This past year, America began once again finding comfort in comfort foods, reverting back to simple, homemade dishes that are inexpensive without sacrificing quality ingredients. "This year has marked a significant reentry into the macaroni and cheese economy," pronounces Clark Wolf, president of the Clark Wolf Company restaurant consulting firm. "The difference now is that we want really good aged cheddar and fresh noodles. Life's too hard to eat something out of a blue box."
Yet 2009 was also an indulgent and experimental year for cuisine. In the wake of a recession, when the economy squelched American dreams in every other way, the best we could do was to eat. And, moreover, eat whatever we pleased. This meant salads on pizza, Peruvian pisco sours, plenty of ginger and nougat, pink Champagne cupcakes and bacon on top of everything.
Shedding some light on this year's food trends, Wolf remarks, "I see it more as being from cupcakes to bacon. Cupcakes are more of a fad than a trend, whereas bacon is a food group." Soon after Sex and the City's Carrie took that first bite at Magnolia Bakery in New York City back in 2000, the cupcake world swelled from mini to monumental as the next fashion-forward food. Cupcakeries have popped up around the country by the masses. Sugarcoated and cultlike yet oh-so-adorable with baby pink logos, these shops continue to win over customers with enticing flavors coined with cutesy names like Southern Belle Red Velvet.
An expert on the "cupcake craze," Andrea Ballus, owner of Sift Cupcakery in Cotati and Napa—with a new store due to open next month in Santa Rosa—believes that cupcakes hold a deeper significance for customers than mere chic. They are simply, Ballus says, "the happiest food on Earth."
Cheaper than a latte, these small treats are a convenient way to reward oneself without buying a whole cake. Unpeeling that thin, fanned wrapper yields a selfish delight that takes us back to childhood, when worries did not involve mortgages. "There is definitely a nostalgic part to cupcakes, like eating Hostess or the cupcakes that your mom dropped off for your first-grade birthday, that people want to remember," Ballus says.
But 2009 was truly bacon's big year. Foodies nationwide rediscovered its savory qualities, harking back to the primal nature of eating. The meat's strong essence of smoke, alcohol, sugar, salt and fatty acid is tempting. "The thing is," Wolf says, "foods like cupcakes really aren't necessary, and most of them are a better idea than they are a food. Most of the satisfaction of a cupcake comes from when it's going toward your mouth. But bacon is a food that a wonderful animal died for. Bacon rocks. It's salt of the earth; it's sustaining."
Bacon is also genuinely American, representing our affinity for pigs, grease and rebellion. The crackling, brown-sugar-cured fat has been known to lure vegetarians away from their ways. Its recent popularity is an insurgency against the wave of smoked salmon on mixed greens and careful calorie counting, but it is also a call to nostalgia. This past year, bartenders began to whip up old cocktail recipes from the pre-Prohibition era, with root beer and sarsaparilla flavors as inspiration. Soon, bacon grease became involved, and before we knew it, hipsters were sucking greedily at bacon cocktails.
"In the early part of 2008, people had too much money and they were making up clever diversions to sell more stuff," Wolf says. This transferred over to 2009, when chefs continued experimenting with salty-sweet mixes and any confection that could pull off a shock factor. "I've actually gotten requests to make a bacon cupcake with some sort of caramel or maple bacon flavor combination," Ballus laughs. "Guy Fieri told us we needed one. He said, 'I don't like sweets, but if you make a bacon cupcake, I would eat it.'"
The dessert trend for bacon works because salty and sweet go together, a concept that doesn't stray too far from Sunday-morning breakfasts, where bacon strips are surreptitiously dipped in a pool of maple syrup next to the pancakes, stacking forks with both sticky flapjacks and smoky pork. Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, Ore., made this combination famous when it created its bacon maple bar, covered in generous strips of meat. Soon, Dynamo Donut & Coffee in San Francisco followed suit with its maple glazed bacon apple, attributing the flavor to apples sautéed in pig fat.
Wolf is having none of it, saying that using bacon in these ways is like "gilding the lily and then trying to eat it. And," he laughs, "a gilded lily is too crunchy. Bacon should be eaten as bacon, over or under farm eggs, in a BLT, in chunks in a macaroni and cheese, on the side of your plate next to your Sonoma goat cheese omelette."
In a down economy, this notion of "slow food fast" has been a model theme for 2009's food trends, especially in the North Bay. Bovolo restaurant in Healdsburg pioneered this concept of translating slower cooked cuisine into faster eating, standing by the idea that good food takes time to prepare. For instance, good bacon still needs to be dry-cured gradually and properly, but it becomes more accessible if customers can grab a package of it and move on with their busy lives.
"In a weak economy, we bring back food traditions we got to try when we had money, or we dig back into our favorite things. For the North Bay, that means Italian, bacon, farm-fresh eggs and vegetables and all these things we have always loved and been good at," Wolf says.
And the food forecast for 2010? "I think we're going to see much more in the way of sandwiches, because they are the perfect 'slow food fast,'" he predicts. One such sandwich that was recently made popular in the States is the bacon butty (pronounced "buddy"). Simply slices of crispy bacon on buttered bread, it has been an everyday favorite in Britain for as long as the two components existed. If the economy doesn't improve within the next year, trends may show more people buddying up to those friendly slices of pork.
After all, Wolf says, "bacon can be a poor man's prosperity. If all you can afford is a cheap piece of bread and a stolen tomato with a cheap cut of bacon, how bad can it be?"
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