It can be hard to keep up with the hottest, hippest food trends. One week it feels like we’re paying $10 for some avocado on toast and the next week we’re signing on to ad hoc meals created from foraged ingredients.
It’s no accident, though, that the Bay Area food scene feels like it’s constantly changing. That’s because it is. Since gold-diggers came west, the area has been a mash-up of demand for high-quality land and fresh produce, with a density of people all looking for innovative solutions to feed the population. Many of those solutions, that may have seemed like a fad at first, would soon become the new standards for dining in and dining out. These American food trends, in particular, found their mass appeal right here in and around the Bay and went on to change how we all eat.
The slow food movement might have officially started in Italy as an alternative to fast food. But the greater goals of encouraging local, sustainable food systems, and getting back to a tradition of taking our time in the kitchen gained national traction and attention when San Francisco hosted the first American Slow Food Nation event in 2008. It was the country’s largest slow food event to that point. It’s not a coincidence Bay Area food pioneers like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters were among those sponsoring the workshops and conference, and pushing the movement around the US. They’d already been at the forefront of advocating for locally sourced food and a reformed agricultural system.
As a formal entity, Slow Food may never have quite reached its most ambitious goals: to change the very nature of how we eat. But the growth of farmers markets and the push for consumers to take their time to appreciate the meal in front of them is evident everywhere around the Bay Area -- and has now permeated into much of food culture across the US.
Local California cuisine
While we’re on the topic, it’s hard to separate the slow food movement from the changes that were already coming out of the Bay Area in the early 2000s. It was Alice Waters, to a large degree, and then her disciples who created the concept of local California cuisine -- a mix of seafood, Mexican, and Mediterranean influences, all with fresh produce. She opened her pivotal restaurant, Chez Panisse in 1971 but it was only after years of lower-level chefs coming through her kitchen and word spreading among fans -- along with the start of advocacy work through her foundation and books -- that what we consider classic local California food became a staple. Let’s just say you know it when you see it -- even when you see it far away from here.
Today it seems like all you can find is local, seasonal, organic food, but this wasn’t always the case. A 2014 study from the USDA found that the number of farmers markets has more than quadrupled in the last 20 years and multiple surveys show people believe buying local food to be of utmost importance, even more so than organic. And in that same USDA study the number of farms selling directly to retailers or restaurants is higher around here than virtually anywhere else in the country, which essentially means we really like to “know our farmer, know our food.”
J.I. Rodale, the founder of Rodale, Inc., and advocate for sustainable farming, is generally considered the historical father of organic farming in the US. He started his Pennsylvania experimental farm in the 1940s to test organic gardening methods. But, when organic farming went mainstream in the 1970s and standards were needed to regulate and determine what that meant, it was California that helped lead the way.
California Certified Organic Farmers was formed in 1973 and run out of a Santa Cruz home. Their organic standards -- which consisted of just 13 rules in the first newsletter, such as a lack of using pesticides -- were some of the first standards to establish what constituted organic farming in the fledgling movement. Those rules, and the state laws that California adopted later in the 1990s, were the groundwork for USDA’s eventual national organic program, which are far more detailed and complex. California is now home to just over 2,800 certified organic farms, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation -- the most farms, acres, and sales of any state in the country.
Whole animal butchery
Also known as “nose-to-tail” eating, whole animal butchery is another one of those trends that reaches back into the annals of food history. There used to be a time when this kind of butchery wasn’t trendy; it was simply normal to use every part of the animal from nose to tail. With mass production, this largely went out of style -- until some dedicated butchers and chefs started to bring it back.
Using every part of the animal means getting innovative with broths, sausages, and lesser known cuts. It also requires a certain talent as a butcher to get all the meat off the animal. The Butcher’s Guild, founded by locals Marissa Guggiana and Tia Harrison, has become a go-to source for consumers looking for sustainable butchers and for butchers looking for information and training. After one of the first books on the topic came out of the UK in 1999 and was re-released in the US in 2004, it caught on quickly with Bay Area food advocates -- especially among those who were already following the practice in their own shops. Ryan Farr, of 4505 Meats, for instance, was buying whole animals in the late-1990s and has helped spread the good word. Today, there are four or five dozen Bay Area restaurants and butchers that do some form of whole animal butchery, including local favorites like Fatted Calf and Avedano’s.
The $4 toast (and, let’s be real, it can even hit $10 now) has almost become a caricature of San Francisco food, but that doesn’t mean it’s not delicious -- or that it and its implications haven’t spread beyond Bay Area borders.
Whether fancy toast started at Trouble Coffee, The Mill, or somewhere else, thick and expensive crisp bread became a symbol of our area’s gentrification, but also a symbol of taking back basic old-school foods and making them a whole lot more. Everyone made fun of our fancy toast at first, but since it can be found in cities all over the world, well, who’s laughing now?
100% whole grains
Most high-end bakers deal only in white flour, not in the whole wheat flour that’s often considered too coarse for top-notch breads. But that’s starting to change -- as is our understanding of what exactly whole grain is -- and you can guess where that change is coming from.
It turns out what we think of as whole grain isn’t completely whole. Roller mills separate the various parts of the grain and when you buy whole wheat flour what you’re buying are those parts put back together. A few Bay Area advocates, like award-winning baker Craig Ponsford and Oliveto owner Bob Klein, have argued that doesn’t preserve many of the benefits of the original whole grain and that we don’t really know what’s in our recomposed whole wheat flour. Now, they say, is time for grains to have their own revolution. No, this actually isn’t as at-odds with the gluten-free trends as it seems. When the parts are put back together gluten is often added and many who have trouble with gluten don’t with whole-milled grains.
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