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Do Food Trends Matter? Madhur Jaffrey & Bill Buford Debate

October 18, 2016

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.

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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.

Here are the best take-aways and quotes from Buford versus Jaffrey:

The issues:

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.")

Bill Buford's argument for novelty:

Everything was new once.

  • Buford recalled a career-changing meal he had at a tiny town in Italy, the least trendy meal possible (he thought): "Her authenticity was just unquestionable. She was just like the real thing... She was the eighth generation of women who was making this food.... What I liked about this food, was, I want to call it authenticity... It's kind of a 'romance of anthropological truth.' I was going to call it the fallacy of anthropological truth but it's the belief that since something has been around for a long time, it's therefore true."
  • But then realized that even the foods he thinks of as quintessentially French or Italian are not new at all: "Artichokes, asparagus, haricots verts—all of these arrived [in France] at the end of the sixteenth century and were very big trends... In 1590, Antonio Latini convinced the Italians that the tomato wasn't actually a poisonous vegetable and as a result, all these things we think of as Italian—like tomato sauce—actually came from overseas and became very, very trendy. Corn was introduced and became so trendy that it resulted in a disease called pellagra, because so many people ate polenta that it resulted in a niacin deficiency.... Permentier convinced the French that potatoes were actually edible, and because of him, we now have French fries, and everybody likes potatoes."
All the things that I regard as great Italian eternal truths, great French eternal truths, they all came from somewhere else.
Bill Buford
  • "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."

Madhur Jaffrey's argument for tradition:

Any trend with lasting power becomes part of cuisine.

  • "When he talks about vegetables moving around and being brought from the Old World to the New World, I should know, because in India, every western vegetable that came had a certain reaction. Like when the pineapple came, it was called 'jackfruit of the donkey.' When potatoes came, it was said that 'the only good thing a white man has given us is the potato.' When corn came, if you talked to Indians today, they will say 'corn is ours. It never came. We always had it.' So same things they fell in love with—with the corn, with the chile—but it took time."
  • "New things come in all the time. Trends are titillations. They're interjections. They're not food that we see as permanent. They're not things that we know will last. Unless time has passed. Time is like a big river. It just flows on, little rivulets come in and become part of that big river. And that is what becomes a cuisine. Titillations, trends, are not a cuisine. They're ideas. They're thoughts. They're fun things. But whether they will eventually establish themselves as a cuisine, only time will tell."
Trends are titillations. They're interjections. They're not food that we see as permanent. They're not things that we know will last. Unless time has passed.
Madhur Jaffrey
  • "America is a new country. And when a country is new and that rich, and that powerful, it is constantly in need of some kind of titillation. I think that happened to Rome when it was dying, but we won't go there. What we do in America: Something new comes in, some people get very excited, then money and the media get behind it, it is pushed and pushed, and it becomes very trendy. And it spreads. Everywhere. And then, it either stays or it doesn't stay. So time brushes off the edges of these titillations and takes the care and says, 'Is it worth it or is it not worth it?' And then it will decide, in its own way. You cannot push it. And that's what an old country will tell you."
  • Of the health food that was trendy in the late 1950s, when Jaffrey first came to America: "It was the most boring, the most tasteless, the most pasty, the most texture-less food you could ever hope to find. And that trend lasted at least twenty years, I remember that. But macrobiotic diets and all that came and went away. They didn't stay because they shouldn't have stayed. They were terrible. And I hope cupcakes stay: They're delicious."
Whatever it is—whether it's chiles or potatoes or tomatoes—we take them in, over time, they become Indian. And I think Italy does exactly the same thing.
Madhur Jaffrey
  • "Many, many years ago, Faith Willinger came and offered me a little box of fennel pollen and that trend came for a while, but it was maybe thirty chefs deep, that trend. And then my box of pollen is sitting in my cupboard, still. And what I use instead, for very much of the same flavor and much cheaper is fennel!"
  • "Foods have been coming to India since 1,000 B.C. We take some, we reject some, we always make them Indian. Whatever it is—whether it's chiles or potatoes or tomatoes—we take them in, over time, they become Indian And I think Italy does exactly the same thing. They take the tomatoes, they take the corn, and over time, do things with it that they do and they make it Italian."
  • "The time for Indian food has not come. It’s like you’re saying to Indian food in America, ‘We love you, but change.’ And I think Indian food will only come into its own when it says ‘To hell with you.' We are seeing riffs on Indian. And I’m so tired of the riffs. I want Indian food—and it is so varied and so wonderful. So it will come into its own when it comes as its own dignified self and there a million of those selves."

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!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Lex October 21, 2016
would love to see the video of the debate
Smaug October 19, 2016
Most of today's trends and fads (which are not really well defined in the article) are manufactured, the results of the incredible number of media outlets looking for something to write about and the even more incredible number of restaurants, cookbook writers et al clamoring for attention. This is an entirely different thing than trends caused by actual changing conditions, such as changes in geographic availability