The State of The Union

by Liz Caskey on June 3, 2011

May was a whirlwind month with three weeks on the ground in the US from Pennsylvania, to the nation’s capital, up to New York City and out to the windy city, Chicago. The trip was long and intense and I confess that the first few days I went through a bit of reverse culture shock. Silly things that I forget living outside the US that are no longer part of my daily life. For example, the (giant) size of the cars and 10-lane highways. Variety in absolutely everything imaginable from chewing gum to cereals and toothpaste. English everywhere.

All goods seem geared towards convenience in the US from pre-washed, chopped veggies, to plastic bags to steam them, to these dental floss things called “plackers” to make flossing a breeze. And OMG, those ready-made things that take me forever to make in Chile like almond milk, almond butter, hummus, canned beans, bagels, sigh.

The honeymoon period lasted about a week, then reality set in. After three weeks of constant motion in the US, all I wanted was to go home to Chile. Back to my husband who I missed like crazy, and my cats. I was pining for my forages in La Vega and Mercado central. I dreamed of my therapeutic sessions in the kitchen to hand cut all my veggies, make my almond butter. I yearned to cook everything from scratch, from wholesome ingredients, being sure my food had no added preservatives. I was ready to come back to real sit down lunches and take the time to eat and connect. Not just stuffing something in my body consumed on the run.

I particularly missed my Mediterranean climate (curly hair mess in humidity and what crazy storms!). I was so over shaking hands and/or saying an impersonal “hey” instead of a smile, “hola,” and kissing as a form of greeting. I did come back invigorated by the people I met, gathered a lot of new ideas, saw friends and family in between the events, tastings, meetings, and dinners. I am very thankful to be able to jump between my two cultures and continents as I please.

Here are some of my observations of prevalent trends that jumped at me since my last visit to the US in November 2011. Am I missing something? Please share in the comments!

Bacon, Bacon Everywhere: Americans are in love with bacon, but this time around I seemed to find it in everything. It appears the once trendy pork belly has been usurped by humble bacon, no longer relegated to the world of breakfast or sandwiches. Exquisite artisan varieties focusing on raising the best breeds of pigs (free range of course) are hot. Pick your wood and smoke it, or dry cure it. Either way, bacon IS magic with its intoxicating perfume and deep, penetrating flavor. I was surprised to find it in unusual places like dessert (ice cream?!) and even in dark chocolate. My official food obsession on the trip? The Vosges “Mo’s Smoked Bacon Dark Chocolate” bar. It sounds a little weird, but I assure you, this chocolate bar produces ecstasy in your mouth.

Root Revival: The all-organic, sustainable movement is booming in the US—in certain areas with a high socio-economic demographic. I was impressed in all the big cities from DC to NY to Chicago with the organic farmers markets linking small producers to their consumers, and even “mobile” markets that serve restaurants like the DC Metro Area (check out Birch & Barley). There was a noticeable rise in organic co-ops where members can receive a weekly basket for pick-up location in major metro areas on the East Coast (and yay! The food is coming from Lancaster County). However, as great as all these initiatives are, I came away perplexed at how much wholesome, fresh food costs in the US (roughly 5-10x as much as the markets in South America). I understand the farming and labor costs as part of the equation but my question is, how can a major shift in the way America eats happen when fresh food is still 3-5 times as much as processed, industrial crap?

Italy is King: Ahh, la Bella Italia. Americans continue to be enamored by Italy and it continues to be the number one foreign destination outside the US. Clearly, Italy is alive and kicking in the restaurant business: osterias, trattorias, pizzerias and even stores, err temples, like Eataly in Manhattan from Mario Batali. Eat + Italy gives you Eataly. A foodie paradise that is an Italian market, delicatessen, cooking school, … tutti. Everything is made from scratch if it’s not imported or expertly sourced: meat, bread, cheese (ohh, the cheeses!), beer, rotisserie, pastries, it’s almost like a lunch time soirée in Rome in the midst of New York craziness. My only regret? I went on a full stomach with only 45 minutes to snoop around. Dope!

Gluten-Free & Vegan IN: This was a news flash to me as a wheat intolerant/sensitive person who tries to avoid the thought and sight of baguettes, croissants, crepes, etc. It’s fashionable to be gluten-free? Seriously? In that vein, it also seems that being vegan is hot. I couldn’t believe it but the buzz is everywhere. Being GF (not by choice I may add), I was overwhelmed with all the options at Whole Foods. Why, hello Bagels, I have missed you. GF Crackers? Try Mary’s Gone. Want to order Pizza? GF crust no problema. However, after three weeks, I realized that GF does NOT mean healthier, which is what people are implying. Substitute wheat for other white flours like rice, tapioca, sorghum, etc. That’s still akin to eating processed food that your body reads as sugar and converts to FAT. Yes, it is better for my body in that I can digest it. Should I be eating GF processed food to start? Negative. It’s not real food. And that goes for all the Vegan stuff and the fake lunchmeat, bacon, turkey, and cheese made from wheat and soy. If you’re gonna be a vegetarian, and worse, be so dogmatic about it, just forget about meat in all its forms and tastes. Textured soy meat with processed crap and 20 additives and flavorings to yield fake bacon (fittingly called fakon). Really? That’s not healthy, that’s plain nasty and I don’t care if it’s vegetarian, it’s not healthy. Seriously, if you’re vegan and have that kind of hankering for cheese or meat, just eat the real (sustainable) stuff, or stick to your lentils.

Plugged in & Checked Out: One piece of advice I did not heed from my brother, an Apple Genius in Chicago: Do not go in, or even near, an Apple store. Craziness? Understatement. Ipad2 has invaded the US. Do people even need it? Not really, but no matter, everyone wants it. And to that tune, I felt so old school with my 3G iphone, everybody has a 4G. People in the US are uber connected and seem obsessed with checking email, reading virtual books, playing video games, listening to their tunes, but at some point it got really off-putting. There I was on the train sitting next to my brother who was reading the Tech blogs and texting. For 40 minutes, I waited for him to say something. Silence. He didn’t get it. I had flown 5,000 miles to see him and he was more interested in texting and reading than talking to me IN PERSON. This repeated itself again and again at dinner with friends, client events, observing on flights and trains. People are more informed than ever yet completely socially disconnected on a personal human-to-human level. The social cost? I think it’s going to cause societal ADD and isolation in the long run. Technology is only a blessing if we know how to use it. Choosing connection via a device that over human contact in person? Food for thought.

Cooking Shows as a Competitive Sport: As I met with food & wine industry colleagues, they cited that statistics show people are cooking less in the US than before, even though there are more cooking shows on TV and pimped out Viking kitchens being sold. I have to admit, the first thing I did upon arrival with access to US Cable was turn on the Food Network, definitely a new form of crack-codeine. However, after an hour I got bored. Change the (chef, set, genre), but basically all cooking shows were the same. The big excitement was around Top Chef and Iron Chef. Cooking matches, throw downs, competitions. America loves chefs and idolizes them now as if they are professional athletes or celebrities. Top Chef’s final episode is as watched as a big football game. When I polled friends about this, people would still critique contestants’ menus and dishes. It’s a little too ironic that there’s a huge boom in cooking shows but people don’t take that inspiration into their own kitchen. Then again, maybe cooking is destined to be like US football. Fanatical fans but the preferred participation is as a spectator, not participant.

Malbec, por favor: I was tickled to see Malbec just about everywhere in the US. Easy-drinking, recognizable, good price-quality balance and people love it. I think it’s awesome that Argentine wine is booming in the US market. I was surprised too by the excellent South American wines on many restaurant lists like Sepia in Chicago. While Chilean and Argentineans in the wine industry seem to think they’re in competition with one another for consumers, my sense coming away from this trip (and speaking about the terroir in both countries to wine societies), Chile and Argentina are more powerful together than separately. That’s right, South American wines. The wines are so different that they complement each other. Beyond Malbec, you can order up a coastal Syrah from Chile or a zesty Sauvignon Blanc, or even a delicious Tempranillo from Mendoza. It’s the Age of South America starting in the US. Finally.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Amelia from z tasty life June 6, 2011 at 7:39 am

So well synthetized. As an Italian living in the US i appreciated your honest dissection of the state of the union…and frankly you made me really miss home (italy) and the long dinner table conversation!

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