Simple Pleasures

Forget the fuss. Look for foods in 2002 to be authentic and uncomplicated.

January 02, 2002|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff

"Simplify. Simplify. Simplify," Thoreau said. And when it comes to food choices, Americans seem to be taking his advice.

Forget the foie gras and truffle oil that epitomized the excesses of the 1990s. In 2002, the most popular foods are likely to be macaroni and cheese and meatloaf.

Lots of people are saying that Americans are turning to comfort food in the face of war and terrorism. Actually, comfort food was becoming popular even before the September attacks, and some say it never really went out of style.

But some things are changing, food experts say. Americans want simpler, more authentic foods, although they don't want to sacrifice bold taste.

"The flavors are all about homemade. Very American. Very traditional," says Tina Ruggiero, managing director of the food and beverage division of Hill & Knowlton, a New York public relations agency.

The trend toward simplicity is even changing the way restaurants write their menus, says Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "Menu descriptions are straightforward, with no more than four ingredients in a particular dish," he says.

Accompanying the desire to eat foods like Mom used to make is the desire to eat foods like Grandpa used to grow. Food experts see the continuing growth in organic foods and farmers' markets.

In the same vein is the increased demand for artisan cheeses and breads, notes Laurie Harrsen, director of public relations at McCormick & Co. The trend toward serving cheese for dessert has been in upscale restaurants for a while, but Harrsen says, "I can see this one carrying in more mainstream restaurants."

Fusion foods - the mixing of ethnic flavors and techniques - appears to be waning as increasingly sophisticated diners seek authentic cuisines. This increased awareness has contributed to the popularity of chefs tables and tasting menus, says Glen Heick, chef at the Classic Catering People in Owings Mills.

The hot ethnic food is Latino, thanks to a growing Hispanic population across the country and here in Baltimore. As a result, foods are becoming spicier. Chiles of all kinds are popular.

Asian and Italian foods remain popular, but as consumers become more sophisticated, they are starting to draw distinctions within the broad food categories and seeking regional specialties.

Diners no longer are satisfied with Mexican food, they are looking for Oaxacan; merely Italian isn't enough, they want Tuscan or Sicilian. Asian food used to be synonymous with Chinese food, but Thai and Korean food are becoming more popular. These ethnic varieties satisfy the adventuresome spirit without the risk. "It's a way to explore the world without leaving your home," Ruggiero says. Diners also are differentiating among American cuisines as restaurant chefs have moved to feature local products. Southern cuisine, with its cornmeal, grits and fried foods, is especially popular.

While there is a move toward more wholesome, simpler, authentic foods, that doesn't mean food will be boring.

"People are still interested in flavor and bold taste," Ruggiero says.

Washington, D.C.-based Marriott International has responded to the seemingly contradictory trends toward comfort food and ethnic flavors by combining familiar foods in new ways, such as quesadillas with barbecued shrimp and veal meatloaf at its hotel restaurants.

"We are tweaking familiar classics in terms of flavor and presentation," says Guy Reinbold, vice president of culinary for Marriott.

Experts debate whether Americans will be holing up in their homes this year cooking and entertaining instead of going out on the town.

Some of the most popular gift items this past holiday season were gadgets for the home chef. Local restaurant consultant Diane Neas says more Americans will be staying home learning how to use their new toys.

"I think you're going to see home chefs coming up a notch," she says.

But restaurant surveyor Tim Zagat does not believe terrorism, war or recession will diminish the growing trend toward eating out.

"A lot of things have been pushing the restaurant industry forward," he says. Fresher foods, better chefs, more sophisticated diners and more efficient restaurants will continue to make eating out an attractive alternative for time- starved Americans - although they may choose restaurants closer to home, he adds.

Even if more Americans decide they want to stay home, it doesn't mean they want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, notes Jennifer Darling, executive food editor for Better Homes and Gardens Books. "Even though they are cooking at home more, they are still going to want easy kinds of meals," she says.

A recent survey by

f"HarSunText-Italic"Parade

f"HarSunText-Roman" magazine found that while Americans spend only about 30 minutes cooking dinner each night, they want to spend even less time over the stove.

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