2011 In Food: Bye-Bye Gluten, Hello Meatballs?
-- 2011: The year I officially became the last American to still eat gluten.
Or did it just feel that way? Because though only a tiny fraction of Americans suffer sensitivities to this wheat protein, the multibillion dollar industry of foods, cookbooks and magazines touting their gluten-free cred this year would suggest an epidemic.
Didn't notice? Perhaps you were too busy chugging raw milk, herding your backyard flock of chickens and hunting down nearby sources for heirloom vegetables, all popular pastimes buoyed by growing demand for so-called "local" foods – a market the government predicted this year would generate some $7 billion in sales.
And so went the year in food, a period marked by some unusual dietary dichotomies.
At the same time sharply rising food prices made it ever harder for American families to get dinner on the table, our nation was seized by an almost obsessive need to know just how many courses would be served at Prince William's wedding. And how does one make that kooky chocolate biscuit groomsman cake?
At least our government was mindful of its food dollars, right? Accusations that the Justice Department spent $16 per muffin at a breakfast conference turned out to be false. They spent $16.80 for a continental breakfast of pastries, fruit, coffee, tea, juice and, of course, muffins. Wait a minute... Isn't that what I get for free when I stay at a hotel?
Meanwhile, Congress apparently wants to send plenty of cash to the potato and pizza industries. For this was the year our politicians blocked efforts to limit french fries in school cafeterias and declared the tomato sauce on slabs of pizza the equivalent of a vegetable. Add a ketchup chaser and it's practically a salad.
Maybe kids can get some healthy eating tips from Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam. This fall, the government gave cartoon characters a hall pass when it comes to pushing sugary cereals and similar foods, caving to food industry pressure while crafting guidelines aimed at toning down the marketing of junk food to kids.
But childhood obesity remained on Michelle Obama's radar. The first lady spent 2011 forging alliances with restaurants to offer healthier foods, and even enticed Wal-Mart and other retailers to get more fresh and healthy items into regions where such foods are scarce.
Just don't ask people where those ingredients fall on the food pyramid. Government health officials decided pyramids were too perplexing and scrapped them in favor of a new healthy eating icon, "My Plate" – a circle divided into different sections for fruits, vegetables, protein and grains.
Food safety also was a hot topic. Despite new regulations signed into law in January, the nation suffered its deadliest known outbreak of food-borne illness in more than 25 years when listeria-contaminated cantaloupes sickened 146 people in 28 states, killing 30 of them.
Worrisome obesity rates and food safety concerns didn't slow America's fetishizing of food. We continued to swoon over food trucks, the more esoteric the better, even using Twitter to track the movements of our favorite mobile eateries. Don't have a truck cruising your `hood yet? Don't worry, the moment has nearly passed.
Meanwhile, foodies struggled to crown a new "it" food. Bacon and cupcakes have had their moment. Ditto for offal and ramps. Macaroons are trying, but fussy French cookies are an unlikely contender in this country. Nutella wants it bad, but probably won't quite get there. Meatballs are yummy, but it's hard to get excited about a ball of meat.
Tiny desserts also don't stand a chance, even – if not especially – with retailers pushing waffle iron-like countertop baking appliances for churning out small cupcakes, whoopee pies and cake pops. These devices were the chocolate fountains and turkey fryers of 2011. There will be lots of them under trees this year, all destined to be used once and never again.
Speaking of foods it's hard to get excited about, what is up with kale? People were tripping over themselves to buy or bake kale chips this year. And now fast food chain Chick-fil-A is suing a Vermont man for selling T-shirts with the logo "eat more kale." The company claims he is ripping off their ad slogan, "Eat Mor Chikin."
However that is settled, I doubt even a wet T-shirt could get most Americans to embrace kale. Which means 2012 may well be a year in which foodies don't have a star ingredient.
Oh, wait. We're not supposed to call them foodies. They-who-gush-over-pretentious-foods this year decided they are too hip for that down market term. Some have started favoring culinarian. Really? My eyes hurt from rolling. And I pledge to continue using "foodie" with abandon.
And that wasn't the only offensive term slung in 2011. Inspired by Alec Baldwin's "Saturday Night Live" skit about a baker named Pete Schweddy, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's released a new flavor called Schweddy Balls – vanilla ice cream studded with fudge-covered rum balls. Not everyone was amused and some grocers refused to stock it.
The food publishing world continued to bustle. Bon Appetit magazine got a new editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport, as well as some heat for his decision to put a person – Gwyneth Paltrow – on the 55-year-old magazine's cover for the first time in decades. Which puts Gwyneth in the same class as culinary icon James Beard. Plenty of foodies objected to that.
In books, Ferran Adria of Spain's famed – and, as of July, closed – elBulli restaurant released "The Family Meal," dedicated to the meals he fed his staff at his notoriously hard to get into eatery. And Nathan Myhrvold wooed the media – but few consumers – with his brainy 2,438-page, six-volume, 46-pound, $625 "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking."
Home cooks clearly had other priorities – starting the day off right. For the first time in a long time, the year's No. 1 recipe search on Yahoo wasn't chicken, but "breakfast." Coming in at No. 5 was pancakes and French toast landed at No. 7. None of them had even made the top 10 in recent years.
And maybe that is telling.
Perhaps that is where we should look for our 2012 trendy "it" food. Breakfast. We could even have tiny gluten-free pancakes made in countertop cookers. Perhaps topped with kale.