The 40 Biggest Food Trends of the Past 40 Years
Fire up your fondue pot, crack open a Snapple, and let's do this.
It was almost impossible to go to a dinner party in the '70s and not come face to face with this savory French dish. Some people credit Julia Child for its sudden widespread recognition, while others point to the 1975 edition of the The Joy of Cooking, where quiche recipes featured prominently.
Quiche was so popular, in fact, that it became a bit of a punchline by the end of the decade. It officially reached "millennials and their avocado toast" levels of pop culture saturation with the 1982 publication of the book Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, billed as a guide "to all that is truly masculine." (Plot twist: The author, Bruce Feirstein, also wrote the screenplays for GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies—long after it had been established that James Bond not only eats quiche, he knows how to make it.)
This Swiss dish first made a splash in the U.S. at the 1964 World's Fair in New York—visitors mobbed the event's Alpine restaurant for a chance to spear hunks of bread with extra-long forks, and then dip them in vats of melted cheese, wine, and seasonings. Fondue (and fondue parties) gained momentum over the following decade, and while the aforementioned cheese fondue has been eaten in Switzerland since the 1700's, chocolate fondue is a purely American invention.
General Tso's Chicken
This food court staple only dates back to 1952, when Chef Peng Chang-kuei, a native of China’s Hunan province who had fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, created it for an American admiral after he’d already served him everything on his usual menu. The name was pure thinking on the fly—Peng came up with "General Tso's Chicken" only when the admiral asked him what the dish was called—but it stuck.
Peng opened a restaurant in New York City in 1973—less than one year after Nixon's tension-settling visit to China—and his signature sweet-spicy-sticky creation was an immediate hit, inspiring countless imitations across the country. Of course, some of those homages are better than others. In the 2014 documentary The Search for General Tso, Peng, who died in 2016 at the age of 98, examines photos of General Tso's Chicken from restaurants acorss the U.S. and proclaims them "crazy nonsense."
Soft Cheese Rolled in Stuff was peak '70s cocktail party fanciness. The base was usually a mix of shredded cheddar, cream cheese, butter, and Tabasco or Worcestershire sauce, while everything from chopped pickles and onions to toasted pecans and sunflower seeds provided the flair.
Back in 1972, when The Rolling Stones were on a massive tour in support of Exile on Main Street, they stopped in the Trident bar in Sausalito, California, where Mick Jagger tried his first Tequila Sunrise—an ombré mix of orange juice, tequila, and grenadine dreamed up by bartender Bobby Lozoff. The band loved the drink so much that Keith Richards nicknamed the following months "the cocaine and Tequila Sunrise tour" in his autobiography, Life.
One year leater, the Eagles immortalized the cocktail with the song "Tequila Sunrise," and pretty soon the three-ingredient drink (four if you garnish it with a cherry) was available at nearly every bar in America.
Paul Prudhomme sparked a national interest in Cajun food with the release of his 1984 cooking manual, Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen—and his Blackened Redfish recipe, which involved a coating of ground spices and a red-hot cast-iron pan, was the book's breakout star. The next year, Prudhomme made headlines again by opening a pop-up Cajun restaurant in New York City, further cementing the blackened-everything craze.
In 1981, wine and beer sales pro Michael Crete struck novelty drink gold when he decided to bottle his signature party cocktail—a mix of citrus juices, white wine, and club soda—and sell it under the name California Cooler. The drink was an instant hit, causing Big Booze to take note and flood the market with coolers of their own (please enjoy the above Seagram's Wine Cooler ad, in which a pre-Die Hard Bruce Willis dances in an enormous white suit).
Six years later, wine coolers accounted for 20 percent of all wine sales in the U.S., but the fad pretty much died out by the time Bill Clinton was inaugurated.
Molten Chocolate Cake
With his game-changing molten chocolate cake—a barely-baked mix of melted chocolate and butter folded into whipped eggs and egg yolks—Jean-Georges Vongerichten gave diners at some of the world's fanciest restaurants the confidence to publicly indulge in raw batter. For that we are eternally grateful.
While Vongerichten had been serving his signature dessert since 1987, it really took off in 1991, when he put it on the menu of his New York City restaurant JoJo (there, it was called The Chocolate Valrhona Cake). Within months, famous chefs from Tom Colicchio to Jacques Torres were offering versions of their own, and by 1998, molten chocolate cake had earned a spot on the Chili's menu (it's still there today).
Wait, were sun-dried tomatoes the Sriracha of the '90s? Much like the ubiquitous condiment, they were used as a flavor firecracker on everything from sautéed greens and salad dressings to pizzas and deviled eggs. Unlike Sriracha, however, lack of quality control eventually caused them to fall out of favor.
As the garnish's popularity rose, farmers began drying their tomatoes in commercial dehydrators—rather than letting them shrivel naturally in the sun—to keep up with demand. While this method was faster and cheaper, the results weren't as sweet and intense. And when the falsely-labeled sun-dried tomatoes started to outnumber the more flavorful real deal on grocery store shelves, people lost interest.
Contrary to popular belief, Dunkin' Donuts—not Starbucks—was the first major coffee chain to bank on flavored, frozen drinks with the 1994 lauch of its Coffee Coolatta (the Frappuccino followed one year later). Not all Clinton-era specialty coffees were sugar-bombs, though—you could take your hazelnut coffee black (taste-wise, imagine the ghost of a hazelnut, haunting a coffee mug), or find a comfortable middle ground with a mocha latte.
Chinese Chicken Salad
The origin of this famous fusion dish is murky—one popular theory is that Madame Wu, of Madame Wu's Garden in Santa Monica, created it for Cary Grant in the '60s—but credit for its ubiquity in the '80s and '90s (and, indirectly, its place of honor on The Cheesecake Factory menu) belongs to Wolfgang Puck.
The celebrity chef served Chinese chicken salad at his restaurant, Chinois, when it opened in 1983 (it's still offered there today), and while most iterations involve some combo of cabbage, soy sauce, fried wontons, and sesame seeds, Wolfgang set his version apart by basting his chicken in butter (good call).
Snapple was on top of the world in the early '90s, thanks to the New York-based brand's zany flavors (Ralph’s Cantaloupe Cocktail, Kiwi Teawi) and clever marketing campaigns (the most memorable series starred Wendy "The Snapple Lady" Kaufman, an actual company employee who was plucked from her customer service desk to answer fan mail on camera). That super-satisfying cap-popping sound probably didn't hurt, either.
Fat Free Everything
Nineties snack logic dictated that anything fat free was healthy. Even if its first ingredient was sugar, as was the case with SnackWell's devil's food cookies, which sold out within months of their 1992 launch (superfans would stalk delivery trucks, according to The Chicago Tribune).
Then there were 1998's notorious Frito-Lay's Wow Chips—fat free potato chips made with olestra, an oil substitute with a long list of unfortunate side effects (abdominal cramping, a decrease in vitamin absorption, digestive...issues). The FDA eventually slapped a warning label on them, and sales, unsurprising, dropped (nothing will put you off a snack like seeing the words "may cause loose stools" emblazoned across the bag).
For a few, rosemary-dusted years in the mid-'90s, every Fancy Sandwich in America was served on two slices of thick, toasted focaccia bread. Chalk it up to the country's obsession with Mediterranean cooking at the time—sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, and Balsamic drizzle were also having their moments.
Did the '90s ever really go away? Leonardo DiCaprio is still dating 20-year-models, Will & Grace is on the air again, and Zima—the clear malt liquor beverage orginally marketed as a "beer alternative" in 1993—is back on store shelves (while this is a limited run, you can still buy it year-round in Japan).
Zima paved the way for other sweet, fizzy alcopops like Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezers, and Mike's Hard Lemonade, all of which proved to be pretty popular, especially among underage drinkers (unlike beer, these malt beverages were essentialy odorless, and thus harder to detect). In fact, a rumor surfaced that Zima wouldn't set off a breathalyzer, which its parent company Coors was forced to disprove in letters addressed to police chiefs and school officials.
There was a time when people balked at the idea of putting anything other than pepperoni on pizza, but experimental toppings like barbecue chicken and peanut sauce began to take off in the '80s, thanks to West Coast chefs like Alice Waters, Ed LaDou, and Wolfgang Puck. By the time the '90s rolled around, California-style pizza (thin, wood-fired, loaded with gourmet extras) was a full on thing.
The most famous pie from this golden age of fancy pizza is probably Wolfgang Puck's smoked salmon version, which he still serves at Spago in Beverly Hills. It was reportedly created on the fly when Joan Collins ordered smoked salmon with brioche and he realized he was out of bread. Thinking fast, Wolfgang covered a pizza crust with dill-spiked crème fraîche and thinly-sliced red onions, layered the salmon on top, and finished it off with dollops of caviar.
It wasn't enough to be strawberry-flavored in the '90s, you had to toss a kiwi in there, too. Could you taste the strawberries in Strawberry-Kiwi Jello (or Snapple, or AirHeads, or Slurpees)? Sure! Could you taste the kiwis, though? Unclear. At some point, the fuzzy little fruit retreated to the sidelines. By the time we noticed, it was too late.
Before we had things like charcoal soft serve and puffle cones, tiny dairy-balls flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen were the apex of ice cream innovation. If '90s malls had an official taste, this would be it.
Remember when ahi tuna was treated like steak, basically? From the '90s through the early aughts, it was hard to find a new restaurant that didn't offer some version of pepper-crusted tuna, seared and served rare. Another popular riff on the same idea: sesame-crusted tuna, often accompanied by a wasabi-mayo drizzle.
The Lunchbox Boom
Was there any more powerful feeling than ripping into a packet of Shark Bites, finding like six great whites, and realizing anyone who wanted to trade snacks with you had to bend to your will? The '90s were a wild, lawless time when lunchbox treats were sugar-packed (Gushers, Fruit by the Foot, Squeeze Its), assembly-required (Lunchables, Dunkaroos), and meant to be played with (never trust anyone who has eaten Bugles without turning them into finger-hats first).
After school, the party continued with microwavable snacks like Bagel Bites and Totino's Pizza Rolls. Then you'd wake up, eat a Toaster Strudel, and do it all over again.
If you were a vegetarian in the '90s, you had to pick a side: Team Garden Burger or Team Boca Burger. Garden Burgers were upfront about the fact that they were made of grains and veggies—you could see the oats and mushroom chunks in each patty. Boca Burgers, on the other hand, strived to taste like meat—and they kind of did! Or, meat-adjacent at least—making them pretty revolutionary in a pre-Impossible Burger world.
Sex and the City put New York's Magnolia Bakery on the map when, in Season Three (2000), Carrie and Miranda stopped by for pink-frosted cupcakes. Soon after that 15-second clip aired, there were lines around the block for Magnolia's (undeniably cute) pastel sweets. For Sex and the City fans who couldn't afford a pair of Manolos, the cupcake-as-accessory was an attainable piece of that world.
As the Bleecker Street bakery skyrocketed to fame, other cupcake shops popped up its wake. A few notable franchises: Crumbs (giant cupcakes), Baked by Melissa (tiny cupcakes), and Sprinkles (cupcake ATM's).
People really hated bread in the early aughts, thanks to the Atkins diet—a low-carb eating plan that swept the country, leading to the rise of lettuce wraps and spaghetti squash as a pasta substitute. Atkins devotees were given carte blanche when it came to butter, eggs, and meat (beef jerky sales spiked 40 percent during the plan's peak popularity), while fruit and lentils were off-limits (at least during phase one of the diet).
Eventually, Atkins was linked to an increased risk of heart disease (perhaps not surprisingly, Robert Atkins, the creator of the program, had a history of congestive heart failure), and the low-carb mantle was passed to the keto diet—a similar plan, with stricter limits on protein intake.
Red Bull and Vodka
At the turn of the millennium, nothing said "I'm here to rage" like ordering a Red Bull and vodka. Eight ounces of the energy drink contain about 80 milligrams of caffeine, or the equivalent of a one-ounce Starbucks espresso. Mix a beverage that allows you to stay up all night with hard liquor, and you have a recipe for calling your ex at 3 a.m., then walking home with one shoe. (Seriously, a 2017 study excerpted in The Atlantic found that people feel and act a lot drunker if their drink is labeled "vodka-Red Bull cocktail" than if the exact same drink is labeled as something else.)
What's cuter than a tiny sandwich? In the early 2010's, sliders—from miniaturized cheeseburgers to versions stuffed with pulled pork and crabcakes—came to dominate bar menus and party spreads. They were a gift to anyone stuck in the limbo between appetizer-hungry and meal-hungry.
Mid-aughts chains like Pinkberry and 16 Handles made fro-yo fun again (or, for the first time ever?), with their inventive flavors (graham cracker, cinnamon churro) and tricked-out toppings bars (there's no such thing as too many mochi balls). The frozen treat replaced fries and Frappuccinos as the thing to stress-eat in your car during work breaks.
What Carrie Bradshaw did for cupcakes, Ron Swanson did for bacon. Well, maybe not—America's bacon-love has always run deep—but the Parks and Recreation fan-fave certainly helped unite breakfast meat enthusiasts.
At some point in the mid-2000's, bacon migrated from the brunch menu to...everywhere, really. Ice cream shops served bacon-bourbon scoops, ambitious home chefs wrapped their Thanksgiving turkeys in barbecued bacon, and maple-glazed doughnuts topped with bacon crumbles were a common sight. Peak Bacon happened between 2008 (U.S. sales hit $2 billion that year) and 2009, when bacon-paloozas like Brooklyn's Bacon Takedown and Portland's Baconfest began popping up. Subsequent swine flu scares didn't stop the party, but they did signal a decline in our collective bacon excitement.
David Chang didn't invent ramen, but one could argue that he changed America's perception of it as college dorm room fare. When he opened New York City's Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, Chang took his cues from Tokyo's ramenyas, serving up bowls of fresh noodles, pork belly, slow-poached eggs, market vegetables, and a few chef's flourishes in pork broth that had been simmered for seven hours. The restauarant soon had lines out the door, and its success helped pave the way for other newcomers on the national noodle scene.
Fancy Mac and Cheese
Every Edison bulb-lit gastropub had to offer mac and cheese made with, like, Gruyere and slab bacon and served in an individually-sized cast iron skillet circa 2010. It was the law.
Is it any coincidence that famed Parisian macaron purveyor Ladurée opened its first U.S. outpost in 2011, just months after Instagram's official launch? Well, yeah, probably. But the photogenic almond flour cookies were practically made for the 'gram, so it's no surprise that they were one of the first desserts to achieve social media fame.
First, a fact: Farm production of kale rose 60 percent between 2007 and 2012 (a.k.a. Peak Kale). Sure, the leafy green is healthy (it's high in vitamins A, C, and K, and has tons of calcium) and versatile (juice it, sautée it, bake it into chips), but the real driving force behind the sudden kale-fication of American might just be its PR team.
In the mid-aughts, The American Kale Association (yep) hired publicist Oberon Sinclair to grow the veggie's brand. She pitched the superfood to friends and former clients in the restaurant industry, and soon spots like New York City's The Fat Radish (represented by My Young Auntie, the PR firm Sinclair founded) were turning out kale-centric dishes (which were then heavily Instagrammed and shared). Hashtag kale.
"Doughnuts are the new cupcakes" was a phrase you probably heard a lot, if you spent any time on food Instagram in the early 2010's. That was when independent shops like New York City's Doughnut Plant and Portland, Oregon's Voodoo Doughnut came to national attention for their experimental flavors like Rose and Fruit Loop.
It seems like their influence trickled down (or, more accurately, up) to Big Doughnut—Krispy Kreme now offers Birthday Cake and Banana Pudding doughnuts, in additional to their traditional jelly-filled and glazed.
It's hard to pinpoint what sparked the avo toast craze—in places where avocados are commonly found, like Mexico and Australia, people have always eaten the fruit smashed on carbs. But New York City's Cafe Gitane is often credited as the originator of the dish in its current, Instagram-friendly form (co-owner Chef Chloe Osborne, who added it to the menu back in 2006, is, perhaps not uncoincidentally, Australian).
Avo-mania reached a fever pitch in 2013, when Gwyneth Paltrow icluded a recipe for it in her cookbook, It's All Good. "Truthfully, this is the one 'recipe' both Julia [co-author] and I make and eat most often! And it's not even a recipe," she wrote. Maybe that's the key to its enduring appeal.
For a brief period of time (2017, to be exact), the status drink to be seen carrying was actually...soup, pretty much. Last year, New York City's broth-centric restaurant Brodo began offering customers savory broths (chicken and chili oil, beef and bone marrow) in paper to-go cups with sip-thru lids. Pro tip: Order one and patiently wait for your significant other to ask for "a sip of your coffee." Then hand it over and say nothing.
Total U.S. matcha-domination didn't happen overnight—for the past five years, the potent Japanese green tea has slowly (and then very quickly) been migrating from lattes and smoothies to croissants, custard pies, and doughnuts.
We'll take the fact that Drake recently invested in MatchaBar—a green tea startup with cafes in New York and Los Angeles, and a line of bottled beverages sold at Whole Foods—as a sign that the matcha craze isn't going anywhere just yet.
Are poke bowls the new grain bowls? Please don't answer that. Do, however, take a moment to appreciate the fact that this Hawaiian staple—essentially raw fish and greens over rice, sometimes served with extras like edamame, avocado, and seaweed—is a rapidly-growing trend in fast-casual dining.
While poke spots have always existed near pockets of Hawaiian transplants (Hawaii Magazine points to Takahashi Market in San Mateo, California, as an example), it's only in recent years that mini-chains like Sweetfin and Pokéworks have popularized the dish on the mainland.
We're at the point in the pumpkin spice news cycle where pumpkin spice lovers are not only in on the joke, they've fully embraced their Fall Person identities. Fast food chains and manufacturers have, of course, taken note—this year, Starbucks created a private Facebook group to share PSL updates with the drink's most rabid fans, while brands from Auntie Anne's (pumpkin spice pretzel nuggets) to Captain Morgan's (pumpkin spice rum) are already rolling out the seasonal merch.
First almond milk and rice milk were like "hey, soy milk!" Then hemp milk, cashew milk, coconut milk, oat milk, macadamia nut milk, walnut milk, and peanut milk (which is actually purple!) joined the fun. Party in the non-dairy aisle.
Does charcoal ice cream have a flavor? Does a rainbow grilled cheese taste good? Does it matter when it looks like something a unicorn would eat for lunch? The rise of social media has led to increasingly unwieldy (but photogenic!) foods (just try to finish one of those Black Tap milkshakes before it collapses in on itself).