The American Plate 1990-1999

Celebrity Chefs

The nineties has to be the decade of the celebrity chefs. This was mainly made possible by the Food Network with shows entitled Rachel Ray’s 30 Minute Meals, Everyday Italian with Giada De Laurentiis, and The Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten. Alton Brown explained food chemistry with the aid of graphics; Bobby Flay traveled America to clambakes and a stew called burgoo in Kentucky. Mario Battali ate his way across Italy. A shy young Austrian chef named Wolfgang Puck opened a restaurant called Spago in West Hollywood, California. Puck reinvented pizza by using food from worldwide cuisines such as goat cheese, smoked salmon, duck sausage, chili oil and chicken. He began his own show on the Food Network in 2001.

Emeril Lagasse, a Portugese-American from Massachusetts developed a tremendous following by using signature phrases like “Kick it up a notch” and “BAM” as he adds spices to his food. He owns several restaurants, his TV show, a line of spices and sauces, cookware, and cookbooks.

One of the most popular shows on the Food Network was Iron Chef. This show pits chefs against each other. Each show centers around a theme food that must be used in the preparation of gourmet dishes. It can be from clams to eggplant to pumpkin and the cooking and preparation is presented as a contest in spectacular ways.

The Rise of SnackWells

Back in the real world, manufacturers were still busy finding ways to make food fat-free, low-fat, or reduced fat. Scientists even made a fake fat, Olestra which reached the market with the hope that we could then binge on foods that contained it. It was not successful – we continued to gain weight and turned to carbohydrates instead since they were low in fat. One problem: many of them were full of sugar. One popular product was called SnackWells, an array of fat-free cookies that suggested that you could eat all of them and not consume any fat. Introduced in 1992, the problem remained that they still contained calories.

The Internet or the World Wide Web opened up a whole new world of food with access to recipes from around the globe. All you had to do was search for a certain dish and voila – an abundance of recipes would appear for your choosing. Most recipes were reviewed by “real” people who offered suggestions for improving the dish or warned you ahead of time what to expect from the ingredients. Recipes were rated from one star to 5 stars with 5 being the best.

Dieting and Diabesity

Although weight loss diets had been around for decades, people began to be obsessed with dieting in the 1990’s. The diet industry exploded with diet books, diet pills, dieting gimmicks, fat blockers, calorie counters. In 1994, the FDA mandated that food labels must include detailed information about calories, fat and fiber. In 1996, it was estimated that six million Americans are either taking fen-phen (the appetite-suppressant, fenfluramine) plus the amphetamine phentamine. The products were pulled off the market when the FDA reports that “fen” might cause fatal heart problems. In 1996, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute reports that 40 percent of nine and ten-year-olds are dieting and trying to lose weight. In 1999, Nutrisystem began selling its pre-made food and its products on TV and the Internet.

A new word was coined – diabesity. As the world became more overweight and obese, diabetes type 2 began to reach epidemic proportions. From 1990 to 1998 diabetes increased by one-third in the U.S. The vast majority of this increase – 76% was among people aged 30-39. The two major causes are an increase in obesity and a lack of exercise. Sixty percent of Americans do not exercise regularly and 25 percent do no exercise at all.

Survivor Foods and Y2K 

On December 31, 1999, the world waited to see if the coming year (2000) would disrupt computer systems that controlled phones, traffic lights, electricity and communications. Many were panicked and stockpiled food for survival in case the world shut down – None of the fears came to pass.

America’s Green Acres

As the century drew to a close, Americans look to their past to this to rediscover the pleasures of getting back to nature. Cashing in on this desire with farmers markets: there was just a few 100 in the 80s; by 1998 there were more than 2,700. And that number continued to grow as consumers seek out farm fresh produce. Then there were catalogs for fresh and dried herbs, heirloom vegetable seeds and exotic produce.

The organic foods industry was also a big story. As part of the 1990 farm bill, Congress included the Organic Food Production Act, which authorized development of national standards for labeling foods organic. But in 1997 when the USDA released these long awaited rules there was such an outcry against many of the proposed alliances, like permitting the use of sewage sludge fertilizer , and the inclusion of genetically altered foods, that the Department was flooded with an unprecedented 200,000 angry comments from the public.

The draft was scrapped, and the process began anew. A second set of rules was completed and released for public comment before the end of 1999.

But this governmental blunder didn’t stop the organic industry’s burgeoning sales and production because individual states already had their own standards and watchdog agencies in place. The organic industry posted double digit growth throughout the decade, with product sales topping the 4 billion dollar mark.

SOURCES: The Century in Food: America’s Fads and Favorites, Beverly Bundy [Collector Press:Portland] 2002 (p. 172-189)

The Food Chronology, James Trager [Henry Holt:New York] 1995 (p. 694-721)

Bon Appetit, September, 1999, p. 230

Timeline Trivia

1990: The US Department of agriculture introduces the Food Guide pyramid displaying 6 to 11 servings of carbohydrates a day. No differentiation was made between refined carbs and healthier carbs.

1990 The first fully recyclable plastic ketchup bottle hits supermarket shelves.

1991: McDonald’s introduces the McLean Deluxe, a lower fat

burger that is eventually shelved because of consumer lack of interest.

1991 US sales of salsa pass those of ketchup by $40 million dollars.

1992: Basketball greats Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Larry Bird advertised for Lays potato chips new formulation. The motto becomes “too good to eat just one.”

1993: US annual per capita egg consumption falls to 232, down from 321 in 1960, as the country becomes consumed with worries about cholesterol.

1993: the nation’s first 24-hour food channel, The Food Network, goes on the air.

1995: DiGiorno Rising Crust pizza is introduced.

1996: Four of five grocery bags used are plastic.

1998: Potato sprouts carried aloft on the space shuttle Columbia produced the first food grown in outer space.

1998 Organic farmers, marketers, chefs and consumers send more than 280,000 protest letters, prompting the US Department of Agriculture secretary to withdraw proposals to allow food to be labeled organic even if it is irradiated to kill germs, genetically engineered, or subject to sewage sludge or chemical spraying. The USDA continues to work on guidelines to have a national standard for organic food.

1999: genetically engineered corn is found to contribute to the death rate of Monarch butterflies.

1999: Prepackaged convenience foods are the fastest growing segment of the natural foods market, which is seeing a 20% annual growth rate. Consumers are gobbling up soy-based frankfurters, veggie burgers, frozen tofu desserts, and vegetable burritos.

1999 the average household works 40 days to buy its food for the year and spends 11% of household income on the annual food bill.

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