Guest Essays

The Decade in Food

I graduated college in 1999, but didn’t get my first “real” job, the kind with benefits, until January of 2000. Essentially, I’ve lived my entire “grown-up life” in the aughts and as I ponder the jobs I’ve had, all the traveling I did, friends and lovers come and gone, and a world with many sharp shifts, I also think about what I was eating. It has been both a hungry and fulfilling decade.

cosmoMy friend C.C. and I like to refer to the very early aughts as “The Sex and the City” era. We were both working and playing hard at a dot com way downtown, accruing stock options in lieu of 401ks, and drinking a lot of cocktails. Though I was always a dirty martini girl, the drink du jour was the Cosmo. Then came apple martinis, espresso martinis, a resurgence of Manhattans, and pomegranate martinis.

With our 10-dollar drinks, we also scarfed down huge amounts of sushi. Sushi was everywhere, even the grocery store, and I was able to convince my Dad, a meat-and-baked-ziti kind of guy, to try a tuna avocado roll. Dudes in banker blue button-down shirts were eating steak like it was going out of style. Any man who hadn’t sunk his incisors into a wedge of Kobe beef hadn’t yet really arrived.

The stock market had a mini-crash, the dot coms started folding, and I lost my job. I stopped swilling martinis and started doing a lot of daytime reading on Cedar Hill in Central Park. One book passed on to me was The Botany of Desire. “Have you ever heard of Michael Pollan? He writes for the Times,” asked my friend Christina, whose cooking prowess increased as the relationship with her boyfriend grew more serious. “I never thought I would be interested in botany, but this guy really opens your eyes.”

Life took me abroad, and I spent a year living in Italy. I was never able to taste real Florentine steak as Italy was still recovering from Mucca Pazzo (Mad Cow disease) and imported its beef from Argentina. The official currency changeover to the Euro took place in the middle of my year there and the converted cost of my morning cappuccino rose weekly. Regional cuisine still dominated most of Italy, but suddenly a sushi restaurant opened in the middle of Florence!

I experienced some of Europe’s gastronomic development during a month of traveling. I ate incredible Middle Eastern food on the outskirts of Nice and Avignon, and truly terrible Mexican food in the center of Paris. Bored out of my mind in Malta, a gastronomic wasteland, I picked up a copy of Kitchen Confidential, a book by this awesome, acerbic, totally unknown guy named Anthony Bourdain. Even though his book chronicled “the underbelly” of New York kitchens, his book was first released by Bloomsbury in the UK.

I returned to a post-9/11 New York, where flag magnets were adhered to every car and the women of Sex and the City were getting serious about their boyfriends. I bought an “I heart NY more than ever” shirt and starting attending a lot more dinner parties. I made homemade pesto with goat cheese from Mario Batali’s Simple Italian Food and watched Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, and Lidia Bastianich on television.

More and more often I would run into greenmarkets in spots other than Union Square. Leaving class on 68th Street (I was now in graduate school), I was elated to find that I was able to maintain some semblance of the daily market that I grew to love in Italy; seasonal vegetables, bread bought the next door (or stand) over, a hunk of raw cheese, and maybe some fresh flowers.

My awareness of the food world continued to expand and now I too shared “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Spurred on by my Amazon recommendations, I picked up the paperback second edition of Fast Food Nation and kicked my habit of an occasional burger and fries from McDonald’s for good.

I finished grad school and slowly, like many others, started going out to eat again. Babbo, with its hoof and snout cuisine, was widely talked about, but impossible to get into. I enjoyed a lot of what Christina’s now fiancé called “girl dinners” at small plate restaurants like Inoteca and Casa Mono that were popping up everywhere. I was told often that I just had to eat at Craft, a hot restaurant in the Flatiron district that was really changing things for American cuisine. I smugly snubbed the newly glamorous Meatpacking district as I recalled my college days and the 3:00 am meals I ate with drug dealers and drag queens at Florent.

While Julie Powell was blogging about her rediscovery of Julia Child, many others were now using the Internet as a recipe box. Allrecipes, Cooks, About, and the Food Network were early on the online recipe scene. My personal balance of eating out versus cooking at home was now equal, not just because my friends and I were all making more adult financial decisions, but because home cooking was so much fun. Plus, everyone seemed to be on the real estate market and a luxury kitchen with cherry wood cabinets and brushed-steel appliances was a must. Sub-Zero became a household word. Christina’s wedding registry excluded traditional items like gravy boats and instead asked for a pasta machine and a stand mixer.

By 2008, the big culinary debate in New York centered on the best ramen. There was a resurgence in steak and burgers, albeit responsible, grass-fed local steak and burgers that cost an arm and a leg, but at least we know that the arm and leg weren’t pumped up with more hormones than a Chinese gymnast. Butchers were cool. Prune became wildly popular for creating dishes that recalled the world’s best home cooking. Brooklyn, which had been simmering to a boil for years, fully exploded with baby carriages, ironic t-shirts, and top-notch restaurants and markets. It was still impossible to get a table at Babbo.

pizza coverBear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, et al. crashed, burned and became punch lines. The word luxury left our collective vocabulary. (Not a bad thing, in my opinion.) Bernie Madoff left his last 6% tip at Lure, and we all know the rest. I started reading “Not Eating Out in New York.” Fifty sushi restaurants closed in NYC alone and it was possible to get an 11:30 pm reservation at Babbo. New Yorkers joined my cult and became equally obsessed with Neapolitan pizza. A Shake Shack opened at what should have been called Debits Field and squeaked out success. I-Banker became a dirty word. A blog became a movie. Butchers got even cooler. Good. Food. Stories. was born.

Thank you all so much for reading Good. Food. Stories. in 2009. This is our last post of the year, but we’re only just beginning. We look forward to sharing the next delicious decade with you.

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