If 2011 were a meal, we'd be taking the last bites of dessert. But before we push away from the table and start eyeing good things to eat in 2012, let's take a moment to digest.
As far as food trends go, 2011 was the year of the food truck. Again. Maybe we were all so broke that a taco truck was the only dining out most of us could afford. The mobile, Twitter-powered restaurants have been growing in popularity for the past few years, but this year they went fully mainstream. Some restaurants even started to complain that they were siphoning away their customers. Has the trend peaked? Are food pushcarts next?
The farm-to-table phenomenon grew, with more chefs touting just-picked, locally sourced produce. Taking the trend one step further, more chefs grew their own with kitchen gardens and restaurant farms. Foraged foods—mushrooms, obscure herbs, seaweed, berries and even pine needles—turned up in a growing number of restaurants looking to one-up each other with rare or unusual ingredients. Craft beers with esoteric flavors (coriander, cherries, pumpkin) and keg-dispensed wine flowed in greater quantities, too.
Spain's El Bulli, once regarded as the best restaurant in the world, closed its doors, but the avant-garde cookery pioneered by chef Ferran Adria lived on as chefs continued to manipulate food with dehydrators, vacuum sealers and ingredients formerly restricted to chemistry labs. Sous vide cooking, one of the hallmarks of the so-called molecular gastronomy movement, went mainstream with semi-affordable equipment for home cooks.
On the media front, networks continued to flog the celebrity-chef trend, and no one was the better for it. Top Chef produced new crops of "top chefs" who touted their newfound status. With so many "top chefs," is anyone that impressed anymore? The worst offender was The Chew, a hodgepodge of A- and B-level chefs stinking up the already bereft daytime TV landscape by acting awkwardly and disingenuously. On a positive note, Marge Simpson became a food blogger on The Simpsons with her celebrity- and trend-skewering blog, "Three Mouthkateers." Go, Marge!
This was also a big year in food politics. Congress cemented its status as hopelessly corrupt and out of touch when it voted to block a sorely needed overhaul of the nation's school-lunch program, and handed a victory to makers of frozen pizza, french fries and tomato paste, in essence calling pizza a vegetable. The so-called super committee, the failed congressional body charged with reducing the federal deficit, almost sneaked through a reduction in the Farm Bill that would have slashed spending on agriculture conservation, support for local food and organic agriculture. Get ready for a big Farm Bill fight in 2012.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a ban on shark-finning, the practice of lopping off fins from live sharks to make unremarkable Chinese soup. The ban goes into effect in 2013. This year was also the last full one to enjoy foie gras; the ban on fattened goose livers begins in July. Now if only we could only put an end to factory-farmed beef, poultry and pork.
In a development that will hopefully bear fruit in 2012, good food crusaders made a common-cause Occupy movement, seeking to expose the corporate control and dirty politics of Big Ag.
Here's to a delicious 2012.