Food in America

Food in America

That food be good for us is a major concern but often at odds with what we actually eat. By some accounts, “natural” and “organic” foods are the wave of the future. But just think of the labeling quagmire, and how murky are the definitions for those “healthy” words.

To some observers, the food we eat is heading down the road of cross-culturalization and internationalization. We’re open to trying more and different foods than ever before.

WHERE ARE WE NOW?

“Right now, we are going through a period of digestion,” says Anne Rosenzweig, chef/owner of Arcadia in New York City. “We’ve been bombarded by so many influences. The ’80s were a decade of so much experimentation. But everything is cyclical. What’s happening now is a retrenchment. But each time we retrench, we return with a much broader concept, a much wider acceptance of many different cuisines.”

If retrenchment, not in economic terms alone, but in social terms, too, equals a renewed desire for simplicity and comfort in the foods we eat, that desire seems in evidence everywhere. “Just after the war broke out,” continues Rosenzweig, “my most popular menu item became roasted chicken,” she says. Potatoes–and kale–adds Rosenzweig are the two most important ingredients in her kitchen now.

By some accounts, however, the move toward food that seems wholesome and unpretentious is a fad just like any other, created by the media.

“Meatloaf never died, at least not in the home kitchen,” says professor Judith Goode, a cultural anthropologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, who has a special interest in food. According to Harry Balzar, an analyst with National Eating Trends, a division of the NPD Group in Park Ridge, IL, the five most popular restaurant foods in 1983 were, in order: french fries, hamburgers, ice cream, side-dish salads, and pizza. Today, they are largely the same: french fries, hamburgers, pizza, chicken, and ice cream.

“Restaurant people and journalists create the fads,” says Goode, “but ultimately they talk to themselves,” she adds.

THE MEDIA MILL

Top Restaurants in America

The media, of course, is no small part of the force that shapes our taste and yen for certain foods. There are at least 50 newsletters alone about food and restaurants published in the United States. In 1990, about 500 new cookbooks were published, according to Grace Kirschenbaum, editor and publisher of the newsletter, World of Cookbooks. The food sections on local and national newspapers number in the hundreds, magazines in the dozens.

The media molds our likes and dislikes, creates fashions and fads, informs us on nutrition, health, and technology, and often, in the process, feeds our obsession with those concerns. But, if we are a complex society, we are also resilient and resistant to media hyperbole.

“The food press plays an enormous role in what takes place,” says Jon Rowley, a restaurant consultant in Seattle. “Our impressionability is greater today than it’s ever been. We are susceptible to trends and fads because the media transmits them instantaneously. If something like infused oil gets written about in the New York Times, which now has national distribution, the influence of that article is very great,” says Rowley. “But,” he adds, “we are also more discerning today. We are less foolish and we don’t believe so easily.”

“In the last two decades, the media brought food to a level of culture it never had before,” notes Mark Erickson, executive chef at the Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta. “In the ’80s, everything was excessive. It was our adolescence. Now, we’re moving into adulthood, and we’re learning not to be so affected by the fads and crazes.”

SUBTLE INFLUENCES

Dolores Custer, a prominent food stylist, agrees that the media’s reach is pervasive, but she also suggests that other, less obvious, forces influence our attitudes and awareness toward food. “The advertising and public relations world strives to influence us in subtle ways,” she says. “Food boards, for example, work hard at developing recipes for their products and sending them to newspapers all over America. We are affected a lot more than we think by advertising.”

Food MagazineCuster also gives a glimpse of some of the processes at work behind the scenes. “Usually, the ‘look’ of food is created in editorial–magazines, newspapers–then moves to print ads and then to television,” says Custer. “Now, for example, food isn’t presented as clear and clean as it used to be. The softer look is in. Plate presentation has changed. When I started 13 years ago black, white, and strongly colored plates were in. Now, I’ve shot a spate of tapestry backgrounds. We’re into homey, comfortable presentations,” she says. “But,” she adds, “food is treated in a much more upscale way today than it was, say, 15 years ago.”

ONWARD AND UPWARD

Largely because of the far-reaching influence of the media, and also because of concerns for health, among other reasons, Americans are more sophisticated about food today than they ever have been. We are certainly more knowledgeable and more demanding.

“There has never been more good food available in restaurants than there is today,” says Tim Zagat, publisher, along with his wife, Nina, of the Zagat Survey.

“I see the desire for food that tastes good trickling down to every facet of the industry,” says Rowley. “Among chefs, operators, and consumers, there has been a newfound interest in getting closer to the production sources of food.”

“From the end of World War II up until the early ’80s,” says Erickson, “the mechanization of our food system grew so quickly that it became depersonalized. The distribution system was set up to feed people, but not necessarily with food that tasted as good as possible. Now, I see a new awareness and appreciation for foods that come from our own backyards–local markets, for example–and also fresh and fast from the source. For me, the most important change in the last few years has been the advent of overnight mail–picking up the phone and having fresh fish flown in from Fiji the next day. Good fresh food is much more accessible today than it was five or 10 years ago,” Erickson adds.

From a consumer’s perspective, locally produced fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, may be easier to find today than 10 years ago. According to the New York Times, the number of farmer’s markets grew from 1,200 to 2,000 across the nation between 1980 and 1990. American Demographics magazine reports that U.S. consumers will spend $1 billion to $2 billion to buy fresh food directly from farmers this year.

But to some observers, availability doesn’t necessarily ensure that we’ll be eating better.

INTRINSIC WORTH

Says Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a food authority based in Boston: “As a society, we’re moving away from food, where it comes from, what makes it good and not good. It’s an instinctive thing we seem to be losing. It’s not so much that we’re not staying home and cooking,” says Jenkins. “It’s that our attitude toward food has changed. There’s a sense at large in the country that food will either make you sick or make you fat.”

Jenkins touches on something that is at the core of our attitudes toward food and eating. On one level, Americans seem to be obsessed with health and nutrition issues: fat, salt, and cholesterol, and the safety of the food supply in terms of chemicals and pesticides. By and large the market has responded. Notes Rowley: “If a restaurant hasn’t adapted its menu to reflect Americans’ dietary concerns, then it has missed the boat.”

As an avid observer of the American supermarket, Rowley also has noticed a substantial shift in the types of product on supermarket shelves. “Fresh squeezed juice is taking the place of whipped creams,” he notes. In 1990, there were more than 13,000 natural-food centers in American supermarkets, according to a USDA study. Health foods were estimated to account for more than $10 billion in revenues by the end of last year, according to American Demographics.

AMERICANS’ SPLIT PSYCHE

But, there is a dichotomy between what we say we want to eat–in restaurants and at home–and what we actually do eat.

diet in americaIn the fast-food segment, which perhaps has been hardest hit by Americans’ vocal concern with diet and fat, products perceived as healthful have been swiftly introduced. McDonald’s low-fat burger and KFC’s skinless fried chicken are among the most obvious examples. Burger King sells one million of its grilled chicken sandwiches on an oat bran biscuit a day. “For the first time,” says Rozanne Gold, a New York City-based restaurant consultant, “consumers’ behavior is catching up with their awareness of diet and health.”

Some observers, however, would counter that view. Barbara Thomas, group research director at the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago, talks to several thousand consumers a year. “Health is a burning issue,” she says. “But on the other hand, people are so tired of all the do’s and don’ts. We’ve found that not as many people watch their diets as talk about it. The ones who do it out of choice are in the minority. The ones who make a change in their diets are generally the ones who are forced to because of medical reasons. I guess what Americans really want is a magic bullet.”

If there is one person in the country who seems to have a knack for knowing what Americans want, it is restaurateur Richard Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc. in Chicago. He agrees with Thomas. “I pay a lot of attention to the medical people,” says Melman. “If they can come up with some way, a pill or an easy, safe procedure to control fat and cholesterol, people will go back to eating hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and french fries guiltlessly. Instinctively, people don’t want salad and fish.”

IS OUR FOOD SAFE?

 FOOD SAFE

Beyond the issue of diet, which gains momentum as the population ages, looms another worry in the minds of many Americans. “The single-most important issue that faces us today concerning our food,” says Jenkins, “is the safety issue.”

Thanks to technology, at no other time in history has the food supply been of such consistently high quality. Yet, concerns are growing that the chemicals and genetic engineering techniques used to achieve such quality may ultimately cause much greater harm than good. “The big burning issue,” says Jeremiah Tower, chef/owner of Stars in San Francisco, “is health. I don’t mean the fads. I mean pollution and the way food is mass-produced.”

According to a survey conducted three years ago by the Food Marketing Institute in Washington, DC, for example, 75% of Americans thought herbicide residues were a serious health hazard.

THE FEARS RAISED BY SCIENCE

 DINNER

Biotechnology and other forms of technological tampering with our food supply are also areas that breed fear in the minds of many Americans.

Irradiation is a good example. Although the Federal Drug Administration approved the use of irradiation for poultry recently, virtually none of the chicken on America’s dinner table undergoes the procedure. Says one industry spokesperson: “None of the major poultry farmers in the country wants to be the first to do it. Consumers are afraid of it.”

The public may be voicing its concern over tampering with the food supply, but whether consumers are actually acting on those concerns is another question. What we say and what we do are often miles apart. What motivates our food choices and dictates our eating habits are neither diet nor safety issues, but time–the lack of it–and money.

DILEMMA AT THE DINNER TABLE

Americans spend an average 34.31 minutes at the dinner table, according to Dinnertime USA, a survey of 750 American adults at every age and economic level published in 1989 by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The average amount of time spent preparing dinner is 55.74 minutes, and convenience-driven foods make up many of our dinnertime choices. Of the 750 respondents queried in the survey, 51% use canned products when preparing dinner. About a quarter rely on frozen foods, and one in six relies on take-out for some part of their meal.

When it comes to restaurant dining, overall, approximately 42% of the food dollar is spent outside the home.

Convenience has always been a major force in the American psyche. Today, the pressures of the workaday world have shaped not only what we eat, but the very way we view food in our lives. Yet, like every other observation one might make about who we are based on how we eat, the assessment depends on who is doing the observing. By some accounts the pleasures of the table are in danger of extinction; to others, old-fashioned values–family and shared dining–are alive and going strong.

“There are two things happening,” says Professor Goode. “We’ve given up our old food ways for convenience, and to compensate we’ve created dishes, foods that we think hark back to some nonexistent golden age.”

More and more, Americans are glomming onto ways to save time. The take-out phenomenon is a case in point. But, according to Goode, “What we forget is that food has always been a medium for social interaction. Especially in restaurants, traditionally the dining occasions have been celebratory. What’s happening now is that eating is becoming something to do for the sake of getting some fuel.”

In direct contradiction to Goode’s view was a New York Times article lauding the comeback of the family meal. In the FMI survey, all indicators point to the fact that for most Americans mealtime–at least dinnertime–is an important part of the day. Ninety-five percent of the respondents to the survey said that dinner is the only time they have to be together as a family. On average, American families eat together 5.89 times a week, according to the survey. More than half eat together every day.

What do any of these statistics or opinions really say about who Americans are based on what and how we eat? Without wanting to equivocate, it’s difficult, nearly impossible, to tell. We are a nation of paradoxes, to say the least.

So, without begging the question further, one thing may be said for sure: A picture’s worth a thousand words. Herein lay 52 of them, cut from the broadcloth of food across America.