In the shadow of the third and final presidential debate, which takes place tomorrow night, there has been a less controversial, less nation-shaking showdown rumbling around in the world of food.
Food trends: Why are we talking about trends so much now and how much do these trends actually matter? (And why aren't we bored of this yet?!)
This question at hand—in food, is it novelty or tradition that matters more?—was posed to two food writers and journalists, Bill Buford and Madhur Jaffrey, in a debate-style presentation at yesterday's James Beard Foundation Food Conference. Buford (whose book Heat is often named among the best food memoirs) and Jaffrey (who's published over fifteen cookbooks) are food world stalwarts who have observed (and written about) passing trends since before there was Twitter and Instagram and reality television.
Admittedly, the conference's debate centered on an unsolvable issue: Obviously novelty and tradition are inseparable partners.
But nevertheless, it's a discussion we shouldn't dismiss, even if we pass off some food trends as silly. According to moderator David Sax, whose book The Tastemakers explores where food trends come from and where they end up, trends can bring powerful changes: culturally (new flavor ideas and cuisines from parts of the world and the nation you may not have known); economically (popularity comes with money that affects all levels of the food system, from farmer to producer); and politically. Trends are an expression of the will of the consumer and the diner, and money carries real political weight—the kind that's important on another, more national debate stage.
To open the debate, David Sax had to define his terms and identify a "trend" as distinct from a fad: Trends are "a collective change in appetites," said Sax. They are "long-term, powerful shifts in the way we eat." Whereas turmeric water is a fad—all the buzz one day and languishing on the shelves of Whole Foods the next—a desire for "superfood" ingredients is a trend.
And he had to give the debate relevance: Why are we talking about trends now when they've existed ever since humans have had the choice of what to eat? (Or, as Sax put it, since humans could choose between wild buffalo or mammoth?)
Well for one, they're more global than ever before: Whereas we once only knew food we physically came into contact with, now the food community spans countries and oceans: When a chef makes something innovative in Copenhagen, that's a trend heard 'round the world. Food is an economic and cultural force with a global reach. And, to Sax's other point, food trends are now democratic. Food culture was once dictated—or at least, defined—by a top-down media system, but now social media has democratized the interest and ideas surrounding food. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have also made trends bigger and faster-evolving.
So now we know what foods trends are and why we're talking about them now, but it was up to Buford and Jaffrey to decide whether these constant influxes of new ideas are a force for good or evil: Are food trends a force for positive change, or a needless distraction? In food, is what matters novelty or tradition?
(An input from Sax: "We live in this globalized culture of food trends where there's Sriracha in every pot but the local flavors are often being washed out or obliterated. You can go to the top restaurant in any city in the world and they're using the same flavors and techniques, because they want to be part of that zeitgeist and something's being lost in that moment.")
Everything was new once.
"And I haven't mentioned coffee, chocolate—there's a very, very long list. And at the heart of it, and this goes back to my fallacy of authenticity, and this is starting to trouble me: All the things that I regard as great Italian eternal truths, great French eternal truths—like the best of them—they all came from somewhere else. They almost all came from somewhere else. In fact, if you really look at what is the true, authentic food, it's killing an animal with a rock, and making a soup out of it, and eating a turnip. And after that, it's kind of down hill."
"Seasonality is at the heart of why we want novelty in food, and novelty is at the heart of all our cooking."
Any trend with lasting power becomes part of cuisine.
Bill Buford's response? "Indian food is a trend waiting to happen."
Food trends: Are you sick of hearing about them? Or do you see their importance? Join the debate in the comments below!