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Notes on the fridge: 10 years of news you can chew

The 2000s gave us no-carb, cupcake and eat-local trends, plus turned the Web into a giant cookbook

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

When TV chefs make appetizers from vending-machine food while you watch, is that progress? Does reading the 15th online review that says 'I wasn't blown away by it' make you a smarter restaurant customer? And when you know the name of the guy who grew your Swiss chard, is that a good thing? To these and other questions from the past 10 years of food news, we say 'yes.' With our mouths full, of course. Turn to page D5 for 10 of the decade's meatiest topics.

Ray Ray, meet Tony

Ten years ago, Rachael Ray and Anthony Bourdain were nobodies, struggling like thousands of other wannabe celebrity chefs to carve out a niche with their quirky personalities and cooking know-how, and the Food Network and PBS still had the monopoly on food-related television shows. As the highest-paid person in food, Ray now sits at the top of an empire that includes a magazine, daytime television show, a number of other Food Network shows and even a pet food line. Before her now-legendary racy spread in FHM magazine and first $1 million paycheck, Ray quietly debuted "30 Minute Meals" in 2001, the same year Bourdain published his first book, "Kitchen Confidential," a gritty memoir exposing life behind the scenes in American restaurants. His book spawned memoirs from countless other former line cooks and culinary school graduates and, for Bourdain, a career as a television host and writer.

Like Ray and her Food Network brethren including hosts Guy Fieri and Sandra Lee, Bourdain will probably never work in a commercial kitchen again, but that's where "Top Chef" comes in. In 2006, Bravo mashed together two American obsessions — chefs and reality shows — to create a hit series about the thrilling drama Bourdain so eloquently introduced in his book. The show, entering its seventh season, is launching the careers of a new wave of celebrity chefs and non-chefs, including red hot host Padma Lakshmi. — A.B.

The edible security blanket

Sometime between the decade's bookended fears of terrorism and financial ruin, Americans lost their fear of fried chicken. The same can be said about hamburgers, bacon, macaroni and cheese and the other arteriosclerotic comfort foods we remember from our childhoods, or at least from lunch. Comfort food is everywhere, telling us that everything's going to be OK, just as soon as we get to Mighty Fine — or Five Guys or P. Terry's or Hill-Bert's or TerraBurger or any of Austin's expanding burger chains. Mac and cheese has shown up as an alternative to fries at 24 Diner, Cover 3, Red's Porch and other new places. There's bacon in the bourbon at the downtown hot dog house called Frank. And fried chicken has become a point of pride even for upscale joints like Paggi House, Olivia and Max's Wine Dive. On his way out of the job, New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni said, "In New York right now, it seems like you can't walk two paces without bumping into a piece of fried chicken." Who can say whether we'll get to take those two paces tomorrow? Today, I'll have the three-piece box and a biscuit. — M.S.

Local is the new black

Heirloom tomatoes have never had it so good. Back in 2000, most omnivores didn't know they had a dilemma, much less the extent that Monsanto, Cargill and their well-dressed friends controlled the food supply. As authors and moviemakers spread awareness of what goes on behind closed doors at factory farms, the perils of genetically modifying seeds and the long-lasting damage caused pesticides and herbicides, people started to pay closer attention to what went into growing and producing their food.

In a decade, the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. nearly doubled and every restaurant worth its salt, and even a few big food corporations, are vying for the locavore's dollar. Italy's Slow Food Movement went global, and there's a new wave of young people entering the farming business. New farms including Johnson's Backyard Garden, Green Gate and Rain Lily sell food directly to customers through community-supported agriculture programs, where people buy a share of the farm in exchange for produce. And because it doesn't get any more local than from your backyard, victory gardens made popular during World War II are back, empowering a new generation of people, including the First Family, to grow their own food. — A.B.

One man's trash is another man's trailer

"If you follow an Airstream long enough in this town, they're likely to pull over, open the flaps and sell cupcakes and tacos." That's how KVUE meteorologist Mark Murray characterized Austin's growing armada of food trailers during a KGSR radio show. In this bread-and-water economy, anybody with a short-term lease on failed condo land and an ambition to cook can find an audience for honest food at an honest price. By official count, Austin has more than 1,000 licensed mobile vendors. By unofficial count, 900 of them sell tacos. The rest sell, well, everything else: chicken cones, gourmet doughnuts, frozen yogurt, sushi, mini-burgers, chicken and waffles, noodle bowls, cupcakes, grilled cheese, crêpes, cake balls and in the case of three chefs from Uchi, fried beets with kewpie mayo.

— M.S.

A googol of recipes, just a Google search away

During the decade of the blog, people who like food and cooking suddenly had a way to connect with each other, to find new places to eat or share favorite recipes. An explosion of food blogs and recipe Web sites meant that you didn't have to have a shelf full of cookbooks to find a recipe for just about any dish you could conjure up. In 2008, AllRecipes.com surpassed the Web sites for both the Food Network and various food magazines to be the site with the highest Web traffic, and now home cooks' biggest challenge isn't finding a recipe but wading through them all to find one that works and is up to par.

When Gourmet magazine folded this year after nearly 70 years of publication, many with a stake in traditional publishing pointed their flour-covered fingers at food bloggers without realizing that the suddenly powerful and prolific food bloggers were some of Gourmet's biggest fans. Cook's Illustrated and several other publications are having some success charging readers access to online recipes and food content, but the vast majority of users would rather spend money on ingredients instead of recipes. — A.B.

The only good carb is a no-carb

In July 2002, The New York Times Magazine asked the question, "What if fat doesn't make you fat?" The Atkins Diet had been around since the '70s, skirting the fringes with the counterintuitive notion that eating food that's rich in fat and protein but low in processed flour and sugar can help you lose weight. But with its new, high-profile media stamp of validation, the anti-carb revolution all but swept bread from the family table overnight. At the grocery store, desperate Atkins acolytes scrambled for low-carb candy bars, ice cream, pasta — anything to delay the onset of the next lettuce wrap. Even Chili's rolled out a low-carb menu. The mania peaked sometime in 2007, but denial diets flourish still, for reasons that are by turns medical and fanciful. We're gluten-free, dairy-free and in the case of the raw-foods movement, cooking-free. But those days at the all-you-can-eat steak trough? Priceless. — M.S.

There's a salmonella in my spinach

As food inspection technology improves, it's easier for the Food and Drug Administration to pinpoint where an outbreak of E. coli or salmonella comes from, which means we've seen more food recalls in the past decade than ever before. Peanut butter, spinach, tomatoes, jalapeños, pistachios, raw beef and even chocolate bars and cookie dough have been pulled from shelves after people have been sickened or even killed by pathogens. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of beef — almost a half pound of meat per person in the country — in one of the largest recalls in U.S. history. The FDA even has a Twitter account dedicated to food recalls. — A.B.

The revenge of the Old Fashioned

Don Draper is a rainmaker, and the rain tastes a lot like a barman's towel. In 2007, the anti-hero at the heart of the cable drama "Mad Men" made it seem perfectly normal to mix a drink at the office (well, to do pretty much anything at the office). His cocktail? The rightly named Old Fashioned, the same mix of sugar, club soda, bitters and whiskey your parents drank. Coincidentally, absinthe became legal in the United States that same year. Not coincidentally, a movement to resurrect classic cocktails that had been gaining momentum among monkishly devoted mixologists exploded into the mainstream that year, too. Suddenly, it became important to know the right way to make a Sazerac, to know the difference between a silver (made with egg white) and a royal (the whole egg) and to know the wonders a basil leaf can perform in a glass of gin. In Austin, places to sip cocktails in a gray suit with Brylcreem-slicked hair include the pre-Prohibition wonderland called the East Side Show Room, the absinthe-minded Péché, the dark-and-stormy nightscape of the Good Knight and the indoor European sidewalk cafe called Annies. And send Peggy for some more ice. — M.S.

Crazy for cupcakes

Cupcakes are cute, easy and cheap to make and portable, so it's no surprise that cupcake fever has swept the country in the past 10 years. In an episode of HBO's "Sex and the City" in 2000, Sarah Jessica Parker's character eats a retro cupcake outside Magnolia Bakery in New York City, a scene that continues to draw thousands of tourists a year to the Bleecker Street bakery. Just as with the frozen yogurt and doughnuts trends, the cupcake craze was slow to trickle to Austin, but even as we close out the decade, more than a dozen bakeries and cupcake catering companies, including Hey Cupcake and Sugar Mama's Bakeshop, are still shelling out frosted gems to eager customers.

— A.B.

Instant reviews (just add Internet)

On Yelp.com, where anybody can say anything about anyplace, they can say this about Star Seeds Cafe: "So yeah... blah blah, attitude, blah, blah, loud music, blah blah migas." Ten years ago, if you wanted to know whether a restaurant was any good, you asked the people you knew. Now you can get 47 anonymous online strangers — on Yelp, Chowhound, Urbanspoon and others — to tell you how hot the waitress was, how much they hate hearing blues at a French place and how there was gravy on everything. If you employ the Russian-judge technique from the Cold War of throwing out the highest ratings (the owner) and lowest ratings (somebody the owner fired), it's possible to shake out kernels of truth about parking, wait times, killer barbecue and dirty bathrooms, along with flashes of poetic insight: (from Yelp, about Nau's Enfield Drug) "I see women come in alone in an Armani suit and order a Coke float, and you know they are nursing a wound that will be healed by this childhood comfort."

— M.S.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504. msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902