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A Short History of Food

A bite-by-bite look at two decades of culinary trends

WHEN FOOD & WINE BEGAN PUBLICATION IN 1978, America's baby-boomers were reaching maturity, the affluent Eighties were around the corner and the country was on the cusp of a culinary awakening. Chronicling the key events that took place during this magazine's lifetime throws light on both where we were then and where we're going.

1978 Calvin Trillin publishes Alice, Let's Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times notes that "beneath the clown and self-deprecator lies a serious crusader for the virtues of regional American cuisines and against the pretentiousness and downright badness of American Continental restaurants ... that are modeled on the continent of Antarctica, where everything starts out frozen."

Ben & Jerry's Homemade opens in a converted gas station in Vermont.

1979 Two attorneys, Nina and Tim Zagat, produce the Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey. Their restaurant guides will eventually cover more than 40 U.S. and foreign cities.

1980 The Perrier Group acquires Poland Spring. By the late Nineties, sales of bottled water in the United States will reach more than $3 billion annually.

1981 Aspartame gains FDA approval for tabletop use. Marketed under the brand name Equal, the new artificial sweetener costs twice as much as saccharin but does not have a bitter aftertaste.

1982 Flying Foods International opens a warehouse in New York. Entrepreneurs Walter Martin and Andy Arons fly in small quantities of fresh Dover sole from the Netherlands for sale to local restaurants. They will soon import fresh black truffles and Cavaillon melons from France; fresh white truffles, fennel, radicchio and baby artichokes from Italy; and bell peppers from the Netherlands.

The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, written by Alice Waters of the Berkeley, California, restaurant, enjoys wide sales. Waters is a proponent of seasonal organic food, and her book's popularity signals the success of her message.

In Los Angeles, chef Wolfgang Puck and his wife, Barbara Lazaroff, open Spago on a shoestring (spago is Italian for string). The restaurant becomes famous for its smoked-salmon pizza, created one night when the kitchen runs out of bread to serve with the fish.

1983 Frieda's, a produce wholesaler based in Los Angeles, introduces the United States to such exotica as Australian blue squash and horned melons. The 21-year-old company is credited with bringing kiwi, jicama, shiitake mushrooms and blood oranges to the United States in the Sixties and Seventies; in the Eighties it will sell such unusual items as purple Peruvian potatoes.

1984 Representative Jack Kemp calls quiche elitist and proclaims to a reporter, "I took one bite and I didn't like it."

1985 God's Love We Deliver is founded in New York City to bring two meals per day to homebound people afflicted with AIDS, a disease that was first identified four years ago.

1986 Chef-owner Jeremiah Tower of Stars in San Francisco (formerly of Chez Panisse) acknowledges the need for speed in his cookbook New American Classics. "Not wanting to be a slave over a kitchen stove is nothing new," he writes. "Just because one's grandmother or grandmother's cook started baking pies at five in the morning does not mean she enjoyed it."

1987 The film Babette's Feast tells the story of a refugee Parisian chef who introduces the dour residents of a small Danish village to the pleasures of fine food. The climax of the movie is an extravagant dinner featuring turtle soup made with Madeira, blinis Demidoff, Champagne, cailles en sarcophage (quails in puff pastry), excellent wine, salad, cheese, baba au rhum, figs, grapes and pineapple. In the United States ambitious restaurants and some determined home cooks emulate the menu for special dinners.

1988 U.S. companies introduce 962 microwavable products, up from 278 in 1986. Microwaves are now found in 87 percent of American households.

1989 A glut of wild and farmed salmon from Canada, Chile, Denmark, Norway, Scotland and Ireland lowers prices for fresh fish by 25 percent, encouraging food companies to focus on producing smoked or cured fillets. Specialty food markets stock as many as eight varieties of smoked salmon.

1990 Sales of prepackaged frozen yogurt climb to $355 million, up from $160 million the year before.

1991 McDonald's makes a bid for health-minded consumers with the McLean Deluxe, a hamburger that is made with lean beef and carrageenan, an algae extract. The burger never catches on; it will be removed from the menu in 1996.

1992 Sales of salsa explode as America grows obsessed with chile peppers. Some 300 salsa products are displayed at a trade show for specialty food companies, up from about 40 products a year ago. By 1998 there will be 742 such items.

Tommy Tang, a restaurateur-importer in Los Angeles, brings canned coconut milk to America. The milk contains no tapioca flour or other thickening agents and is sold at upscale food stores nationwide.

1993 The TV Food Network begins airing nationally. Launched in New York City by Reese Schoenfeld, the television executive who started CNN for Ted Turner, it will grow in five years to reach 32 million U.S. homes. The network's half-hour shows feature chefs, cookbook authors and other culinary authorities.

Nearly 1,000 new cookbooks are published. Still, Americans spend 29.4 percent of their food dollars at restaurants, up from 21.7 percent in 1978, and only 50.6 percent at grocery stores, down from 59.3 percent.

1994 Amy's Bread, a two-year-old artisanal bakery in New York City's Hell's Kitchen, begins to sell innovative items--olive twists, semolina and fennel twists, Parmesan cheese twists, and raisin and fennel twists and rolls--in response to consumer demand for unusual combinations. The breads are available at restaurants and upscale food stores.

1995 Personal cooking services be-come a bona fide phenomenon. More Americans hire chefs to prepare several weeks worth of entrées that can be stored in the freezer. By 1998 the Albuquerque-based U.S. Personal Chef Association will have 1,700 members, up from 150 in 1993.

1996 British authorities link bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, to an extremely rare but fatal human brain ailment called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In England beef sales drop precipitously. Meanwhile, annual per capita beef consumption in the United States hits 64.4 pounds, up from 61.6 pounds three years ago.

1997 The United States imports between 50 and 55 tons of Russian caviar, up from 25 tons in 1985, as the economy booms and more Americans indulge their taste for luxury.

1998 As demand for Chilean sea bass climbs, the National Marine Fisheries Service lists it as a separate import category for the first time. (It had been lumped together with different types of fish.) Known technically as Patagonian toothfish, the bass becomes such a hot commodity that it attracts fishermen from as far away as Thailand.

While the government struggles to standardize the definition of organic, consumer interest in organic food grows. Sales of organic milk and yogurt climbed almost 100 percent in 1997 and are projected to rise significantly throughout 1998 as well.

JAMES TRAGER is the author of several books, including The Food Chronology (Henry Holt).

Published September 1998
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