmet”-associated Epicurious recently forecast its top 2010 food trends. Comfort foods, natch, like fried chicken and whoopie pies, made the cut, as did home-brewing, immunity-building diets, lamb, potlucks, White House Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass, and the Vancouver restaurant scene. Sounds like making whoopie will be taking on a whole ‘nother meaning for eaters during the new decade.