Back to Basics

A return to our food roots may signal a greater awareness.
Peasant food is back. Again. We’re canning, preserving, baking from scratch, and braising like crazy. Urbanites are filling their freezers with deer and game birds that they’ve hunted and field-dressed themselves. Chicken coops are scattered throughout the backyards of the city proper, and lines begin forming early in the morning for loaves of wood-fired breads made in a blue-tiled oven by a high school teacher and his wife. We’re pressing grapes and brewing beer in our basements, and swapping out lawn for kitchen gardens. Whether it’s just a temporary recessionary trend (I hope not), or an enlightened shift in the conversation (I hope so), we’ve gone Little House on the Prairie.

Restaurant kitchens have been cooking lower on the hog as well. Slow cooking (in an oven) and sous vide (in a vacuum-sealed pouch) continue to be popular ways of preparing inexpensive cuts of meat. In addition to a deeply flavored succulence, it makes economic sense in a time where chefs have to be hyper-focused on food cost: there’s less shrinkage and more control. And they’re going whole hog: curing and smoking meats in-house for charcuterie plates; serving more offal (brains, heart, kidney, intestines, and the like); and offering pig roasts, fried chicken dinners, and Flintstone sized shanks and rib racks family style. It’s become more and more common to see chefs who pickle, preserve, and can (Julie Francis at Nectar) or ferment their own kraut (Matt Buschle at Virgils); restaurants that integrate vintage cocktails infused with handmade bitters and syrups (Lavomatic and The Rookwood, among others) or vintage desserts (enough with the cupcakes already).

Sure, it lends cachet to restaurants, but this back-to-basics, farm-to-table philosophy has been a victory garden for many. It has provided chefs, pastry chefs, and bartenders with a chance to reach back to the mother recipes and to the old, exemplary, culinary traditions. For restaurant patrons, it translates to more economical menus, lower price points, and bistro-casual fine dining. It’s flooded the farmers’ markets with chefs and consumers alike and has forced chain markets to step up their game. More important, as the miles between our food and its source have shortened (and as the steps for preparation have lengthened), the knowledge of why, what, and how we consume food has become more familiar. And as familiarity increases, it continues to force the conversation to a national level, increasing demand for lasting transformation in food policy, and our food and agricultural system as a whole.

Yes, we’ve been eating well this past year, reconnecting with traditions that are an integral part of our past. Through them we have the ability to shape and nourish our future.

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