The Rise of the New Food Culture

The truth is that America is in the middle of inventing a new food culture, and no one, not the foodies nor the food activists nor the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America, can predict how powerful a force for change it may be.
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So gassy are the arguments about our food system and its effect on life and health in America -- arguments that hop from obesity to Type 2 diabetes to GMOs to food deserts to e coli to high fructose corn syrup -- that it's easy to miss a heartening truth, one we can be thankful for in this season of eating. The truth is that America is in the middle of inventing a new food culture, and no one, not the foodies nor the food activists nor the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America, can predict how powerful a force for change it may be. This food culture, spreading across the land like the bloom on a soft-ripened cheese, has the power to cure a lot of what ails us. Deep cultural change is the one force that can overcome generations of political and market inertia that have led to our overweight condition. A taste for better food could lift us from the adolescent excesses of our 20th century eating habits -- and begin to reduce the obesity that has been the result.

American food culture in the last century swallowed the factory-to-table promise whole, a promise that seemed validated by the triumphs of nutrition science: Diet was perfectible for the shiny, fast-paced life that was God's destiny for Americans. Daily we would rise to vitamin-enriched spongy white breads and toaster pastries and powdered breakfast drinks; we would lunch on mass-manufactured hamburgers; we would snack on Hostess Twinkies; dine on huge steaks. We would replace water with soda, and make our beer taste like water. We would conquer the world on this high-octane fuel, in vast portions for our growing bodies. The anonymous food scientist was the de facto head chef of the nation. None of the factory foods, taken alone, was or is bad; taken together, though, and dominating our diet: That turned out to be a different story.

The perfectible diet revealed its fatal flaws when chronic disease rates (first heart disease, much more recently Type 2 diabetes) rocketed and were linked as early as the 1950s to the supersized, supercharged, supersalted, superfatted foods we loved. But we would also awaken, slowly, to the limitations -- in variety and in taste -- of the food we ate. Newly prosperous Americans traveled and encountered deep food cultures abroad, in Europe, India, and Southeast Asia. Maybe pasta in cans wasn't the best pasta? Among the travelers were people like Alice Waters, who brought the real-food word home and insisted that a whole new story about American food was possible. The environmental movement blossomed, throwing light on problems with farming and fishing, and beginning to reconnect the idea that quality of food supply depends on quality of farming practices.

It takes time for values of, and stories about, authenticity, craftsmanship, heritage and flavor to fight their way through a system as shiny and robust as the American factory-to-table food culture. It takes decades to invent a new food culture. We are now 40 and 50 and 60 years past Alice Waters, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Rachel Carson. Do not let that turtle pace blind you to the acceleration of changes now underway. The variety of foods in any decent supermarket is astounding. Artisan food-making has become as cool as building apps for iPads. Young people are finding reasons to farm -- and get involved in food activism -- while farmers' markets are proliferating like zucchini. Chefs are rock stars, including countless local indie chefs who have no connection to Food Network Television.

The local/global groove that defines the emerging food culture -- combining immigrant knowledge and older, regional American traditions with the mashup tastes of the Internet-nurtured young -- is the dominant groove of the new eating. I care what happens in New York and San Francisco and Chicago and New Orleans, but I care more that those things are also happening in Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, Austin and both Portlands: Name your city. The new food culture is trans-demographic: Good things come from Korexican taco trucks as much as from the experimentations of Grant Achatz. Chefs like Andy Ricker of the Portland and Brooklyn Thai restaurants called Pok Pok: these folks are the coolest of all, as they dive deeper into what authenticity actually means in America. The emerging food culture is inclusive, too, revering the knowledge of the grey-hairs: Hipster chef David Chang worships self-described hillbilly Tennessee bacon god Allan Benton.

Food companies want to be, must be, tuned to this new food culture. They cannot thrive otherwise. Critics of the food system fail to recognize that Big Food cannot dictate tastes to a new generation any more than the backers of Pat Boone could determine which singer -- Boone or Presley -- would define the exploding music culture of the 50 years that followed. We have to hope that problems such as obesity will, over a generation or two, be ameliorated by a taste for better food in different proportions; let's hope so, because there is no emerging medical or legislative cure. I am not arguing that food activists should not bother with their fights for social justice in the food system: In this economy, in this country with its pockets of poverty and its food deserts, God bless them. But they should be comforted that bigger forces are with them, stronger winds are at their backs, than mere politics and lobbying. Culture itself is changing. Taste raises consciousness. Those of us who love food can only marvel and enjoy. The election may be over, but we vote with our forks thrice daily -- not only in the holiday season, but every day of the year.

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