I was picking at a lunch of Persian-style braised lamb’s hooves and tongue the other week with a friend when I made the mistake of asking what she’s excited about in food. This friend built a custom brick oven in her backyard last fall, and has another smaller one in her kitchen, for toasting slabs of country bread and roasting game birds. Like a lot of people who obsess about food, she travels on her stomach. She recently returned from an eating trip around a lesser-known corner of Italy.
But what’s she excited about? She sighed, deflected for a moment, hoping to change the subject. I snapped an iPhone picture of the zeitoon parvardeh – that’s olives tossed with walnuts, mint and pomegranate molasses – to fill the lull.
“Doesn’t it feel like we’re at the apex?” she said, finally. “Everybody’s a foodie. Everybody’s on Instagram and has a blog and has eaten everything and calls themselves a ‘home chef.’”
She sighed, then paused to eat an olive.
“Maybe this is peak foodism. Maybe we’re at the beginning of the end.”
She was right, of course. For a booming class of food enthusiast, cooking is no longer about sustenance so much as it’s a “passion.” For many of us, farmer’s markets – where sandwich baggies of micro greens can go for $10 and mid-life litigators turned duck whisperers hawk cherry-smoked magrets de canard – have become the new retail therapy.
Rich folks and the people who aspire to be mistaken for them used to seek status in the cars they drove and the labels they wore. Now many of them find it by humblebragging on Twitter about their sourdough starter (“My starter’s so neglected it needs its own social worker!”) or the killer Gujarati dosa place they just discovered that isn’t even on Yelp yet. Mario Batali recently endorsed a line of backyard wood-fired pizza ovens. You can get them in the U.S. at Costco, of course.
Yet the more I’ve thought about all this, the more I’ve come to see it as a good thing. Sure, the jet-setting Michelin crowd can get annoying, and $10 is an idiotic price for micro greens.
But thanks in no small part to the foodie revolution, North Americans have better access today to superb meat and produce than at any other time in history. If you count the increasing supply of organic, naturally raised and local offerings at many discount Canadian grocers in the last year or two, the revolution isn’t strictly for the middle class and rich folks, either.
North Americans eat exponentially more widely than humankind has ever done, and with every plate of Uyghur noodles, injera, or pupusas, we exchange ideas and values across otherwise disparate cultures.
Increasingly, we think about the groceries we buy and the food we eat in ways that make for better, fairer farming and stronger, more prosperous communities.
Food history, heretofore dismissed by many academics as being roughly equivalent in prestige to basket weaving, is suddenly booming on campuses across Canada, and with it we are learning important, not always happy lessons about who we are and where we come from; to wit, the rising-star food historian Ian Mosby’s recent revelations about the malnutrition experiments on aboriginal kids in Canadian residential schools.
And though the pace of food trends and the cycling of our “passions,” from regional Italian and offal a few years ago, to Latin American and farmhouse Japanese soul food (it’s coming), moves faster these days than Taylor Swift moves through boyfriends, the instinct that drives that constant churning isn’t even close to new.
One hundred years ago, the Lake of the Woods Milling Company, then based in Montreal, published the first edition of its Five Roses Cookbook. As Mosby told me, the first two editions of that book sold a whopping 650,000 copies – this in a country with a population of just 7.6 million people at the time.
For many of those who bought it, that cookbook represented the first time they’d been taught a recipe without face-to-face instruction. For a homemaker in Saanich, B.C., or Windsor, Ont., that book was a window on the outside world as much as it was a manual of cookery instructions.
“We’ve always wanted tastes that are new and different,” Mosby said.
A few months ago, a neighbour up the street gave me her mother’s Gourmet cookbooks from the 1950s, with recipes for Frühlings-Rheinlachs (that’s “spring Rhine salmon in aspic”), and “Mushroom soufflé Rudolfina with Tomato Sauce.”
For as long as there’s been civilization, free time and money, humans have always got precious about our food.
There are far worse ways to spend your time.