How 9/11 Changed America’s Food

Is it 9/11 again already? I remember the awfulness of the original, hearing the radio reports in the catering kitchen in San Francisco where I worked. The owner thought maybe it’d be a good idea if everybody packed it up and went home—I caught the BART train that raced east under San Francisco Bay, as if life were pretty much normal. Except for the terrible news out of New York City, and a slowly unfolding sense of panic.

In the hours, days, and weeks ahead, the scope of collective panic would become clear. Nothing was normal—including the way we all ate in America. Suddenly it was frivolous to eat out and spend too much money. Indie hometown paper SF Weekly had named Chef Daniel Patterson’s Elisabeth Daniel the city’s best new restaurant that year: “Its seasonal cuisine, rich with caviar, foie gras, truffles, and other delicacies, is served with languid precision in six intricate, imaginative courses.”

Most of that got set on pause after 9/11. Americans sought comfort in foods that were rich not with caviar, but familiarity. “Approximately 15% of Americans ate more comfort foods,” clinical psychologist Margaret E. Woltjer wrote in 2006, “while an additional 14% reported eating more sweets.” Woltjer called it “emotional eating”: reaching for foods we’d loved as kids to squeeze comfort out of a world suddenly gone brutal, with anthrax assaults and grainy bin Laden videos.

Old-fashioned candy shops would become more than just corny. Cookbook sales would surge, since we stayed home to cook. Old-school rituals of thrift—making jam out of foraged blackberries, or putting up jars of piccalilli—became serious pursuits for kids brought up on freezer pizzas and strip-mall sushi in the 1980s and '90s.

But as the nation’s sense of insecurity began to fade, washed out in the light of tracer fire in Afghanistan and Iraq, emotional eating stayed viable in America. Fries at the congressional cafeteria on Capitol Hill may have long ago reverted back to “French” from “Freedom,” as U.S. diners have gone back to the “languid precision” of unapologetically upscale restaurants, and yet we’ve changed. The virtues we pursued after 9/11 haven’t totally faded with Americans' sense of insecurity.

Cooking, preserving and pickling, home-brewing and distilling: In some sense they’re a legacy of the terrible day when the towers came down, and we were all sent home from work.

Photo still from the CHOW video How to Make Easy Quick Pickles

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