Health and environmental concerns expected to drive future food trends

September 23, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Predicting trends is a lot like predicting earthquakes: You know the general area and the probability of a strike, but more exact information remains elusive. Still, based on a week in California, where both earthquakes and trends are born, I think I can predict some developments in food and wine that East Coast consumers are going to be seeing in the near future.

Of course, some trendy developments are already showing up across the country: a campaign for tastier, safer produce; a concern for safety in the entire food supply; and bolder combinations of flavors for dining out and dining in.

And then some "trends" may never make it out of California: lotus root slices in salad (sort of like holey turnip) next to taro greens; a hundred varieties of wine in the grocery stores; true San Francisco sourdough bread (something about the yeast being in the air); lamb tartare (raw lamb) on endive leaves as an appetizer . . .

But over the course of five days at the annual convention of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association, held in San Francisco this year, with dozens of speakers and exhibitors, certain themes emerged that point the direction in which eating in America is likely to go. Here are a few of them:

*Organic produce. There are two driving forces behind the move toward agriculture that is produced without chemical intervention: the question of food safety and the matter of taste.

California, not surprisingly, leads the country in producers of organic fruits and vegetables, with more than 200 producers and $250 million of projected sales this year. Bill Brammer, president of California Certified Organic Farmers, said the basic tenet of organic farming, feeding the soil rather than the plant, allows farmers to grow more diversified products and to use varieties bred for flavor, rather than shipping hardiness.

Organic farming also reduces the exposure to pesticides for farm workers, producers and consumers. "Farmers are realizing that chemicals aren't the be-all and end-all of food production," said Pamela Jones, a consultant who works with farmers and food processors on environmental and safety issues. Pesticide residues that are such a concern for consumers are a concern for agriculture companies and food processors as well, she said, especially those whose products are identified with a brand name. "We're working with farmers to cut exposure to pesticide residues to zero by the time food reaches consumers."

*Heirloom varieties. Another aspect of the renewed priority of flavor in fruits and vegetables is a trend toward growing "antique" varieties that fell out of commercial favor because they were more labor-intensive to grow or less durable in shipping. At Pettigrew Fruit Farm, Walnut Grove, Calif., there are two acres of old French butter pears; at Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery, Healdsburg, Calif., there are such varieties as Arkansas Black, developed in Arkansas sometime before 1886, Ashmead's Kernel, an English variety dating to 1700, and Court Pendu Plat, a European variety that dates to at least 1613, but which is probably Roman in origin. The nursery also has Amire Jouet pears, France, 1660, and Belle of Georgia peaches, Georgia, 1870.

*More "blended cuisine," in which elements of more than one ethnic or indigenous dish are combined in a new way. Gary Danko, chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco served a lunch of traditional San Francisco cioppino, a fish and seafood stew, over soft Italian polenta. He also mixed all-American grilled corn with exotic arugula lettuce and Italian Parmesano-Reggiano cheese in a salad with tomato vinaigrette dressing. At a reception at noted kitchenware purveyor Williams-Sonoma, Hubert Keller, executive chef of Fleur de Lys of San Francisco, presented a salad of lentils (Middle East), celery and ginger (Far East) with an English cucumber vinaigrette.

*An increased role of chefs and other food professionals in social issues. Baltimore got a good glimpse into this future with last week's "Dinner for the Chesapeake," in which noted chefs from around the country cooked signature dishes for paying diners, with the proceeds going to the Chesapeake Bay Trust to aid Chesapeake Bay clean-up efforts.

Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., one of the chefs at the Dinner for the Chesapeake, is an ardent environmentalist whose long-time championship of organic produce certainly contributed to the interest in that field in California. As chefs, she told the food editors and writers group, "our lives depend on a certain honesty and integrity toward food." She fears, she said, that people are "losing the connection" between production and consumption of food. Instead, "We need to care deeply about where our food comes from," she said.

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