What can I say? It was a good year, it was a bad year, it was a year. But when I look back on you, 2011, I hope to remember only the good things: The way my 5-year-old caught crayfish in a Wisconsin stream and installed them in a sandcastle, and then told me he’ll be a “kung-fu dancer” when he grows up. The day my 3-year-old determined I should address her as “Master Tigress,” and then developed a passion for tree climbing, and would scramble up the trunk to sit on a branch and show me her outstretched tiger claws. But, 2011, there are also some parts of you I’d just as soon forget. Like these eight annoying food trends whose time, I hope, will soon pass:
1. Artificial Truffle Oil
You know truffles, yes? They’re the rare, incredibly costly “fruiting body” of an underground mushroom that French and Italian chefs have swooned over for generations. You’d think that truffle oil had some relationship to them, right? Wrong. Most commercially available truffle oil is made by adding chemical fragrance compounds to olive oil — musky, mushroomy, rancid-smelling, sweet-and-sour, nasty fragrance compounds. Ubiquitous on gastro-pub French fries, on fancy-restaurant brunches of shirred eggs, and all-too-often added to finish innocent fresh-mushroom dishes, truffle oil has become the Axe body spray of ambitious chefs who are also lazy and have no palate. There is nothing worse than ordering an honest mushroom pizza and having it show up reeking like a skunk that took a maple syrup bath.
2. Eating Endangered Species
Bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass are poised to be the European tigers of our day. With a single bluefin tuna commanding up to nearly a half-million dollars on the Japanese market, and a boatload of Chilean sea bass fetching the same, there’s an irresistible economic incentive for pirates, poachers and plunderers to hunt out these rare fish. Sure, eating them is still legal — and there are even “certified catches” meant to encourage good fisherpeople who follow the rules. But when it comes to bluefin tuna, those “good catches” come from best-case-scenario, super-optimistic, fact-blind “science” as interpreted by people who fish for tuna. And when it comes to Chilean sea bass, that “good catch” accounts for a tiny fraction of the actual volume of fish that’s for sale. So if you think you got one of the very few “ethically harvested” ones, you’re probably kidding yourself, and even if you’re not, your dollars are playing an active role in the lucrative market that’s inspiring the pirates to head out on their boats. As a society, we should look at people eating bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass the same way we’d regard someone sitting down to a roast bald eagle.
3. Absurdly Conspicuous Consumption
I was happy to read the news of New York’s Wall Street Burger Shoppe declaring bankruptcy and taking their $175 hamburger with them. I was happier to read the Algonquin Hotel reports that they sold only a single $10,000 martini this year (who needs an olive when your drink comes with a diamond?) — as opposed to the six they sold in 2008. Please note, however, that New York’s Serendipity 3 is still offering a $69 “haute dog” in which a foot-long wiener is topped with foie gras and truffle oil. It’s like they read my mind! (Now, can’t we get some bluefin tuna on that dog?)
4. Mutually Assured Destruction by Herbicide
Did you track the news throughout 2011 of the new breed of “super-weeds” developing in our nation’s agricultural fields? It all started when Monsanto genetically engineered crops, including soybeans, corn and cotton, to be resistant to their weed killer Roundup, generically known as glyphosate. The idea was that once you planted the Roundup Ready crops, you could drench the fields with Roundup, thus eliminating the need for weeding. But, of course, this led to swift and sure natural selection in the fields, and now Roundup Ready weeds are making their merry way across the American South and Midwest, leading to thick new coatings of ever more ornery pesticides. Happily, most people plan to soon evolve into radioactive super-beings who fly and use adamantine claws to dig out super-weeds, so this is sure to end well.
5. Fake Organics
What is official USDA organic food? It is food produced to meet a set of voluntary standards — voluntary standards meant to ensure a certain level of stewardship of both the product and the environment. Because meeting these standards is expensive, organic food commands a premium price. Because these standards are voluntary, you’d think only people who wanted to farm organically would get into the business. Not so fast! What if someone wants to take advantage of cheaper petrochemical, industrial-agriculture practices, but that pass for organic and get organic prices? Then you’d have an organization like Promiseland Livestock LLC, which sold some 13,000 milk cows to Aurora Organic Dairy in Boulder, Colo. Promiseland Livestock lost its organic certification this year, three years after the USDA demanded the records that would show it really was operating organically, and three years after it refused to provide them.
No word yet on how many toddlers were essentially swindled out of organic milk in the intervening years, but educated guesses put it at more than one.
6. Overkill Indulgences
I’ll admit, as a restaurant critic, I was among the first to thrill to all the pork belly appearing everywhere. But then it started showing up in my cupcakes (bacon-garnished), my lattes (with bacon syrup and maple flavoring), and my ice cream (as nitrogen-frozen spheres like Dippin’ Dots, no less).
You know, I don’t actually need to drink my bacon. And I don’t need artificially flavored sugar syrups drizzled over everything I eat. Life’s short, but it’s not that short. It could get a lot shorter, though, if you regularly indulge in some of the over-the-top dishes highlighted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) as “winners” of its annual Xtreme Eating Awards. As CSPI nutrition director Bonnie Liebman put it: “It’s as if the restaurants were targeting the remaining one out of three Americans who are still normal weight in order to boost their risk of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and cancer.”
Take, for example, the insanely sweet and superfatted Cold Stone Creamery PB&C Shake, which, as CSPI memorably put it, is the caloric equivalent of “drinking two 16-oz. T-bone steaks, plus a buttered baked potato” — except not nearly as nutritious. But wait, a buttered baked potato? What’s wrong with truffle oil?
7. Bottomless Wine Lists
If I come to visit your house, I’d like you to show me some of your favorite things — not take me on an item-by-item tour of every single thing you ever encountered. “This switch plate here — well, you can see it has three holes for three switches, because the first one is for the porch light and the other two are for the overheads; when you’re looking for a three-hole switch plate, your options go down considerably, but this one was more or less pretty close to the paint color we chose, so we went with it, and it’s worked out pretty well.” That’s exactly what I hear in my head when I go to a restaurant and look at a wine list with 5,000 bottles on it. As a patron, I am paying you to do the work of picking out things you like — things you suspect I’d enjoy! So don’t bombard me with every bottle in the book. Curate. Select. Winnow. Make choices. And then stand by them!
8. Saltwater-Stuffed Meats
For years, meat in grocery stores has been secretly injected with saltwater or a flavored broth solution. Yes, that $5.99 a pound chicken breast might include a whole bunch of frozen saltwater, worth a lot less than $5.99 a pound. (According to the USDA, 30 percent of poultry, 15 percent of beef and 90 percent of pork contain a surprise “added solution.”) But here’s some good news: In July, the USDA proposed a rule that sellers of meat and poultry injected with a saltwater or broth solution will now have to disclose the percentage of the product that is added solution, and what’s in that solution. The labels aren’t actually going to arrive till 2014 or so (gotta give the industry time to prepare!), but let us hope this means the days of mystery solution in our foods are at least numbered.
So these are my choices for the worst food trends of the year, and I’ll stand by them. Until I get another bee in my bonnet — or rather, perhaps I should say, a new tigress in my tree. But I don’t think that could happen until at least a few hours into 2012, do you?
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.