Taste: “A world of food”—Baltimore Sun

Experts gather in Baltimore to sort out what’s coming next on America’s plate.
By Arthur Hirsch Sun Staff, Originally published April 21, 2004

This moment in food history rewards attention to the most nondescript joint in the strip mall, if only for the possibility of discovering some unsung maestro cooking a sublime Szechuan chili chicken or fried dried fish. Ask Tyler Cowen about this and other aspects of the contemporary human forage and he’ll offer a considered opinion: “It’s a great time to be living and eating.”

An economist by profession and restaurant maven by avocation, Cowen comes to the Baltimore Convention Center this week for the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. His conference keynote address scheduled tomorrow morning focuses on globalization, one of several phenomena heard in the Tower of Babel that is Foodland USA, 2004.

About 1,400 food emissaries from around the United States and the world are expected in town this week as the 26th annual IACP conference unfolds in speeches, workshops, tastings, food tours—four days of eating in an eating year at least as abundant and noisy as any. Asked for a snapshot of the current food moment, IACP President Martha Johnston says: “Diversity and varied interests ... come to mind.”

That’s putting it mildly. If the food media spotlight falls irrepressibly on extremes, Foodland makes a target-rich environment.

Perhaps it only seems that at any given moment much of America is either wolfing McDonald’s fries while driving and using the cellphone, or flying to Tuscany for the ultimate pesto experience.

Growing numbers of artisan bakers pursue the transcendent loaf, as the burgeoning low-carb crowd runs from bread as if it were anthrax. And, of course, Fad Diet Nation apparently keeps getting heavier.

This year’s conference theme, “Culinary Trade Winds,” implies Cowen’s topic of globalization. Trade winds are famously one-directional, however, and as the exotic has its constituency in Foodland, so does the relentlessly local. There’s a hybrid word bouncing around: glocalization.

Cowen—an economics professor at George Mason University—sides with free-market advocates in food and everything else. Yes, the intensified trade called globalization means more McDonald’s popping up all over the planet—and Cowen is no fan of McDonald’s. But he reckons it’s worth the swap for the expanding menu that’s blossoming from intercontinental cross-pollination in flavors and cooking techniques.

He just got back from Paris and, frankly, while he found the restaurant quality predictably excellent, he also detected stagnation. Bound to tradition - however venerable it may be - the French perhaps lose a step in the innovation department, says Cowen. “There’s a certain predictability,” says Cowen.
“There’s less of the fusion element. ... Part of it is attitude. The French feel they don’t need to look other places.” Not unlike musicians, American chefs are known to borrow a lick from here and there. Hence, California fuses its abundant produce with Asian seasonings. And there’s nouvelle, with its risotto cakes, wasabi aioli, blue tortillas, lemon grass, chipotle vinaigrette.

Cowen lives in the suburbs of Washington, long a daily festival of ethnic eating. Along with Bolivian, Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants, Cowen recalls an unremarkably named China Star in a little Fairfax, Va., strip mall you wouldn’t look at twice but for word-of-mouth. The chef is evidently the real thing from the Szechuan province, Cowen says, and has superb beef with tomato, chili chicken and fried dried fish to show it.

Such cosmopolitan venues as Washington and Manhattan don’t have a monopoly on the benefits of intensified global trade, as cooking teacher and writer Barbara Gulino can tell you. The Cape Elizabeth, Maine, resident is expected in Baltimore this week to present an orientation session at the conference. Thanks to the Portland Spice and Trading Co., she says she has a choice of imported oils and seasonings she might otherwise be able to buy only on the Internet or by traveling to her home town of New York City. “I don’t think there’s been a time when we’ve had more choices,” says Gulino.

If Mainers are more aware of imports, their state has joined others in its resurgence of interest in local products. In October at the Fore Street restaurant in Portland, Gulino helped organize a dinner offering items strictly from the 207 area code: Maine celery root bisque, Sheepscot River trout, lamb raised on an island in Penobscot Bay, Capriana cheese and an apple tart.

In other words, the Slow Food movement yet lives, notwithstanding reliable sources telling how more people than ever take meals in moving cars. It’s been 15 years since an Italian wine writer first raised the “Slow” banner, advocating the virtues of food made by small farms and artisans, vs. mass production, and urging people to take time for the rituals that have surrounded eating for centuries.

Slow Food advocates in New York are promoting a musical food show called Say Cheese at a Manhattan theater later this month featuring a singer/chef, Jackie Gordon, who takes a break from show preparations to appear at the conference here. The 90-minute show offers eight cheeses, four wines and Gordon, who talks about the cheese and sings cheese-related songs. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” for instance, is paired with the Brillat-Savarin, a cheese with an inedible skin.

“I’m out there dancing as fast as I can,” trying to spread the Slow Food message, says Gordon. She figures one reason Americans are overweight is they’re not paying enough attention to what they eat or how or how much. She likes the phrase “tasting mindfully,” as opposed to eating while driving, brushing one’s hair, etc.

“If people would eat really high-quality food, they would eat less of it,” Gordon says. “It would be more satisfying.”

That’s one theory among others. Research suggests the Slow Food movement is gaining little ground among consumers, whose behavior seems motivated chiefly by the desire to save time and money. So says Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, which has been keeping track of American eating since 1980 with daily food diaries completed by 5,000 people a year.

Balzer, scheduled to deliver an IACP conference presentation this week, says three-quarters of Americans are still sitting down to dinner at home on any given night. At the same time, he says, the drift is toward more takeout restaurant meals, more frozen dinners, more food bought ready-to-eat in the supermarket and a tendency to prepare dinner at home with fewer dishes and fewer fresh ingredients. And, definitely more meals taken in cars. In other words, the advent of the Food Network, to say nothing of reportedly strong sales of premium kitchen gear, does not necessarily mean Americans are cooking more. Perhaps we just like to watch.

Watching the food diaries all these years tells Balzer this much: The food “trend” - which he defines as a significant and sustained shift in eating behavior - is a more rare thing than media reports suggest. The latest blip on the food scene is more likely a reflection of something old, enduring and very American: the pursuit of novelty.

“We look at new things and think it’s a trend. It’s not. It’s us being us,” says Balzer. “We are often confused.”
Indeed, asked to characterize this food moment, Patti Londre, a Los Angeles food publicist, offers the word “confusion.” Faced with a barrage of nutrition research, product health claims, fad diets and alarmist media reporting of the latest food scare, consumers appear to be suffering severe food information overload. “From our perspective, food is confusing,” says Londre, scheduled to take part in a panel at the conference tomorrow on food industry public relations. “It isn’t food anymore. It isn’t fuel. It’s a puzzle.”

Of course, food scholar Marion Nestle of New York University has said nutritionists’ advice - more plant-based food, fewer animal fats and refined sweets - has changed little in 50 years. She argues the food industry and its marketeers muddy the water with sales pitches. Sociologist/food scholar Alice Julier of Smith College says she’s not sure if Foodland is characterized by more abundance or just the absence of clear authorities on how to make choices.
“There’s sort of a continual argument going on,” says Julier, who will not be attending the conference. “There’s a pastiche of voices speaking to what’s good and what’s not.”

In the din is the voice of Tyler Cowen. He knows the complexity of it all, yet a brief conversation with him suggests that on one level, at least, it’s simple: Try the China Star, order the Szechuan chili chicken.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun