Earlier this year, Brendan Francis Newnam, co-host of American Public Media's Dinner Party Download podcast, predicted that one of the big food trends of 2010 would be food trends, as "more and more people get into the business of predicting what is going to be popular in food." It seems fair to say, as I wade through a sea of year-end food trend listage, that this is one prediction that has come true.
Newnam then went on to interview Kara Nielson, a food trendologist with the Center for Culinary Development, who shared some insights into the methodology of trendology as she explained her prediction that coconut is going to be big in 2011:
First I saw coconut in an organic green tea, then I started seeing coconut in a lot of the simmer sauces from South-East Asia, and then I was seeing traditional coconut in more of a confection place, as well as chocolate-covered coconut peel as a snack. So pretty soon I'm thinking, "OK, that's a trend." If it's too small, it's not a trend. If it's just happening in one place, if it hasn't really expanded yet, then it's something that interesting to watch. But when it starts appearing in different forms in different places, then you know you've got a trend on your hands.
Nielson is one of a growing cadre of profit-oriented predictioneers—cool-hunters who charge major corporations for their insights. As she puts it, "the purpose of my work is to inter-weave my findings with influential consumer trends as a way to help create on-trend successes for my clients."
But the urge to predict is not confined to businesses chasing the restless consumer dollar. This week, The New York Times has taken its own look at the appeal of predictions, with a variety of guest writers attempting to explain the purpose they serve in our lives.
According to M.I.T. social scientist Sherry Turkle, we make predictions "not to win a bet about the future, but to express a hope about what we might like the future to be," author David Ropeik thinks that we do it "to give ourselves the feeling of control over our fate," and writer Elif Bautman ties our desire to know what will happen next back to a narrative-based way of making sense of the world—after all, "the meaning of a narrative depends on its ending." Meanwhile, John McWhorter of The New Republic has a more cynical explanation for predictions' popularity: escapism, based on the fact that "visions of the future that catch on are typically evasions of modernity."
So what can this year-end rash of 2011 food trend predictions tell us about today, if not tomorrow?
1. Exotic exploitation is evergreen, with peri peri sauce, adzuki beans, Australian finger limes, chia fresca, congee, asafoetida, Korean and Scandinavian cuisine, and cemitas all predicted to be popular in 2011. Backing international dishes and flavors that are still relatively unknown in America is a pretty safe bet, according to Kara Nielson:
What's happening is that Americans are finally waking up to how food has meaning in their lives and they're excited and exploring. And because we don't have an indigenous set of food rules or foods that we have to stick to, we can tap the whole world. And we're just going to keep going and exploring until every little village all around the globe somehow has been exploited for our taste benefit. And then the food trend trend will end and I won't have a job.
2. One man's trend is another man's played-out meme. To quote Nielson again, the trendology curve is inexorable: "We see what the real fine dining chefs are doing, and then we wait a few years and watch as it hits the chain restaurants, and then in a few more years, it's at McDonalds."
So, depending on your position on the food chain, watch out for artisan ice pops, meatballs, culinary cocktails, moonshine, foraging, and canning to be hot or pretty much totally over already in 2011.
3. Denial, Southern comfort, and the search for the new bacon continue to dominate our mental foodscapes: witness "frugality fatigue," "gross is good," boiled peanuts, grits, and Chinese sausage, to pull out just a handful of recurring predictions.
4. Optimism is hot, with wishful predictions for a 2011 in which we see more men in aprons and chefs in schools, not to mention breakfast all the time, noodle mania, and cannabis catering. In fact, it was more or less impossible to find a pessimistic prediction, unless you think fusion tacos are an abomination or consider your Monday incomplete without meat. Happy New Year indeed!