This month marks ten years since I’ve been writing this blog. Ten years of scribbling, cooking and ranting about not eating out. 607 original recipes, 60+ Reasons For Not Eating Out, scores of profiles, ruminations and home-cooking events totaling 971 posts. Dozens of Huffington Posts and writings elsewhere. Two books. And seven years and 279 episodes of podcasts on Heritage Radio Network.
It’s been 10 years.
I remembered a comment from a reader as I was stripping tight wads of curly kale from their stems last night. I’ve written a lot about the health and environmental benefits of eating in as opposed to at restaurants, and how many of these small triumphs were an unexpected discovery. But another surprise to me as I was first writing this blog was that people were landing on it and coming back to it for the recipes. To follow the actual recipes and comment on them, how it worked out or didn’t. (One of the top search keywords after my name is “kale.”) I was touched when one reader wrote in a comment that he had made my recipe for Fried Green Eggplant with Peach Salsa as a first home-cooked dinner for a girl who later became his long-time girlfriend, and that they still made that dish together from time to time. It had become a part of their lives together, and so had cooking at home.
I didn’t exactly foresee this blog becoming a resource for recipes. I’m not a trained chef and I’ve always wanted to make that clear. Rather than strict recipes, I tried to share inspiration—ideas to take into your own kitchen and make your own. But once I did realize the recipes in this blog were being used in homes, I fully embraced its utilitarian nature and have tried to make it more practical and accessible over time. Because doing things by hand—whether it’s making your own dinner or growing your own food to make entire meals with for company—can lead people to pretty awesome places. I want everyone to have that experience and to land in their own awesome place, whether it’s being in a long-term relationship with a girl or starting your own farm.
This is not a good-bye note. Ten years is not nearly enough time to write, podcast and share about not eating out. Just yesterday I received a warm and wonderfully unexpected note from a high school acquaintance who’d been following my posts and heard me talking about eggs on Leonard Lopate last week. He told me to “keep it up!” and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
There’s more to say on the 10-year anniversary of this blog. A lot of things have changed in the world of food since 2006. When I first began Not Eating Out In New York, for instance, I was frustrated by a frantically consumerist sense of foodie-ism that could only be attained from visiting the latest, hottest restaurant in town after another. Then, “do-it-yourself” took hold of the national conscience soon after, and with the recession of 2008 I found myself in the spotlight for a new tribe of conscious food tinkerers who were all about making things from scratch. I, along with a worldwide chorus of thought, was inspired by the works of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, humbled by the fruits of labor of the 1970s flock of back-the-landers, and enriched by all the courageous artisanal food renaissaince movers-and-shakers in my own unlikely province of Brooklyn, several of whom I’m proud to call my best friends.
But now it’s 2016, and while home cooking enthusiasm is still very much alive and well, a lot of other developments have happened in the world of food and I will attempt a reckoning of the last ten years of them. First up, the ten most awesome developments in food, followed by the five most, well, not awesome ones in my humble opinion.
The 10 Best Food Developments of the Last 10 Years:
- Biodiversity awareness: I don’t think the terms “heirloom” tomatoes nor potatoes nor “heritage” pork nor turkey nor chicken graced our lexicon too much before 2006. But they’re not just pretty descriptors (or tomatoes). As explained by Simran Sethi in Bread, Wine and Chocolate and others, biodiversity is critical to our livelihood as a planet, food system and species of our own, to speak none of the species and varieties that have been wiped out due to its antithesis, monoculture. This meaty topic concerns climate change, as deduced in a recent report about the critical damage in species loss not just limited to the world of food. So the next time you buy an heirloom tomato or heritage meat from, say, I dunno, Heritage Foods USA, remember that it’s not just fashion. (And if it disappointed you in taste, then don’t flock immediately into the arms of Frito-Lay…)
- Whole grains appreciation: For some reason, our food culture has largely eschewed things like oatmeal, pearl barley, and other whole, cooked grains over the last half-century or so. But they’ve made a big comeback in recent years, thanks to their nutrition (protein, fiber, low glycemic index), gluten-free nature (see 5 Worst Developments below) and maybe just fashion. When I walk into a chain lunch place in Manhattan I see stacks of premade “bowls”—a food term of the year in its own—with whole grains and fresh veggies, instead of the ubiquitous green salads I’d only see when I began this blog. That’s a big, conspicuous change in national eating trend.
- Fast food goes down, tries to get fresher: The fast food industry has slipped steadily over the last decade. Before, it had claimed a substantial part of the US diet, while today, that chunk may have gotten eaten up by “fast-casual” restaurants with a decidedly different tune. Despite recent e. coli scares at Chipotle, this chain had become a powerhouse in part for their comparably more healthful and mission-driven ingredients. And the ripple effect of no-antibiotic chicken, cage-free eggs, and hormone-free pork, etc. can be felt throughout the industry. There is a sea change happening in fast food towards healthy and sustainable, and everyone wants to get in on the action.
- Soda is also in the doghouse: Man, have we demonized soda in the last few. I remember sitting on the focus group for an unnamed large beverage company’s research along with fellow hosts from Heritage Radio and other sustainable foodies. The company was trying to identify a product that was healthier and more wholesome, in tune with the food movement, but none of us purchased bottled beverages anyway and the whole thing was just an improbable mess. Now, soda and sugary beverages are being banned from schools and taxed in some cities much like cigarettes for its unhealthiness, contributing to major diseases and medical cost crises. A public health warning if there were any.
- Alternative protein. Today, there is much interest and capital being poured into “cellular agriculture,” taking cells from animals to produce meat tissue without raising and slaughtering new animals. And insect protein is on the rise, hailed as a more sustainable, less resource-intensive source of protein than meat. Both industries were weird, wacky and fringe ten years ago. But now they’ve joined a host of other alternative or “fake meat” industries, making things like plant-based shrimp and bloody burgers, pasta sauces and granola bars—food products that are familiar yet come from a very different place. But instead of miming existing foods, how can these methodologies or medium be used to make foods that don’t currently exist yet? I think that’s the question on the table for tomorrow.
- “Ugly” fruit and vegetables and food waste awareness. The term “ugly” has turned a 180 to exalt imperfect-looking produce because it’s often wasted, thought to be too unsavory for consumers to purchase. From farms to grocery stores to the household, we’re wasting almost 50% of the food we produce in the US, and that’s gotta stop. The federal government has even said so, putting together a plan to cut 50% of food waste by 2030. Ugly fruit and veg is wasted not only for its appearances but because it doesn’t conform to existing large-scale, industrial production methods (e.g. it doesn’t fit through chutes, or modular boxes used for transport). But now, not just farmers markets have them—major grocery stores are embracing ugly produce and stocking it more. Even if you don’t see this rebranding campaign in your market, you can still opt for the bargain bags of slightly squishy tomatoes or slightly bruised apples—and make something awesome like sauces to save for winter with them. It’s a culinary opportunity for you and an opportunity to rescue food that would be wasted.
- “Trash” seafood appreciation. Remember how lobster was poor man’s food, designated to prisoners and thought to contain no protein? Seafood fashions go in and out, and right now there’s a host of conscientious chefs and fishmongers trying to turn the tide on more sustainable, plentiful seafood types that are not so “in.” Because one century’s trash fish is another century’s treasure, and we need to stop overfishing the popular fish (see 5 Worst Developments below). I’d actually love to see this movement go much further than it has.
- GMO awareness. This is a divisive topic, but the good thing about controversial efforts to label (or control the labeling of) GMO products is simply that people are forced to think and look deeper into how food is produced. I try to grill everyone I know about GMO to hear their thoughts, and it’s always the same: we haven’t come to a definitive decision about it. On the one hand, genetic modification is one way of alleviating crop failure in parts of the world where that is seriously causing hunger—as in the oft-recalled case of “golden rice.” On the other hand, GMO is a catch-all for anything that’s genetically modified by big powers that perhaps shouldn’t have as much control of agriculture. What’s great in principle is not always great in practice, and I think that’s where the modern state of GMO is right now. We will continue seeing a lot of this debate, as a food industry (think Big Ag)-led bill has been passed in the US to underscore new legislature from Vermont.
- Asian food is super trendy. I have mixed feelings about this one. Maybe it’s because I’m literally mixed—half Asian, half white-American. (It’s either the perfect excuse or the perfect reason to throw me under the bus for speaking as either one of my heritages.) But cuisines from all around Asia have moved rapidly into the mainstream dining scene—at least in NYC—such that today I see appetizers like steamed buns with hoisin sauce on the menus of New American restaurants and “Sichuan oil” drizzled onto wood-fired pizzas. I’m pretty sure that ten years ago, if I mentioned Sichuan cuisine, only erudite American foodies like Robert Sietsema would know what it entailed. Is this just a fad? Is it cultural appropriation? I could go on for lengths about it, and I have. But despite any gaffes or confusion, the trendiness of Asian food is surely an entry point for more global culinary awareness—hopefully not just for Asian foods but for cuisines of all around the world. It’s happening, bit by bit.
- Cooking. Just cooking. Home cooking has been recognized as a necessary and integral part of living a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s what you have to do to support your local foodshed through farmers markets and CSAs. It’s how you influence market options. It’s how you participate in many of the above developments. It’s also just fun, and healthful. ‘Nuff said.
The 5 Worst Food Developments of the Last 10 Years:
- Gluten rage. Gluten is not “bad” for everyone, but if you weren’t a very, very observant or learned person involved in food, nutrition or science you’d think it was. Perhaps the most misunderstood ingredient of the decade. This is nothing against genuine insensitivities towards gluten, a rising occurrence. I am sensitive toward people with gluten sensitivity, adding a category for recipes that suit gluten-free diets. But the association of gluten to those looking on at all the “gluten-free” labeling is that of a scary, harmful substance. The silver lining is that gluten-free has inspired more appreciation of ancient whole grains (as per above).
- Meal kits. I think that meal kits are essentially the illusion of home cooking sheathed in a consumer packaged good. In yesteryear, that was frozen dinners. Or just-add-water, just-add-milk, just-add-egg instant food products. Then it was KFC home buckets or other take-out. Then it was meal kits, which seems virtuous in comparison, but has big, maybe insurmountable problems—I recently tackled its packaging waste problem. The main difference between all of these things and actual home cooking is that the former leads you on a path of dependence on the product, while the latter makes you understand and realize better how to do things on your own.
- More overfishing. According to recent reports, we’re still overfishing the most popular seafoods at unsustainable levels—almost a third of all commercial fish stocks. That’s not very much progress since we’ve been talking about sustainable seafood, and various problems throughout the seafood industry. In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the overfishing problem is simply getting worse over time. More reason to eat trash fish (or those cellular ag-produced shrimp?).
- Avocados everywhere. I’d hate to think it’s a general rule that when a food becomes the next “hotcakes,” its production becomes mismanaged and unsustainable. But that’s kind of what’s happening with avocados, which have skyrocketed in popularity over the last ten years. I mean, they were popular before, but “avocado toast” seems to have taken them to another level. Even (or especially?) in the Northeast US, where avocados are far from locally-grown. So if you’re craving avocado toast you might want to back off and make a lovely ricotta toast—or have you tried soft-scrambling eggs? I think the creaminess is pretty satisfying in the way that smeared avocadoes are.
- Spiralizing. I just think the world could do without another cookbook about shredding vegetables into raw curls. No, it’s not really a “bad” development, but you don’t need a fad household product in order to enjoy raw vegetables. You know me and kitchen gadgets.