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The '90s Set the Table for a Decade of Good Eats

Want some arugula with that? The century's first 10 years were a fine time to be a foodie

By J.M. Hirsch, AP Food Editor | ABC News

Want an easy way to sum up how Americans ate during the first 10 years of the new century? Three words should do it.

FILE-This April 8, 2009 file photo shows customers ordering food at the Kogi BBQ truck near the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles,File)

Sushi at 7-Eleven.

For this was the decade of the gourmeting of America, an era when cola wars and burger battles made way for artisanal sodas and grass fed beef, when coffee went from a cup of joe to a double shot-half-caff-soy-latte, ethnic was de rigueur and local became the new global.

It was a fine time to be a foodie.

Not that everything exactly whet the appetite. Contaminated produce and soaring food prices turned our stomachs. And we lost some of the luminaries and institutions — Julia Child and Gourmet magazine — that had worked so diligently to brighten our meals.

More than ever before, issues long treated as the mushy peas on the collective American dinner plate — organics, local and sustainable agriculture, animal welfare — were getting sirloin-style treatment, sometimes in the least likely of places.

Walmart embraced organics — a $21 billion industry, up from $3.6 billion in 1997 — a decision that broadened access, but that critics feared would dilute the industry's standards. And the home of the Egg McMuffin said it would study how to raise chickens without cramped cages.

Meanwhile, books and movies that tore into big industry food and would have been relegated to the granola set a decade earlier — Morgan Spurlock's 2004 film "Super Size Me" and Michael Pollan's 2006 tome "The Omnivore's Dilemma" — pervaded the popular consciousness.

Eating became a political act. Whether prompted by concerns about the quality of school lunches, climate change or worker conditions in the Third World, more Americans started to vote with their stomachs. Suddenly, the carbon footprint of your carrots was an issue.

Slow Food, a highly politicized Italian-born movement dedicated to preserving artisanal and sustainable foods, made its first major foray into the U.S. in 2008. It sputtered shortly after, but that such a Euro-centric group even made it on the American scene is remarkable.

Speaking of voting... It says something about our appetite for good food when the most-watched kitchen is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

FILE- This march 20, 2009 file photo shows first lady Michelle Obama taking part in the groundbreaking of the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington with students from Washington's Bancroft Elementary School. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds,File)

Following the ketchup-as-vegetable Reagan years, the no-broccoli-allowed Bush Sr. years, eight years of Bubba's burger fixation, and finally the fake turkey faux pas of Bush Jr., America put a Foodie-in-Chief in the White House.

Everything from the peach cobbler President Barack Obama ate in Chicago to the arugula harvested from the South Lawn garden planted by Michelle Obama suddenly became sought after news.

Food also had a lighter side. We were primed by the Food Network (whose viewership jumped 392 percent from 1999 to 2009) and other channels to treat what we eat as entertainment.

The era of Child's behind-the-stove television was fading, replaced by an army of reality programs with screaming chefs, cooking throw downs and towering cake creations. Good luck if you just wanted to learn how to make beef bourguignon.

For that, you'd have been better off tuning out and logging on. The Web exploded with food-driven content, much of it fed from social networks and blogs. Even Martha Stewart got in on it, using Twitter to send 140-character recipes.

By the middle of the decade, we'd pretty much given up demonizing carbs. And though our waistlines continue to expand, Americans haven't latched on to any one diet since. We do, however, fret over gluten and trans fats, neither of which seems to be in anything anymore.

Weight problems be damned. Eating became ever more ubiquitous. The food industry sought to maximize our so-called eating opportunities. And so we were able to buy soda alongside our staples at the office supply store and candy with our kitty treats at the pet store.

As part of that, on-the-go grub got a serious upgrade. Convenience stores morphed into mini grocers. Nearly 1,700 7-Elevens now sell sushi. Wondering which Slurpee flavor pairs best with California rolls? It doesn't matter. The chain also sells its own line of wines.

FILE-This June 16, 2009 file photo shows first lady Michelle Obama eating with fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in the First Lady's Garden after they harvested some of the vegetables that they planted in a garden on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon,File)

And that's because store brands have become the new must-have (non)label. Thanks mostly to the sagging economy — but also to sharp spikes in quality and marketing — so-called private labels have become an $88 billion industry.

The economy also made us get old school in the kitchen. Sales of home canning supplies shot up and — especially after the first lady planted her kitchen garden — we all reached for our spades and seed catalogs.

Perhaps you ordered some bok choy and tomatillo seeds, because mainstream American food got seriously ethnic. It's partly because we are an increasingly ethnic (and especially Hispanic) nation. But it's also thanks to the growing ranks of young, adventurous eaters.

Sushi? Sorry 7-Eleven, that's so '90s. Young people today are eaters-without-borders and are forever on the hunt for new and more intense flavors. Vietnamese, North African, Indian and South American flavors are where it's at.

Which explains the explosion of food trucks. The trucks themselves aren't new, but the attention they got from serious foodies is. It's also a credit to their inventiveness, quality and deeply ethnic roots. It helps that food trucks are cheap, both to operate and eat from.

Which brings it back to sushi. At 7-Eleven. It was an on-the-go decade that favored ethnic and affordable. Whatever the economy does, and whether we eat at home or in restaurants (or even more likely in our cars), that's unlikely to change during the next 10 years.


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