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Holly Moore

Dumbing Down of Dining

44 posts in this topic

In the US there are two futures for dining.

For a few it will be an adventure. New tastes, new fusions. At some point, perhaps (dare I say I hope), a return to Escoffier. Then the cycle continues. More new tastes and new fusions. It is our nature to regularly return to our roots and set out once again. A wheel of dining.

For the masses the future lies in embellishing the mediocre. Vaster frozen food aisles in the supermarkets. Lowest common denominator product development by the restaurant chains. Ever expanding suburbs boasting fewer independent restaurants and more family oriented chains; fewer supermarkets and more warehouse food centers

Starting with the last third of the 20th century and with no end in sight, for generations of children and generations to come, their primary exposure to cuisine has been and will be home cooking thawed and finished off in the microwave and dining out at chains that bland down and Americanize cuisine for the greatest possible appeal. The McDonald's generation has raised the Chucky Cheese generation who has raised the Olive Garden generation. Their future is simplification, unchallenging flavors, and oceans of melted processed cheese.


Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Holly,

I think it was always this way in matters of taste, except in the old days, people didn't have convenience foods or the ability to eat out at chains.

You know... there are those who live to eat, and those who eat to live.


SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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A truly sad state of affairs.


Matthew Xavier Hassett aka "M.X.Hassett"

"Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters-it is vulgarly called bittered sling and is supposed to be an exellent electioneering potion..."

- Balance and Columbian Repository. May 13, 1806

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For the masses the future lies in embellishing the mediocre.  Vaster frozen food aisles in the supermarkets.  Lowest common denominator product development by the restaurant chains.

Please forgive my shaky command of English. But I wouldn't call what you describe, with such fear-inducing detail, "dining". The masses that populate those chain restaurants and supermarkets surely don't "dine"? They are fed, and that's it. I have always believed that the English term "dining" entailed a minimum of civilization and was not a mere synonym for "having dinner". But I may be wrong.


Edited by vserna (log)

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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For the masses the future lies in embellishing the mediocre.  Vaster frozen food aisles in the supermarkets.  Lowest common denominator product development by the restaurant chains.

Please forgive my shaky command of English. But I wouldn't call what you describe, with such fear-inducing detail, "dining". The masses that populate those chain restaurants and supermarkets surely don't "dine"? They are fed, and that's it. I have always believed that the English term "dining" entailed a minimum of civilization and was not a mere synonym for "having dinner". But I may be wrong.

I suspect your command of English is quite good. But dining is in the eye of the diner. The family of five around the table at Olive Garden indeed sees themselves as "dining."


Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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There is some truth to your statements but I don't know that the future is that bleak or set into only those two clear cut paths. I believe you could make good choices in food and dining out and still have room for costcos and wendy's of the world.

From my own experience and perception, I really think that more people are making changes for the better

1. Authentic Mom & Pop ethic places...Over the past 5 years, I've seen a real growth of ethic eateries around the DC areas. They cover, peruvian, mexican, korean, thai, vietnamease, etc. They are not chains but they are mom and pop shops. Many of the good one are also sticking true to their roots and not dumbing down the flavors nor spices. In addition, I'm seeing in these resturants more diverse clientel when I dine in them, not just the particular ethnic group.

2. Expansion number of CSAs and Farmer's Market...More of my neighbors belong to them, there seem to be more CSA outlet available and we seem to have a good number of farmers markets available.

3. More shopping options serving different market segments...There are more varieties of shopping outlets available. Internet is one but around DC, we have more choice then ever beyond food lion, safeway, giant, costco etc. We have markets that serve the korean, chinese, latin, indian, german, and other ethenic groups.

4. More information about food and good eating...I am convienced that more outlets for information exists about food and eating then has ever existed. More spots on the internet, more books, magazine, TV and radio shows exists that discuss many interesting options.

For my family we don't do high end dining at home or out (except on rare occassions) but we do spend fair amount of time thinking about and cooking good food. We also make pretty good choices about eating out. However, raising two kids, I believe there is no way I can keep completely away from McD's and Chucky Cheese.

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I'm not nearly so pessimistic about the masses as Holly. I think people will learn and demand better food, not just the foodie fashionistas, but all those people watching emeril. There will be a continuous trickle down of information.

And I'd like to note to Holly that on Achatz's opening menu at Alinea, one of the most forward thinking restaurants in the country, there was an artichoke dish, straight out of escoffier--the menu even listed the recipe number. That truly is a hopeful sign.

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There is somewhat of a resurgence of searching for traditional foods; foods like what was cooked at home, or something grandma would bring over. People are cooking at home a lot more and the whole farmers market scene and specialty food markets are growing; there is a growth in this sector. Cultural foods are growing also and all the veggies and pantry items are flowing into the store shelves. Ethnic restaurants are on the rise and retail and restaurant food sectors are seeing more and more customers looking for healthier and sustainable food choices. Homemade baking, soups and canned items and traditional relishes, antipasti and green tomato relish and all those other similar things are in demand.

Do kids who become adults really reminisce about, " oh geese I remember when grandpa took me to Ronnie’s, oh those days"; Are they really missing the food. That eating really is just a function, hungry, I must eat. As a cook I notice a lot of people feeding there kids chicken fingers and people who do not like any veg like lettuce, tomato, pickle, they have a very simple food tastes; meat and potato. I think though there will always be somewhat this level in food but there is more of this type of demand but it is being countered with the opposite. So yes; there is somewhat a polarization of food demands but there is less service in the specialized markets and the big food players are not really going big guns in that market.

The issue lies though with the big corporations; food has become a commodity, like a car, how can we produce that car the cheapest. They loose all the cultural value to food and dinning. How many people can sit for more then five minutes after they stuff their faces, it is dressed down to just a human function. Lost is the cultural and communication side. Sitting around a table taking and sharing good food.

Food politics is going to become a very big topic but like religion and other political issues people tend to tone down their real opinions, we need to learn more about where our food comes from and not just trust something because it is labeled organic.

steve


Cook To Live; Live To Cook

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Everybodies comments have merit, but in order for chefs to explore new boundries they must have a secure hold on the fundamentals! That still is the backbone of any kitchen. Food and Wine can't stop exploring new places because that is what Escoffier did sooooooooooo many years ago! Keep growing and learn something new everyday. My 2 cents

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Your vision of dining in the future doesn't involve Whack-a-Mole? :biggrin:

I attended my share of Chuck E Cheese parties as a kid, but my parents also made it clear that the place had nothing to do with dining. In our house, dining was an opportunity to get together with good food and good conversation. My mom cooked Italian-American at home, but my parents made it a point to show my brother and I what foods other cultures enjoyed (and why we should, too), so now my definition of American cooking involves Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Indian traditions.

It's a pretty simple explanation, for me: parents had the energy and desire to teach us, and we lived in a metropolitan area with an enormous degree of diversity. McDonald's/Chuck E Cheese/Olive Garden were never options, because there was always something more interesting (and usually equally affordable).

This is oversimplifying, but most places are getting more diverse (ok, all my experience here is limited to the U.S. and Europe).... Won't this discourage a genericized dining future? Or does it just mean that everyone will be buying McFalafel? :blink:

Edited to add the last two paragraphs.


Edited by Rehovot (log)

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I agree that chains and other large multinational corporate entities will continue to exert the most influence over what people eat. And they tend to exert supply-side pressure that encourages people to eat crap. They will, however, respond to most anything that can be profitable. And that should give us hope.

For example, it is clear to the corporations behind the big chain restaurant undertakings that there is increasing consumer sophistication regarding food quality. It's easy to see the worst in society at any given moment, but I see many trends of culinary improvement thanks to an increase in culinary interest across the board. A good example of the response to this would be the major McDonald's corporate investment in Chipotle Grill. I was recently at the new Chipotle outpost in Brooklyn Heights. It was superb -- if this is the future of chains, I'm very pleased.

The corporations that own supermarkets are having the same realization. Parmigiano Reggiano, respectable olive oil . . . these ingredients and many like them are now available at all but the lowest level of supermarket. You can go into any relatively nice suburban supermarket these days and put together a meal that is better (fresh fish, fresh vegetables, high-quality domestic and imported ingredients) than what you could get at the top New York restaurants thirty years ago (frozen fish, frozen vegetables, nothing domestic that was any good and precious few available imports).


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Steven, I agree with everything you've said, the caveat I would employ is that this availability is not universal as of yet. Small town USA (and Canada for that matter) still don't have these options. As demand increases, along with globalization I imagine this will change. It is also within the realm of possibility that the emergence of higher quality chains serving higher quality ingredients in small towns with help increase both the demand and the awareness.


Barbara Laidlaw aka "Jake"

Good friends help you move, real friends help you move bodies.

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I agree with that, Jake, and don't mean to ignore small towns. I think, however, that the news is pretty good for the very small percentage of the population now lives this way. While I don't think, with the exception of a few destination restaurants in places like Yountville, that small towns are going to have a dining renaissance anytime soon, I do think that the situation now is better than before. For one thing, people in small towns have access to exactly the same media as people in Manhattan and other major urban areas: they get the same TV stations, the same websites, they can order the same books from Amazon.com -- they have access they never had before. Even better, thanks to the FedEx revolution that Michael Ruhlman mentioned in the roundtable discussion, it's possible for a family at the extreme end of a sparsely populated rural delivery route to get lobsters shipped overnight from Rhode Island, and to call Zabar's in New York City and have any kind of cheese shipped -- and throw in some Valrhona chocolate and good extra virgin olive oil.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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BTW, this leads me to extol the virtues of a British restaurant chain, Pizza Express (as it's known in the isles)/Pizza Marzano (as it's known in its continental expansion). It's not just the 30-eurocent donation to the Nelson Mandela Foundation with every meal, it's not just the usually pretty good live jazz, it's these guys' obsession with ingredients: mozzarella di bufala, parmigiano reggiano, ripe marzano tomatoes for the sauce... Even the beer is always Peroni. So in Madrid and Toulouse now, the kids insist on having their pizzas in a British chain restaurant, of all places! And it seems to be profitable. So there is a discriminating public out there that will appreciate such efforts from a multinational.


Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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You know, sometimes my son (3 years old) asks to go out for sushi, often he begs to go to the Bouchon Bakery, and today he asked for a Filet-O-Fish. Is it SOOOOOO bad to eat junkie food once in a while? Must we constantly look down our noses at anyone who dares eat at Chilli's? Sometimes it's about keeping your bloodsugar levels up and not cleaning the kitchen. Sometimes it's about eating somewhere that easily pleases everyone. Everything in moderation, right?

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Steven, I agree with everything you've said, the caveat I would employ is that this availability is not universal as of yet.  Small town USA (and Canada for that matter) still don't have these options.  As demand increases, along with globalization I imagine this will change.  It is also within the realm of possibility that the emergence of higher quality chains serving higher quality ingredients in small towns with help increase both the demand and the awareness.

Jake, I support you for the most part. However, I am going to state that even in Broken Bow, Nebraska, a town of 4000 in the state's 2nd largest county (land-wise) having only 10,000 residents, we can find things like sriracha and artichokes. This is something that we wouldn't have found there even 15 years ago, IMO.


I always attempt to have the ratio of my intelligence to weight ratio be greater than one. But, I am from the midwest. I am sure you can now understand my life's conundrum.

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Steven, I agree with everything you've said, the caveat I would employ is that this availability is not universal as of yet.  Small town USA (and Canada for that matter) still don't have these options.  As demand increases, along with globalization I imagine this will change.  It is also within the realm of possibility that the emergence of higher quality chains serving higher quality ingredients in small towns with help increase both the demand and the awareness.

Not true of my midwestern small town. We have a twice-weekly very vibrant farmer's market, several places to buy good olive oil (not to mention fluer de sel, picholine olives etc), two indian groceries, two mexican groceries, two thai restaurans, three japanese places, lots of chinese & italian mom & pop etc. etc.. We do also have a lot of chains, and admittedly you can't find everything. (It really is a small town.) But a surprising amount of stuff is available and seems to imprive every year as people learn more. I am optimistic, actually.

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eGullet members are definitely not representative of the insipid palate that I believe to be predominant in suburban America. That there are notable exceptions such as what has been described here does not mean that, overall, American surburban dining is not as dumbed down as I project it to be. Good food and great dining can be found most anywhere. But throughout suburbia, meaning much of America, these are a small minority of what is available and what is popular.

It is a matter of conditioning and culture. The food one is exposed to as a youth or young adult determines one's definition of good and maybe even fine dining. At many homes both husband and wife work. Others are single family working parents. In either, it is tough to find the time to prepare dinner from scratch.

Instead, Boston Market take-out, Domino pizza with bread sticks and gourmet dipping sauce, or the frozen food section/microwave one-two punch to a home cooked meal. Red Lobster, Olive Garden, ChiChi's or any of the dozens of chain family dining options that line the highways and mall parking lots of suburbia rule the dining out scene. Ethnic cuisine is Mexican at ChiChis. For too many diner at the Olive Garden is reserved for a special occasion meal. Innovation is adding grilled shrimp and shitake mushrooms to the pasta Alfredo.

Yes, one can live in the burbs and dine well. But for most that is not the priority.


Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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eGullet members are definitely not representative of the insipid palate that I believe to be predominant in suburban America.  That there are notable exceptions such as what has been described here does not mean that, overall, American surburban dining is not as dumbed down as I project it to be.  Good food and great dining can be found most anywhere.  But throughout suburbia, meaning much of America, these are a small minority of what is available and what is popular. 

[...]

Yes, one can live in the burbs and dine well.  But for most that is not the priority.

But was it ever? I think it's a priority for more than it used to be, and the small minority is getting bigger. Looking at what was available in my hometown supermarket when I was growing up in the '70s compared to what is there now... there's just no comparison. When I was a kid iceberg lettuce and frozen or canned vegetables ruled the day (I remember my folks getting "B-in-B" canned mushrooms, ick). Now in that same town where my parents still live, the supermarket has a wonderfully diverse selection (and this is a town of 3,000 in rural New Hampshire that does NOT have a diverse population.) And there's an amazing organic farmstand three miles from their house (Owens Truck Farm in Ashland, NH.)

On the whole, I think things are getting better, not worse, when it comes to people's taste. My parents were brought up with Midwestern cooking in the '50s - solid meat and potatoes (and their parents were brought up to be happy to have anything at all.) My food upbringing in the '70s was sort of Midwestern with a '70s influence - fondue pots, quiche, Beef Bourguignon made with Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Both my and my parents' taste evolved through the '80s and '90s and now we're all people who care about food and go out of our way to get things that taste good. And, the things that taste good - from heirloom tomatoes to imported cheese to Sriracha sauce - are more widely available then ever. I don't think we're out of the mainstream - if we were, the supermarkets still wouldn't have the good stuff.


"There is nothing like a good tomato sandwich now and then."

-Harriet M. Welsch

Visit my food blog! http://goodformeblog.blogspot.com/

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I had an epiphany in (of all places) Walmart this week. (Hey -- it's the only place in town where I can find beef cheeks, thanks to the store catering to the local Hispanic population). Anyway, two women came up behind me in the spice/flour/boxed scalloped potatoes aisle searching for something. By the looks of them, my jaundiced, prejudiced eye assumed (in a split second summing up) that they were probably seeking out Hamburger Helper or some other such atrocity. But when I passed by I overheard one of them announce, with eagerness and perhaps a touch of boastfulness, "I need to find the sea salt." My jaw almost dropped. I apologized to the lady -- silently -- for my unfair assessment of her and moved along, feeling hopeful about the state of foodways in America.

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I *love* encountering closet gastronomes. It's interesting you bring up that point, as I'm writing an article about it for next week. They are everywhere! It's fantastic!

In fact, when I'm feeling despondent about the dumbing-down of food I see around me, an experience like that gives me fuel for another day. Thanks for the reminder.

:smile:


Jennifer L. Iannolo

Founder, Editor-in-Chief

The Gilded Fork

Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

Home of the Culinary Podcast Network

Never trust a woman who doesn't like to eat. She is probably lousy in bed. (attributed to Federico Fellini)

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We must surely be able to assess Holly's initial comments about the "masses" and their attitudes about dining with some market research and consumer surveys on this subject. Does anyone know anything about how markets are reacting to some of these questions?


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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It's nearly universal in the food industry right now to work under the assumption that consumer tastes are getting more sophisticated and demanding. Not all of that is being addressed by eGullet-level solutions -- some of what the industry considers sophisticated would be a joke here. But the trend is well documented. You have to pay a lot of money to get most of the reports that go into the actual data, but the summaries, abstracts and press releases are out there to be found. On the restaurant side of the equation, at least, the National Restaurant Association is constantly studying this situation and all its sub-trends. In its top four trends to watch in the coming year, it lists "The sophistication of Americans' palates and knowledge of food" and "Continued increased focus on healthy lifestyles and restaurants providing customers with balance, choice and customization." Only about 25% of Americans, still, are what the NRA categorizes as "adventurous eaters," and they are heavily weighted towards urban areas, but the trend is nationwide.

Of course, big trends are made up of little trends. In the post-war period (World War II, that is), there was a gastronomically devastating move away from quality, craftsmanship and connoisseurship and towards quantity, technology and convenience. Yet, you can get Parmigiano Reggiano now and you couldn't get it in 1950. I think the point of on-balance reversal came sometime in the 1980s -- that's when things started getting better. Now, I think every year you see better restaurants and better supermarkets most everywhere -- and especially in the cities (even the small ones). You have media educating people about cuisine -- even if it's just at the level of Emeril, for most people that represents an improvement. You have FedEx and the shipping/logistics revolution. And there has also been a significant back-to-basics movement, with farmers markets and the like going strong these days and appealing to wide audiences -- not just rich people, but even in some of the inner city impoverished communities. Even the fast-food chains seem to be reversing some of their worst excesses: right now McDonald's, Burger King, et al., seem to be improving their products not making them crappier the way they did for the last couple of decades of the 20th Century.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The opening salvo of this thread (by Holly Moore) is excellent and so are the other contributions which challenge her pessimism. How can then one reconcile the 2 sides?

The answer may lie in the specifics of the American political economy which defied a postulate of economic development discipline. Students of economics are told that although income inequality tends to increase during the early stages of industrialization and modernization, later stages of development and high productivity have historically gone along with more equal distribution of income. The latter point was accurate for the States till the end of the 70s and it still holds for Western Europe (less for England). Unfortunately, this positive trend of diminishing inequality in advanced stages of development cannot be taken for granted. Specifically, in the United States, income inequality increased substantilally in the 80s as a consequence of changes in economic structure, the increase in single parent families, immigration and a lowering of income taxes in the 80. In terms of income distribution the US of today is a much more polarized country than the Western European countries. One should expect that eating habits and the supply side should reflect this fact and it does. When I look back to my quarter of century spent in the country and casually observe the 2 sides of the same coin highlighted by different commentators. That is:

1. There are many more sophisticated Americans who demand better food and higher quality ingredients. Corporations respond to this need.

2. But the gap or polarization in eating habits has further increased as a consequence of the increasing polarization in political economy. This gap also pertains to knowledge about food and cuisine and its appreciation. It is easier for a Spanish or Turkish or French hedonist to share common feelings with an average citizen than it is for an American gastronome. By the same token eating out is more like a communal joy in European countries than it is in America. Real or imaginary dress codes don't matter in this context.

A minor point. I agree with the factual observation that the availability of "luxurious" ingredients such as Reggiano or Balsamico has increased in the States. However, I think this development is partly salutory and partly troublesome. Why it is salutory is obvious. But it is also problematic for 2 reasons:

a. Increased availability often comes at the expense of quality. The "luxurious" ingredient is becoming "pedestrian" so to speak.

b. The good quality of the same ingredient now becomes harder to find and, when it is available, the already high price now becomes prohibitive. So the very trend that seems democratic also contains the seeds of further polarization.

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I disagree with the premise. It implies that there was some golden age of restaurant dining in the United States that never actually existed.

The growth of chains is not necessarily reflective of a "dumbing down" so much as a rising affluence and two-income families, meaning that we eat out way more often than we used to, and population growth in the sub- and ex-burbs, where there were few places to eat, period.

Chains are not so much driving mom-n-pop places out of business, as filling a void. Independent restaurants have always come and gone, it's a tough business. In addition, many of them suck; their disappearance is a loss in terms of nostalgia, not dining. Many of the good ones hold on (to be reviewed by Holly). And, for every diner and independent Kountry Kitchen or Lou's Seafood Shack being driven out of business, two Asian joints and one hipster place open up, all with food as good, or better, than what was lost.


I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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