The evolution of food

I was in a restaurant the other day, and it hit me that except for the artisan hamburger -- served with locally grown sweet potato fries on a homemade pretzel bun dressed with the chef's own brand of mustard -- there was very little on the menu I would have recognized as food when I was our server's age.

Most of the words on the menu -- potstickers, edamame, California rolls, ciabatta, wraps, bloomin' onions, pad Thai, naan, chipotle, tilapia, Mongolian beef, latte, mocha, gluten-free, bruschetta, sushi and sashimi -- would have been a mystery to me. Even the section titles would have tripped me up.

"Pasta? What is that?" I would have asked, never having heard the word before. My mother made spaghetti. Everything else was noodles. Pasta? We'd eaten a ton of it without ever realizing it. Of course, back in the Dark Ages of Dining, we never would have heard, "My name's Nevada and I'll be your server tonight," either. And she wouldn't have had a tattoo of barbed wire around her neck, a ring in her eyebrow or been wearing a T-shirt with the logo of her favorite band on it: "The Little Buckets of Spit."



Thirty years ago, if you saw chicken wings on the menu, you would have gotten up and started looking for another restaurant. What kind of person would order a chicken wing on purpose? Now they're so common, you wonder if there are enough chickens in the world to supply all those wings. Some mad scientist is probably trying to develop a chicken with eight wings as you read this. Another is working on making them boneless. You have to wonder what they did with all the chicken wings before they became so popular. Or maybe you shouldn't.

I don't remember anything coming with dipping sauce years ago unless it was French onion dip for potato chips. The really strange thing is that I'm pretty sure the French have never heard of French onion dip. Now everything comes with a dipping sauce. "What kind of dipping sauce would you like with your dipping sauce?" is a question I'm sure to be asked in the near future.

When did balsamic vinegar become so popular? Where did fried mozzarella sticks come from? One day, a salad was some lettuce and tomato that came with whatever you ordered for dinner. Now it is dinner. Do I want grilled or crispy chicken on my Caesar salad? Wait, when did they start putting chicken in Caesar salads? If you're young, they always have, but for many years they didn't.

But what would really surprise my younger self would be the names of the beers at the local brewpub. Oh, yeah, I forgot: There weren't any local brewpubs when I was young. In 1977 there was one craft brewery in the U.S. Last year there were 2,768 of them. They sold about 15 million barrels of beer, which seems like a lot, but it's only about 8 percent of all the beer sold. Still, that's 8 percent the giant brewers didn't sell. And the small brewers did it without spending a gazillion dollars on Super Bowl advertising, without running 57 commercials on 57 channels every night, without have to hire expensive actors to be in those commercials, without having to feed and pay the vet bills on a bunch of giant draft horses.

The trouble with craft beer is that I can never remember which ones I liked and which ones I didn't. Did I have the Magic Hat the last time I was here, or was it the Lagunitas? Or was it Ruination, Racer 5, Little Sumpin', Torpedo, Delirium Tremens, Oatmeal Stout, Pliny the Elder, Three Philosophers, Green Flash, Loose Cannon, Golden Monkey or one of about 4,000 others? I just can't remember. The server suggests I try the Tasting Menu.

"What is a Tasting Menu?" my younger self would have asked.

Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.

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