A World Of Food

Experts gather in Baltimore to sort out what's coming next on America's plate.

April 21, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

This moment in food history rewards attention to the most nondescript joint in the strip mall, if only for the possibility of discovering some unsung maestro cooking a sublime Szechuan chili chicken or fried dried fish. Ask Tyler Cowen about this and other aspects of the contemporary human forage and he'll offer a considered opinion: "It's a great time to be living and eating."

An economist by profession and restaurant maven by avocation, Cowen comes to the Baltimore Convention Center this week for the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. His conference keynote address scheduled tomorrow morning focuses on globalization, one of several phenomena heard in the Tower of Babel that is Foodland USA, 2004.

About 1,400 food emissaries from around the United States and the world are expected in town this week as the 26th annual IACP conference unfolds in speeches, workshops, tastings, food tours -- four days of eating in an eating year at least as abundant and noisy as any. Asked for a snapshot of the current food moment, IACP President Martha Johnston says: "Diversity and varied interests ... come to mind."

That's putting it mildly. If the food media spotlight falls irrepressibly on extremes, Foodland makes a target-rich environment.

Perhaps it only seems that at any given moment much of America is either wolfing McDonald's fries while driving and using the cellphone, or flying to Tuscany for the ultimate pesto experience.

Growing numbers of artisan bakers pursue the transcendent loaf, as the burgeoning low-carb crowd runs from bread as if it were anthrax. And, of course, Fad Diet Nation apparently keeps getting heavier.

This year's conference theme, "Culinary Trade Winds," implies Cowen's topic of globalization. Trade winds are famously one-directional, however, and as the exotic has its constituency in Foodland, so does the relentlessly local. There's a hybrid word bouncing around: glocalization.

Cowen -- an economics professor at George Mason University -- sides with free-market advocates in food and everything else. Yes, the intensified trade called globalization means more McDonald's popping up all over the planet -- and Cowen is no fan of McDonald's. But he reckons it's worth the swap for the expanding menu that's blossoming from intercontinental cross-pollination in flavors and cooking techniques.

He just got back from Paris and, frankly, while he found the restaurant quality predictably excellent, he also detected stagnation. Bound to tradition -- however venerable it may be -- the French perhaps lose a step in the innovation department, says Cowen.

"There's a certain predictability," says Cowen. "There's less of the fusion element. ... Part of it is attitude. The French feel they don't need to look other places."

If the United States has enough hang-ups of its own, fusion aversion is not among them, jazz, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop presenting only the most obvious examples. Not unlike musicians, American chefs are not known to shy from borrowing a lick from here and there. Hence, California fuses its abundant produce with Asian seasonings. And there's nouvelle, with its risotto cakes, wasabi aioli, blue tortillas, lemon grass, chipotle vinaigrette.

Cowen lives in the suburbs of Washington, long a daily festival of ethnic eating. Along with Bolivian, Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants, Cowen recalls an unremarkably named China Star wedged next to a Kinko's copy place in a little Fairfax, Va., strip mall you wouldn't look at twice but for word-of-mouth. The chef is evidently the real thing from the Szechuan province, Cowen says, and has superb beef with tomato, chili chicken and fried dried fish to show it.

The point reminds you how food writer Calvin Trillin, a resident of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, has for years celebrated liberalized U.S. immigration laws as a boon to the American eater. Such cosmopolitan venues as Washington and Manhattan don't have a monopoly on the benefits of intensified global trade, as cooking teacher and writer Barbara Gulino can tell you.

The Cape Elizabeth, Maine, resident is expected in Baltimore this week to present an orientation session at the conference. Thanks to the Portland Spice and Trading Co., she says she has a choice of imported oils and seasonings she might otherwise be able to buy only on the Internet or by traveling to her home town of New York City.

"I don't think there's been a time when we've had more choices," says Gulino.

If Mainers are more aware of imports, their state has joined others in its resurgent of interest in local products. In October at the Fore Street restaurant in Portland, Gulino helped organize a dinner offering items strictly from the 207 area code: Maine celery root bisque, Sheepscot River trout, lamb raised on an island in Penobscot Bay, Capriana cheese and an apple tart. Even the salt was local, says Gulino, now working on a cookbook featuring foods grown in Maine.

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