In the late 1980s, I was a member of a college friend’s wedding party. While the wedding itself was largely uneventful, the rehearsal dinner proved anything but. The groom’s parents decided to hold the event at a swank hotel offering (then) cutting-edge fusion cuisine from the Pacific Rim.

Americans—especially younger generations—are embracing foreign cuisines such as Thai-style sesame peanut noodles. Black sesame seeds add color, flavor, and texture.The bride’s relatives—mostly from a small town in the Midwest—were appalled. In the place of steak, fried chicken, Jell-O salad, or any of the other familiar foods one would expect at such an occasion, the hotel’s menu offered peculiar items such as spring rolls, chicken satay, seared tuna in wasabi sauce, tofu in peanut sauce, California rolls, Phad Thai, and curried salmon. Worse yet, much of the menu didn’t even appear to be written in “plain English.”

While wedding ceremonies, like all important social rituals, will always be marked by such drama and tension, one thing has changed in the past 20-odd years.

Somewhere along the way, most of America has become much more comfortable—if not enchanted with—the foods, cuisines, and menus of foreign lands. To be certain, our comfort level varies—generally the older and more rural are somewhat less open to foreign or “ethnic” cuisines. But the big picture is clear: We are rapidly evolving into a culture marked by truly global food preferences.

Consider the rapidly expanding fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry, where consumers in suburban and exurban areas routinely choose among offerings from Chipotle, Taco Cabana, La Salsa, Qdoba, or Baja Fresh (Southwestern, Mexican, & Tex-Mex), Starbucks (Italian espresso), Panera Bread (Italian paninis), and P.F. Chang’s (Chinese) as well as the legion of smaller, local ethnic eateries crowding suburban strip centers.

Most ballparks—long the bastion of traditional American cuisine in the name of the hot dog—now offer a global smorgasbord including sushi, satays, spring rolls, paninis, and even Kobe beef hamburgers. Not surprisingly, Dodger Stadium is catered by Wolfgang Puck.

And then there’s the grocery store: What was formerly a warehouse of familiar ingredients used to feed the “American way of life” has been transformed by a cavalcade of fresh and prepared food offerings—many of which stress ethnic preparations or exotic flavors. The rapidly dwindling “center store” is increasingly home to all manner of imported products and ethnic ingredients.

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Perhaps most importantly, whereas consumers formerly equated ethnic food with two broad categories of cuisines—Latino and Asian—consumers are now coming to differentiate between ethnic flavors with much greater specificity and detail. Currently, many consumers are freely able to distinguish between Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mediterranean, Greek, African, Spanish, Caribbean, and Latin American variants. And it is only a matter of years before they will begin differentiating between regional cuisines within a country or continent. So in the case of Mexico, we might expect consumers to eventually distinguish between Oaxacan, Yucatan, Baja, Puebla, Mayan, Cal-Tex, Tex-Mex, and a host of other regional influences.

But while our fascination with ethnic cuisines, foreign flavors, and exotic ingredients continues to evolve, lingering questions remain. How did this happen? Why now? Will this trend continue? And most importantly, what are the long-term implications for the food industry?

It’s a Small, Small World
In many ways, the short answer to most of these questions can be found in a single word: globalization. Simply consider a scant few of the profound changes we’ve witnessed in the past 20 to 30 years:
• The unprecedented rise and global integration of economies such as China, India, Korea, and Taiwan—not to mention the disintegration of the Eastern bloc.

• The absurdly shrinking cost of airline travel. International travel, formerly a privilege of the elite, is now commonplace for most of the planet’s citizenry.

• The rapid proliferation of a truly global—and affordable—shipping infrastructure. Who needs specialty grocer Dean & Deluca when you can get your favorite Tuscan olive oil drop-shipped from the estate in Italy for $15? Very few people are really able to comprehend how radically our shipping infrastructure has changed our lives.

• And then there is that little magical thing we call the Internet.

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The point is that we are now living in a (mostly) integrated world, a newly and nearly transparent planet whose vastly differing cultures are increasingly communicating among and between themselves. But more importantly, this ecology of cultures is now fair game for all manner of scrutiny by ordinary folks. Free as we are to explore the habits, traditions, and peculiarities of our foreign neighbors, it should come as little surprise that we first indulge our curiosities via food. Think about it, what’s the first thing that usually happens when people unfamiliar with each other come together? They eat, of course.

The end result in a place like the United States—with few trade barriers, a prosperous economy, and a stridently individualistic and curious culture—is a consuming public that is increasingly comfortable picking and choosing from all manner of cuisines, preparations, and ingredients. In short, we are rapidly evolving to a nation with truly global food preferences and this will be a permanent and long-standing development.

New Tribalism
But as globalization’s inexorable march continues mostly unabated, there is an ever-more palpable undercurrent. For all its benefits (i.e., integrated economies, shared knowledge and understandings, varied cuisines, unique perspectives, and interesting travel destinations), globalization’s Achilles heal is the tendency toward homogeneity.

While globalization has brought the planet’s citizens closer together in so many ways, there appears to be a simultaneous resurgence in ethnic strife and regional conflicts. This paradox was observed some 14 years ago in an essay by Benjamin Barber in The Atlantic entitled “Jihad vs. McWorld.” Barber’s central argument was that as universalizing markets usher in a more globally homogenous culture, one whose citizens feel increasingly comfortable interacting with each other at all levels, we experience an attendant and heightened need to pursue our own identities, often with a renewed sense of parochial hatred. Some have dubbed this phenomenon the “new tribalism” as we seek to better understand the features that make our cultures, background, and ethnicities truly distinct.

While there are undoubtedly many controversial political, ethnic, and religious consequences to this phenomenon (many of which are being summarized in harrowing detail on the nightly news), and while Barber argues that both of these forces are antithetical to the true spirit of democracy, we will side-step those concerns and merely consider the implications for those involved in the food business.

Most notably, while globalization has kept us busy exploring each other’s cuisines, ingredients and ways of cooking, we are likewise increasingly interested in the localness, the “essence”, and the history of such practices. In other words, the same phenomenon that has caused the world’s citizenry to begin sampling each other’s cuisines at will has also caused us to become much more concerned with, if not obsessed by, authenticity.

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In Search of Authenticity
The evidence of our passion for all things local, regional, and authentic cannot be denied.

Suddenly we’ve become acutely aware that “real” Parmesan cheese must come from Parma, Italy, and that the stuff we used to get in the green can isn’t what we thought it was.

Some restaurant menus now read like biographies, with the lifestyle and pedigree of every animal and ingredient noted in excruciating detail: “Trevisso radicchio and Satsuma orange salad with a 2005 harvest cranberry citrus vinaigrette” or “seared free-range Niman-ranch pork medallions atop a bed of locally foraged Chanterelle mushrooms and Monarch Farms ‘Bear Claw’ heirloom tomatoes.”

What were formerly staples of lowly peasant life in Italy—preparations such as risotto or pasta y fagioli—are now celebrated as authentic culinary treasures and are commonplace on the world’s finest restaurant menus.

Farm-based agriculture and food production, formerly a humble and largely disregarded occupation, has been re-imagined in the form of boutique artisanship. The Napa Valley was re-colonized by a generation of frustrated elites looking to head back to the land for something “more real.” By all accounts, there are now far more regional, artisanal cheese makers in the U.S. than there were a century ago. And what town in the U.S. doesn’t sport several local farmers markets these days?

The point is, just as we have become accustomed to choosing at will from the world’s preparations, flavors and ingredients, so too have we become equally interested in where they come from, how they are made, and who happens to make them.

But what is often lost on most in the food world, is that authenticity is not some sort of hallowed, objective status bestowed upon the “real” or the “elite.” Rather, labels such as artisanal or authentic are merely relativistic notions subject to dispute, debate, consensus, or disagreement. Because some of us in the food world create and support the narratives that suggest that the Parmesan from Parma, Italy, is the real one and the one from Kraft Foods less so, we also harbor the ability to craft a limitless array of alternative authentic products or traditions.

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Put most simply, authenticity and artisanship need not originate from obscure tradition or antiquity, but can easily be fabricated. As American sociologist C. Wright Mills noted, “Freedom is not merely the opportunity to do as one pleases; neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between a set of alternatives. Freedom is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them—and then, the opportunity to choose among them.”

In other words, due to the impact of globalization, and the related increase in interest in authenticity, not only are we free to choose from a truly global set of food preparations, but we are also free to create ever-more authentic, regional, and local food products.

So, what do these developments mean for the food industry? Here are four plausible scenarios:
1) First, we will witness the slow demise of a common understanding of an American way of eating. To be certain, families and other institutions will always have their own food traditions and preferences, and certain food items (e.g., hot dogs or hamburgers) may continue to enjoy longstanding popularity within our culture. But the idea that there will be a “commonly understood” cuisine served at critical ritual occasions such as weddings, parties, or summer picnics is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

2) Those born after, say, the late 1990s will feel little, if any, inclination not to pick freely, at will, from a truly global palate. As part and parcel of our ongoing consumer research, we routinely interview families whose young children may opt for scones for breakfast, Yakisoba for lunch, playful Japanese candy while shopping for dinner, before returning to an evening meal of pappadams and curried chicken.

3) Of course, it only stands to reason that, as outlined above, there will be a permanent and growing interest in all things regional, local, and authentic in the world of food. Organizations such as the Slow Food movement will continue to expand, and we will continue to see growth in artisanal products and heirloom fruits and vegetables.

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But the important thing for all of us in the food business to remember is that authenticity is not an objective status but, rather, a fabricated designation referring to a product, process, or “way of doing” to which certain critical parties (e.g., food critics, experts, artisans, craftspeople, and the food industry) have lent their support.

In other words, while consumer interest in authenticity may seem, at first glance, to limit marketplace opportunities (how many authentic cheeses are there from Vermont?), the reality is exactly the opposite. In fact, it’s possible for there to be thousands of authentic cheeses from Vermont. All that is necessary is a horde of interested artisans, a network of cooperative actors (critics, writers, and the like), and a slew of impressive narratives.

4) Most troubling of all, we’re going to witness a long, steady decline of consumer interest in many of the legacy brands that so dominated the American supermarket landscape of the past century.

In one sense we’re already witnessing this phenomenon with declining center store sales and the rise of private label brands such as Trader Joe’s, but a more fundamental problem is that the consumer of tomorrow is going to be thinking in terms of preparations, flavors, and ingredients rather than branded food products. Oreo’s, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and Campbell’s soups will be replaced by desires for biscotti, fettuccini alfredo, chicken molé, or rasam soup.

True, consumers may not always have the interest or time necessary to create those preparations themselves, but that won’t be a problem, because the successful grocery store of the future’s perimeter area will resemble an international food court. And truth be told, many better specialty grocers already resemble this model.

To reiterate, our current research finds that today’s consumer tends to use grocery stores either as providers of fresh, prepared foods or as a source for the ingredients used to prepare food in the home. As consumers explore more global food preparations and flavors, the traditional branded food products will appear ever less relevant, an anachronistic legacy from years past. In the future, this trend will likely only intensify, resulting in an affinity more for retail brands (often the purveyors of fresh preparations) than traditional packaged food brands.

by Jarrett Paschel, Ph.D., is Director Retail and Consumer Trends, Tinderbox (a part of The Hartman Group, Inc.) 1621 114th Avenue S.E., Bellevue, WA 98004 ([email protected]).