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Food, Drink And Urban Revolutions

by Philip Jenkins 29th October 2019

Philip Jenkins explores the food and drink revolution over the past twenty years or so, and in the process how it has created new kinds of urban living.

You know you have been living through a revolution when everyday reality has changed so much in just a decade or two that it is just not possible to imagine the old world.

By that criterion, many American cities have undoubtedly passed through a revolution over the past twenty years or so, and in the process created new kinds of urban living that are widely imitated worldwide. Buoyed by new sources of wealth and new industries – by no means only in electronics and IT – young and prosperous residents have flooded into what had long been dismissed as ruinous urban centers, transforming every aspect of life. Obviously, we can tell that story in many different ways, and older residents – usually poorer and ethnic minorities – have their own grim experiences of “gentrification.” Let me focus on one aspect of the urban revolution that seems almost to be too obvious to be worth noting, namely what we eat and drink.

When we visit a major city, we naturally expect a near-limitless range of types of food and drink, with very diverse ethnic origins. It’s easy to forget just how recent that development is. As recently as the 1970s, spicy and non-bland Chinese cuisine was a daring novelty even in the largest metropolitan centers, and Indian, Thai, and Ethiopian food were only beginning to appear in the culinary landscape. In the 1970s, major urban newspapers were telling their readers how to eat a strange new item called the “burrito.”

But change was coming. Berkeley’s influential Chez Panisse restaurant launched its culinary revolution during the 1970s, and the word foodie was coined in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the 1965 Immigration Act began a rapid diversification of the US population, and of its food cultures.

That process accelerated mightily from the end of the 1990s, above all in the reviving cities. In food as in so much else, younger and wealthier new urban dwellers had different tastes and needs from older residents, and businesses catered to them enthusiastically. The ability to find and discuss hitherto exotic varieties of food became an important part of social capital. Although the finest restaurants were available only in the largest cities – and to those with the substantial means necessary to afford them – they inspired a wider trend that was imitated in many mid-size and smaller communities, including college towns.

In their dwellings, clothing, and possessions, new residents practiced what has been described as an urban retro aesthetic, favoring an idealized bygone world. They had a special taste for goods that claimed an independent or “artisan” quality that set them apart from corporate standardization, whether that meant foods, coffee, or beer. Local or regional origins were especially prized, as was the authenticity of “heirloom” vegetables. A widespread transformation in restaurant culture emphasized locally sourced ingredients. The word locavore was coined in 2005.
farmers market_image
Image credit: 'Hamilton Farmers Market A' by Nhl4hamilton. Available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0.

The upsurge of farmers’ markets allowed city dwellers to imagine that they were living in extended villages, close to the land. The same preference supported the growth of community-supported agriculture, CSA, through which urbanites subscribed to the produce of particular farms or cooperatives, receiving each week a seasonal “CSA basket” of fruit and vegetables. Nationally, sales of organic food soared, exceeding $45 billion by 2017, over five percent of total food sales. Just between 2010 and 2017, the combined total of craft breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs operating in the US grew from 2,000 to 6,200, and craft beer is a $24 billion market.

Food trucks are another symbol of the new urban world. These began as an essential means by which laborers (often Latinos) could obtain a hot meal near out of the way work sites. Originally in fashionable centers like Austin, Texas, food trucks increasingly attracted a wealthier clientele, and responded by offering a range of cuisines – Mexican, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Korean, Thai – the choice depending on the diversity of local populations. Through the years, a series of dishes emerged from the obscurity of ethnic enclaves to achieve broad popularity, initially among knowledgeable foodies, and then among a mainstream clientele. Some items migrated from the world of food trucks to become a staple of chain restaurants.

Commonly, such tastes spread from immigrant communities in the south and the west, and college campuses were important to national diffusion. Sushi was already well known by 2000, but the new century brought Vietnamese banh mi, Korean bulgogi, Thailand’s pad thai, Hawaiian poke, and Salvadoran pupusas, as well as East Asian drinks like kombucha or bubble tea.

Although coffee was in no sense an ethnic novelty, the proliferating coffee shops offer a potent symbol of the multiple social transformations in progress in recent decades. Among other functions, such shops filled a potent economic need in giving workers and students a “third space” in which they could operate, aside from home and office. This flexibility was made possible by the spread of laptop computers, and the near-universal availability of cellphones (both critical trends of the century’s opening decade). The best known brand-name, Starbucks, began as a single store in Seattle in the 1970s, but from the end of the century began a steep expansion. (The word barista appeared in US English only in the 1980s). Today, there are fourteen thousand Starbucks stores in the US, and a comparable number elsewhere in the world. Apart from such corporate chains, independent-owned coffee shops proliferated.

However ordinary and inevitable we may think these developments, they demand the fascinated attention of any social historian. When you next see a coffee shop, or a food truck, or an urban farmers’ market, be amazed at the brave new world it proclaims.
Featured image: Photo by Visitor7. Available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0