6 Everyday Foods That Only Became Popular Relatively Recently
Have you ever completely changed your opinion on a food? Maybe you had PB&Js all the time as a kid, then one day, decided it wasn't for you. Maybe you hated canned tuna, but then one day ordered ahi nigiri to seem sophisticated on a date and now you own a tuna fishing boat. Maybe you thought New York pizza was the pinnacle of the universe, and then you spent a weekend in Chicago. The point is, our tastes change all the time. But sometimes, it happens on a massive, society-wide level, for unexpected reasons.
You're Not Turning Into Your Parents, Brussels Sprouts Actually Do Taste Better Now
You know how a big gag in the '80s and '90s was about how terrible Brussels sprouts were? Aside from liver and onions, they were basically the worst thing your mom could force you to eat before you were allowed to leave the table and join your friends in deciding regular or menthol. An entire generation grew up thinking "the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles get to live on pizza, why do I have to eat this leafy bullshit?"
Now, it seems that everyone is like, "Actually, Brussels sprouts are great. People were just cooking them wrong." Except that's only partially true -- science actually worked to make them taste better in the late '90s. Hans Van Doorn, a scientist with a name so Dutch we don't have to tell you where he's from, isolated all the compounds that make Brussels sprouts so bitter. Then, a handful of Brussels sprouts companies (apparently there are whole companies devoted to this stuff) started looking at records of old varieties with lower amounts of these compounds. One breeder at the Bejo Zaden company said they had "a whole gene bank here in our cellars." (Sorry, can we take a minute to acknowledge how weird it is that "Brussels sprouts companies" is a thing?)
Anyway, these vegetable growers have a gene vault. (Like that sentence is less weird than the paragraphs that came before it.) Apparently that gene bank is organized into "this sucked" and "this didn't suck," and the breeders got their Gregor Mendel on and started experimenting with various groups, cross-pollinating and cross-pollinating over and over until people didn't hate Brussels sprouts quite as much. And by "didn't hate quite as much," I mean that they became one of the most popular menu items on more than a few ultra-trendy, celebrity chef-run restaurants. Not a bad comeup for a food that used to be a Saturday morning cartoons punch line leading into a commercial break for Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs.
Kale Went From Decoration To Ubiquitous Fad
Kale: just typing the word probably made you reflexively click over to a Pinterest board. This bitter little curly leaf has become a lifestyle symbol and Culture Wars flashpoint in the last few years. But it wasn't always this way. Kale has a past it doesn't like to talk about -- hanging out in pizza parlors, propping up unhealthy food -- all kinds of incompatible-with-Goop things. Yep, that's right, as little as a decade ago, kale was so unpopular that Pizza Hut was the biggest buyer.
Did Pizza Hut come up with some delicious topping combo, like say, sausage-kale-onion, or kale-tomato-olive? No. Not even close. Pizza Hut relegated kale to ... salad bar decoration. No, Pizza Hut didn't even have some secret soul food era where they slow-cooked greens with smoked ham hocks. They just bought bunches and bunches of kale because it looked healthy on the salad bar. If it seems an unjust and ignominious fate for the delicious and nutritious green, just remember that Ron Swanson was inspired by something in the cultural zeitgeist. "People were stupid back then" is almost always true, and in this case, I'm going to assume that they thought putting anything other than pepperoni or extra cheese on pizza risked late fees for pizza dudes.
A decade later, people realize kale actually is healthy and delicious. Slow cook it, sprinkle it in salads, blend in smoothies ... look, I'm trying to help us both here, okay? We're looking a little gaunt. Some vitamins would help. Eat your greens. Hey, speaking of green things filled with vitamins and people you don't need to worry about ...
Avocado Became Popular So Fast Cartels Got Involved
If you're an American over the age of 30, you probably remember a time when avocados weren't absolutely everywhere (if you're an American under 30, please keep reading, but don't tell me). Before avocado toast became the reason millennials couldn't buy houses, it was relatively obscure to American kitchens. That's because avocados mostly grow in Mexico -- tropical fruit doesn't exactly thrive in, say, Indiana. To be fair, nothing thrives in Indiana, but avocados have an especially hard time.
Unfortunately for the guac-craving masses, trade regulations meant the U.S. couldn't import avocados from Mexico until NAFTA was signed in 1994. The neighboring nations were pretty jacked to trade with each other, especially when it came to crops. Mexico was deeply in debt, and the U.S. was ready for a Kraft Mac and Manifest Destiny.
Americans' demand for avocado gradually grew, thanks in part to Chipotle's mid-aughts rise and Gwenyth Paltrow, but increasing trade surprisingly didn't lead to great things for Mexico. "America benefits while Mexico suffers" is probably the most shocking sentence you've read all week, I know, but this story goes beyond politicians bullying each other.
Enter the cartels. You know what other plants grow super well in Mexico's climate and are beloved in America? Illegal ones, like the kind that make drugs. Thanks to America's conflicting demands of "lower your taxes" (which weakened the Mexican government) and "get the cartels under control" (increasingly difficult thanks to limited resources and the aforementioned demand for illicit drugs), Mexico was in a tough spot.
But the War On Drugs is a huge pain in the ass for everyone, even wealthy cartel leaders. So a lot of them decided to, ahem, branch out into the lucrative avocado business. That's right, these hardened narcos got into agriculture as fast as people at the beginning of the COVID pandemic got into making sourdough. So the next time a Chipotle employee says, "guac is extra, is that okay?" what they're really asking you is "guac is extra and contributing a bloody and violent gang culture that is destroying an entire country, is that where you want your $2 going?"
It Took Less Than One Generation To Completely Change How Babies Eat
Everyone can picture a classic American family dinner: a drunk dad scowling over a rare steak, a sad mom picking at a salad, and a shirtless baby covered in pureed carrots. There's a Norman Rockwell painting of this exact scene, I just know there is, no matter what Google's hiding. Anyway, jarred purees have simply been the way America feeds its kids for a century.
But purees are slowly becoming as popular as pregnant women having three martini lunches. In its place is something called Baby-Led Weaning, which is when parents set pieces of solid food in front of their baby and let them pick around and explore tastes. The term was coined by Gill Rapley in 2005 and the practice has since become really popular in the US, UK, and Australia (most of the rest of the world calls it "what you do"). Empirical science is inconclusive so far, but the intuitive benefits make sense: the kid gets to explore different tastes, textures, and varieties of food, rather than being stuffed full of liquefied peas like the saddest foie gras goose.
Anecdotally, BLW (as the internet moms call it) worked for me. My wife and I started the day our kid turned six months and he took to eating broccoli, eggs, grits, avocados, all kinds of stuff. It also saved time, because I could just cook a little extra of whatever I was already making for dinner, then give it to the baby. It's still messy, because children are monsters, but personally, I think it's way better to dust avocado-laden breadcrumbs off of the table than wiping puke-textured and puke-colored puree off the walls. Also, recycling those endless Gerber jars sounds like a nightmare. Good thing someone had the idea to *checks notes* give your kids food in *squints* 2005.
The Plant-Based Burger Craze Is Kind Of Miraculous
It wasn't so long ago that vegetarian burgers were "black beans pressed into a patty" or "a weird mush of a bunch of veggies, with corn conspicuously sticking out." That's changed recently, thanks to the emergence of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, two brands who boast plant-based products that really give you the feeling of eating meat. A number of techniques are employed here, like using beetroot to simulate that "bleeding meat" effect, plus obsessive attention to detail when it comes to combining a whole bunch of plants into something that looks and tastes and behaves like a burger or bratwurst.
All that said, just because you can emulate a thing doesn't mean you did the thing. But against all odds, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have carved out a niche in the market. And the speed of that change has been remarkable. Beyond Meat was nothing but a Whole Foods exclusive in 2014; by 2020, they had a deal with McDonald's. Impossible Foods' burger was still a novelty item at Silicon Valley restaurants in 2017; by 2019, they had a deal with Burger King. Demand is so high, both companies have trouble keeping up with fast food chains.
Some point to these companies' strategy of trying to appeal to carnivores as the key to their success. This makes sense -- being told you're getting chicken tenders when all you're really getting is pressed tofu sucks -- but you can't always rely on red-blooded American burger-chompers to completely change their habits because you did a science. If the response to the COVID-19 pandemic says anything, it's that Americans do not give one single 7-11 hot dog's worth of poop about science. And yet these faux-burgers are selling in the world's most burger-crazed nation and cozying up to our biggest fast food chains. It's amazing that in the span of a single Presidential term, vegan burgers have gone from "punchline" to "yeah, change my Whopper into that."
Centuries-Old Rich Snobs Are Why European Food Is Spice-less
You know how white people can't handle spice? Shut up, yes you do. I don't care if you're outraged because you're white. I'm white. No, it doesn't matter how many habanero ghost pepper death sauce wings you put down that one time in college. We, as white people talking amongst ourselves, know that accomplishment doesn't really count. No, stop it. Don't bring up the time you ate a Carolina Reaper without puking and it's got two million views on YouTube. No one except your friend Derek has cared since 2007.
The reason why you, a white person, are a punch line (completely unrelated to Derek's hazy memory) is because of colonialism and classism. Used to be, you had to work a bit harder than pushing a cart up aisle seven to get some spices. Cinnamon wasn't always on your cereal and paprika wasn't always on your Doritos. Those spices come from somewhere, and that somewhere is (again) not Indiana. Could different people from different places with different crops simply reach a trade agreement, resulting in some kind of cultural exchange where everyone benefited by making their food taste better? No! This is white people we're talking about! There was war and violence!
See, what spices do is add depth and complexity to dishes. And the Europeans who colonized India and the Americas desperately wanted some depth and complexity in their dishes. Only it came with a catch -- if the poors could have it, then no thank you, please.
As soon as these spices that people fought wars over were readily available and affordable for European lower classes, everyone started focusing on letting one taste shine. Instead of slow-cooking spinach and farmer's cheese in a complex blend of perfectly calculated flavors for hours until you have saag paneer, you throw some ham and cheese on bread and call it a day. Instead of pulverizing a bunch of vegetables and peppers into a salsa and dousing the resulting blend on a skirt steak to marinade, you simply broil the steak with a little salt and pepper and claim you're accentuating the beefy flavors of the beef. See, it's not about feeding people a good meal. It's about knowing that your meat is so good, poor people can't possibly appreciate it or afford it. You gotta put your meat front and center, let it shine by itself, and let the poor people know they don't deserve it. That's right, put your meat front and center. Let everyone appreciate your meat. Now, let's sprinkle on some cayenne.