Welcome to the Golden Age of American Food

Despite the outcry about the American diet, and despite the obesity crisis, there is no better time to be a food citizen. Here's why things are getting better, fast.

THE YOUNG GET THEIR KICK AT THE CAT

All this change in the American food landscape gives food lovers, especially cooks, hope. Craft-food producers of the sort I met in the South are busy creating new demand in every nook and cranny of the national food supply: grits, wild rice, rare grains, hard apple cider, heirloom vegetables, on and on. New/old flavors migrate into mainstream foods as big food companies, which will always form the core of the food supply, take them up: Yogurt tastes better than it used to, frozen pizzas are a lot more interesting, and there seems to have been a national hummus boom. Shoppers take their dollars to farmers' markets, while independent supermarkets, seeking an advantage against bigger stores that have a harder time dealing with small suppliers, tap into the local-food enthusiasm.

"I'm very encouraged," John Mackey says, "by what I call a renaissance of local agriculture and local food manufacturing ... The diversity of food that we lost is coming back, in many categories."

As Americans, we ate what we ate for many decades because we had invented a food culture fueled by machine-powered optimism. We didn't have deep, steadying culinary roots to make us also hold on to crusty breads, stinky cheeses, country hams, heirloom tomatoes, or, for that matter, smaller, balanced portions. We put fins on cars and put the equivalent of fins on a lot of our food a long time ago. Now, at a breathtaking pace, that seems to be changing.

It's not that we are moving away from our modern lifestyle, but surely we are rebalancing our diet as we eat new foods. The market, always alert to changing tastes, will follow.

If obesity—the poster child of our national-diet ills, as heart disease was before it—is a sort of massive hangover of an unbalanced food culture, might a new, more diverse, taste-focused food culture (better food, more expensive, in smaller servings) turn the tide? That's only a theory, possibly naive, and it rests, to some degree, on trickle-down changes regarding the poor, who are by no means the only sufferers of obesity but are disproportionately affected. But I looked in vain for a more plausible theory. There is no magic medical bullet or behavioral-change light switch for a cultural malaise. I did find that virtually everyone I talked to is, in some way, optimistic that things are getting better.

Mark Bittman argues that it's consciousness, not taste, that changes diet. Seems reasonable, but it's also reasonable to ask whether taste raises consciousness. It's a taste for "real" food, in part, that drives young activists like those in FoodCorps (a charity this magazine supports) into schoolyard garden programs—that's certainly true of the inspiring volunteers I've talked to. Young Americans understand that they are inventing a new food culture.

"This is really their issue," Michael Pollan says, "and they're very interested in cooking. Many even want to be chefs or farmers. These were not prestigious occupations until very recently. This is how a culture gets formed."

Three years ago, Bittman told me, he drove cross-country with his daughter, trying to eat well, "but the food was unbelievably bad."

This year, another trip, a different experience. "We passed a supermarket in Lander, Wyoming, that was advertising organic products. I'm not a huge organic booster, but it was symbolic of something. And we ate at good restaurants. We ate in places where people were really trying: in West Yellowstone, Montana, in rural Pennsylvania, in Indianapolis, and so on."

Even if changes in the food culture don't move the obesity needle, they are happy news for anyone who loves food, for anyone who loves to cook, for anyone who wants a job shaping this revolution. When it comes to food, everyone, every cook, can make a little difference, one meal at a time—whether he or she shops in a farmers' market or in a supermarket 40,000 products strong. The sure vote is for taste.

 

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