An Early Taste of 2009

On the dawn of this new year, I’m meditating on possible themes and directions that will define the flavor and mouth feel of 2009. I’m hardly a fortuneteller, so don’t expect any predictions; however, with this starter batch of tidbits, below, I’m able to piece together some storylines about issues, trends and tastemakers worth watching (and chewing on).

So what can we expect from the world in which we eat, drink, cook, grow, fish, hunt and gather? Will it be the year of slow, fast or medium food? Will we ever know where all our seafood comes from? And while we’re pondering these notions, share what’s on the tip of your tongue, either literally or metaphorically, in the comments area.

It will be difficult to ignore the crapped-out economy and its hand-to-mouth impact. Globally, one billion people will go hungry this year, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Here at home, more than 31 million Americans had signed up to receive food stamp benefits in September, the highest number on record, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

For many, the way to stretch the food dollar has been to buy cheaper cuts of meat, buy in bulk or take a break from meat once or twice a week. Others are heeding the advice of their Depression-era grandparents and making a concerted effort to use up every last morsel of food in the house before the next food-shopping adventure.

All this penny pinching means we'll be seeing more entertaining at home – shucks, even Gwyneth Paltrow is doing it. And don't worry, dessert is still on the menu, but instead of big-ticket items, the trend is to use more humble, everymanwomanandchild ingredients that are cabinet staples. To wit, peanut butter is the star of a dessert feature in this month’s issue of Bon Appetit and the February issue of Food & Wine features a slew of milk chocolate desserts with homebody twists, including pretzels, Ovaltine and corn flakes.

The debate over mercury and seafood will continue, and I'm guessing, so will the level of consumer confusion. Just last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a draft report that effectively would overturn a 2004 joint consumer advisory with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the risks of mercury and seafood consumption. Under that advisory, children and women of childbearing age or who are pregnant or breastfeeding are warned to avoid four species of fish that are high in mercury (shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish) and to limit total weekly seafood consumption to 12 ounces.

The latest report, which worries EPA scientists and environmental advocates, argues that the health benefits of eating seafood outweigh the risks of mercury contamination, which can cause a host of developmental and neurological problems. Will this amended view of seafood safety be approved by the Bush White House in the remaining 13 days or will it become a moot point on Jan. 20?

Speaking of the kitchen and the cabinet, there’s been much chatter over what a Tom Vilsack USDA might look like, given his support of ethanol subsidies and friendly relations with agri-giants such as Monsanto. And would a Vilsack-crafted farm bill look at all like this? And when will President-elect Obama articulate his views on food policy?

That’s what many folks are waiting to hear over at Civil Eats, the newest Web portal on all things sustainable and agricultural. Founded by a group of Slow Food Nation alumni, Civil Eats is poising itself to be an online destination for the latest on how our food is grown and where it comes from. In "My New Year's Resolution," CE contributor Curt Ellis literally puts his money where his mouth is and decides publicly to take a permanent pass on factory-farmed, feed-lot meat.

Share your thoughts on how 2009 might taste or anything else on your mind today at 1ET for this week's What's Cooking, back after a three-week hiatus.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 6, 2009; 1:15 PM ET Food in the News
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