The Year in Food 2008

The Year in Food 2008

To the Poorhouse

Books: Once
Again Helpful

Everyone deals with recessions a little differently. Some people vacation in Cape Cod instead of Brittany. Others switch from Grey Goose to Smirnoff. But millions of Americans started adapting to 2008’s not-so-prosperous times by falling back on old eating habits: canning, for example. Packing a cooler instead of eating road food. Starting a garden. And finally, that old unsexy standby, cooking at home, a once waning practice that is now booming and helping cookbook authors feel a little more recession-proof than the rest of us.
—James Norton

A Case of the Cow Calling
the Goat Milky

As a phrase reflective of the times, “Got Milk?” is increasingly being overtaken by “Got Enough Money to Afford Milk?” Dairy prices have risen about 9 percent this year. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tactfully blamed countries with large populations of starving and malnourished people for the rising food prices. Among other factors cited, the problem was caused by “improvement in the diets of people, for instance, in China and India,” said Rice. India responded to the United States by saying: Look in the mirror, fatty. “Milk consumption, in fluid form, is 78 kg per year for each person in the US, compared to 36 kg in India and 11 kg in China,” said the Times of India in an article whose headline read “US Eats 5 Times More than India Per Capita.” Still, as Asian economies industrialize and diets Westernize, that ratio may tilt less and less toward the U.S., with potentially serious consequences for the way food is priced … and eaten. —Roxanne Webber

Survivor, $2 Challenge Edition

As a fiscal shortfall turns into a full-fledged recession and consumer confidence crumbles, the Two Dollar Challenge takes on increasingly ominous resonance. The project, designed to document the experience of living on $2 a day for five days and four nights, challenges its participants (primarily students of economics professor Dr. Shawn Humphrey of the University of Mary Washington) to travel and eat on a severely restricted budget, plus limited access to water. This year’s participants watched as their quality of nutrition and life plunged while the amount of time they spent walking, cooking, and searching for affordable food shot through the roof. Meanwhile, they also blogged skeptical observations about fellow students who looked too well fed or adequately showered. No surprise that some participants would game the system, by asking people not on the $2-a-day plan for free food and showers. —James Norton

No Shame in the Early Bird Special

As customers clamped down on their food budgets, restaurants like Memphis’s Circa added happy hour specials to lure penny pinchers, or, like San Francisco’s Orson, retooled their menus to be more casual. Others waved corkage fees or launched half-off wine nights. Some just plain bit the dust, like the chain Bennigan’s. Meanwhile, Whole Foods went on a massive PR tour in which it took members of the media shopping, hoping to show that the store’s prices aren’t higher than anybody else’s. Most of the tour took place in the dry lentil bins. —Lessley Anderson

Bono, Michael Jackson Didn’t Do Enough

Food riots rocked countries from Egypt to India to Burkina Faso this year. Many people hoped starvation was a problem that Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie had solved already with “We Are the World.” Instead, rising oil costs, military conflict, and surging demand in rich countries for resource-intensive meat have led to tragic situations such as mothers in Haiti feeding their children dried mud cookies in order to fill their bellies. —James Norton

Meet the Freegans

As food prices jumped and stock markets fell, the dumpster diet of freegans—the food division of the anticonsumer vanguard—became the perfect alternative-lifestyle story idea for editors everywhere. Simultaneously alluring—free!—and appalling—dumpsters!—freeganism even showed up on Oprah. There’s no shortage of dumped food out there. Witness this Seattle freegan who passes up dry pasta because she hates cooking. —Nicholas Day

“Chic Potluck” No Longer an Oxymoron

Are potlucks the year’s hottest entertaining trend? There’s been a lot of buzz over the old-fashioned and frugal gatherings thanks to a tanking economy and the inevitable rehippifying of everything that’s so old it’s largely forgotten. At Eat-Ins thrown this year in Kentucky, California, and Connecticut, people signed up and brought a dish to share in a park with a bunch of strangers. Two tips from an expert if you’re thinking of throwing a potluck: Theme it up, and have a game plan for who’s bringing what. Four potato salads and two pans of brownies don’t make for a happy crowd. —James Norton