Friday, January 8, 2010

Food Trends

Somehow I got on a PR mailing list that sends me press releases on a variety of things. (My favorite thus far was the "Sugar Daddy Ken Doll" press release sent out by Mattel.) I recently got one about food trends of the decade: cupcakes, sliders, a├žai. Some of the trends I did indeed recognize as trends (serious, what is up with the hipster bacon thing?*); others were baffling (whole grains and olive oil--even with the attention paid to HDL vs. LDL cholesterol, since when is olive oil newsy?).

I've never wholly understood how foods become trendy, at least not without an invention or clear-cut reason for the trend. Arepas were trendy for a while during the "wait, Latinos are EVERYWHERE!" media blitz a few years ago; likewise, while kombucha tea has been around for centuries, it wasn't until G.T. Dave came along that the market for commercially produced kombucha expanded to the point of a trend, at least in NYC. Sometimes the reasons for food trends are buried deeper in shifts in trade policies, agriculture, and production technologies--I remember reading a story in the business section of the Times in 2001 or so about how California was growing its non-artisinal large commercial batch of pomegranates, and sure enough, in 2002 Pom hit the shelves and became a bartending favorite.

Curious geneses aside, food trends strike me as problematic because food is nourishment above all else. Food is also fun, and fun to talk about, and with the widespread advent of "food porn," fun to look at--I get all that. And food trends aren't mutually exclusive with proper nutrition. But A) describing food as a "trend" socializes food outside of our intimate circles (food as social event with friends and family can be good; food as something to be parsed for its trend value is not), and B) in hyping up these food trends, lazy food writers (of which there are many) will reach for the easy instead of actually investigating why a certain food is becoming trendy. We're in a recession, have some mac'n'cheese (which had nothing to do with the recession and more with the idea of a recession); hey, superfoods are a great way to lose weight.

It's sort of related to the problem I have with the fetishization of the slow food movement--except that I do endorse the values of slow food, and don't endorse the values of the PR machine**. Once we take something that we need for human sustenance and make it a value in and of itself--a political value, a trend value--we continue to view food as something other than sustenance. And while it can and should be more than a mere collection of nutrients, I'd like to see more of those values accumulate organically rather than being told by a publicist that I should be eating kashi because it's trendy.

*Full disclosure: I have made both bacon baklava and bacon-infused bourbon. I am a part of the problem, not the solution.
**Except when it comes to the #4 "Food Influencer of the Decade": Food Safety. I mean, really.