It’s difficult to overstate the influence of chef Mario Batali, who has reached millions through his restaurants, cookbooks, and multifaceted television career. Nonetheless, Food Network mainstay Molto Mario taped its final new episode in 2006.
But the end of Molto Mario shouldn’t be read as a sign of a star on the wane; it’s a network re-creating its image. Instead of concentrating on chefs who can cook, Food Network decided in 2006 to bet its chips on entertainers who can make us laugh, and/or look hot.—James Norton
Although avian flu first broke out in 1997 and reappeared in 2003, influenza H5N1 continued to freak out Americans this year, particularly when The Oprah Winfrey Show aired an episode titled “Bird Flu: The Untold Story” last January, telling us to stockpile food, water, and prescription drugs for the coming pandemic. The Southeast Asian poultry market took a beating—Thailand, formerly the fifth-largest exporter of poultry, had to slaughter 29 million birds between 2003 and 2004 and lost as much as 1.5 percent of its GDP. Many Americans avoided chicken, fearing the U.S. was next. It wasn’t—our poultry avoided infection.—Jason Horn
Edna Lewis, who died this February at the age of 89, introduced many grateful Americans to chicken fried in lard, skillet cornbread, and other delicious dishes from the American South. The granddaughter of emancipated slaves, Lewis opened a Manhattan restaurant that became a favorite haunt of boho artists such as Tennessee Williams and Richard Avedon. In 1978 she wrote The Taste of Country Cooking, which emphasized fresh, seasonal ingredients cooked simply. The book helped establish regional Southern cooking as a refined, unique American cuisine. One of her parting gifts was a cookbook called The Gift of Southern Cooking, cowritten in 2003 with Scott Peacock, that contains the best chocolate cake recipe known to man.—Lessley Anderson
A national E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated spinach sickened more than 200 people, killed 3, and sparked a national discussion of food-handling standards. Less than two months later, something served at Taco Bell and Taco John’s restaurants sickened more than 40 people. What that something was had not been identified by press time; tests were being conducted on green onions, lettuce, and cheese served at the restaurant chains. As debate continues over the best way to prevent similar disasters, vegetable growers in California alone are facing a possible $74 million in losses. The upside: a new fast-acting E. coli detector and an edible food wrap that kills bacteria on contact. The latter even supposedly provides a “flavor boost.”—James Norton
R. W. Apple died on October 4 at 71. Nicknamed “Three Lunches Apple,” the man whom friends and associates called Johnny put in 40-plus years as a political correspondent and editor for The New York Times, but he was also one of the country’s most respected food writers—and he wasn’t shy about letting people know. Apple’s relentless pursuit of definitive culinary experiences (and their accompanying expense reports) became legendary. He was a symbol of the old-school, gregarious gourmand, and his passing leaves a void that may only grow in the coming years; will any of Generation X’s writers ever approach the same loving but bossy authority?—Sara Bir
The market for gourmet coffee continued to explode this year—quite literally, in the case of Wolfgang Puck’s doomed self-heating canned lattes. When the celebrity chef introduced the product in 2005, it seemed like a marvel of food-packaging technology: With just a push of a button, a chemical reaction in the can produced enough heat to warm a latte to a steaming 145 degrees. But complaints soon emerged about strange goings-on with the drinks, including incidents of leakage, overheating, melting, and even explosions. Before long, the lattes became a liability, and in March, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc., recalled the drinks.—Josh Friedland
Americans concerned about mad cow disease were given a little more to worry about by the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year. In order to prevent a panic over the deadly disease (and the damaging trade implications of its discovery), the government barred ranchers from testing their cows for bovine spongiform encephalopathy. This March, premium Black Angus beef producer Creekstone sued the USDA in order to lift the test ban. A vital question hangs in the balance: Does the U.S. government exist to protect people from the spread of dangerous disease, or to protect big business from the spread of bad news?—James Norton