Top 10 Most Important Influences On Food In Our Lifetimes

Consequences are near impossible to predict and rather difficult to judge, even in hindsight. For example, the Baby Boom generation, so interested in besting their elders in freedom of thought, turned into the kind of wimp-ass parents who dumb down education so every kid could pass. And you could argue that Nixon's "southern strategy" put an end to intellectual conservatism, allowing mindless rednecks into the Republican mainstream.

The same is true when it comes to food. A search for spice trade routes that bypassed conniving Mediterranean middlemen in part led to the discovery of what is now the Americas. Knowledge that fire could be used to cook food allowed the body to better absorb nutrients, which caused the human brain to grow and eventually launched us on the road to the modern world--a process hardcore raw foodists are trying to reverse, but that's an aside.

We mention all this as a way of admitting that any 'top 10' assessment of historical significance is fraught with problems. But what the hell--some of us started school before Boomers took over, so we're not afraid of stirring the pot a bit.

So here is our list of the most important things to happen in the world of food, dining and culture--keeping in mind that by "world" we really mean "the American world"--in our lifetimes...keeping in mind we mean the last 70 years or so.

10. The Supermarket
The Tom Thumbs and Walmart Supercenters we know today resulted from post-World War Two urbanization, the car culture and in-home refrigeration. Hard to imagine, but there was a time--even in the 20th Century--that Americans shopped almost daily at mom and pop groceries, the kind where clerks pulled goods from the shelf for you. Convenience wins out, almost every time.

9. Fusion
Cooks have introduced new flavors into old recipes since the beginning of time, as far as we know. In the past, however, this was a natural process--something people did without much acknowlegement. The "fusion" trend that dominated the '90s and '00s is different in that it celebrated globalization.

8. Diana Kennedy
It wasn't her doing, really. But the publication of her The Cuisines of Mexico in 1972 recognized Tex-Mex as a unique, regional cuisine. Shortly thereafter (with help from Jimmy Buffet and Howard Cosell) margaritas, nachos and other Texas staples were everywhere.

7. The "Greatest Generation"
This was, of course, the generation that accepted racial inequality and the blacklisting of so-called communists, but so be it. In dining terms, they provide modern benchmarks. Depression era shortages, wartime rationing and the increasing number of mothers in the workforce caused them to relish convenience foods. Their increased mobility set the groundwork for fast food chains. Familiarity with technology in factories or on the battle fronts spurred demand for kitchen gadgets.

6. Julia Child
There were other early TV chefs--the Galloping Gourmet comes to mind--yet she was the first celebrity. She wrought not just the vapid Food Network stars of today, but the first nudge toward appreciation of global techniques seemingly lost over a few decades of economic calamity, war and postwar "we're number one" enthusiasm. 5. Locavores
In 1987 only two percent of tillable land in this country was under the control of "family farms." The figure comes from research we did back in '87, and we have no idea what the number is now. Perception and word on the street tell us, however, that recent demand for local, seasonal ingredients have allowed some small producers to thrive--at least for the moment.

4. Californians
Actually that should read "fucking Californians." The land of fruits and nuts has been at the forefront of every wacko/food Nazi movement we can think of, almost--from granola to Alice "Glenn Beck" Waters crying that we spend too little for produce. Nowadays, their influence is more global. We find CSPI in New York, rumors that Cookie Monster is dumping treats for vegetables on the Internet and so forth. If California introduces a ban, the rest of the country follows.

3. The 1980s
Yes, the MTV era (sometimes also known as the Reagan Years). While some of us were singing along with "I Want to be A Cowboy" and bitching about Iran-Contra, sushi hit the mainstream, single malts began creeping across our palates, Ethiopian cuisine (and others) earned "trendy" status. The 80s is when worldly flavors and finer ingredients started to saturate the American market.

2. Radio and Television
Thought we'd say the Internet, didn't you? But radio (first) and television have had a much bigger impact on food culture in this country than the keyboards we're tied to nowadays. By the 1940s, popular radio programs were sponsored by Maxwell House, Lucky Strike or other brands. Saturday morning television exploited a growing youth culture--and made foods/brands truly national. Who can't finish "hold the pickle, hold the lettuce...", "have a Coke and..." or even "Lucky Strike Green has..." If anything, the Internet is breaking us apart.

1. Harland Sanders and Ray Kroc
Sanders owned a small town restaurant in eastern Kentucky, popular with both locals and traveling salesmen. When the new interstate highway system bypassed his place, he took his secret recipe and franchised it nationwide. Ray Kroc was a traveling salesman. He watched crowds gather everyday at the McDonald's burger stand and decided he could take that idea nationwide. They created our world.

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries