Eating The Best.

In November, I was asked – along with a slew of other food writers and bloggers – to give my two cents on what I thought were the best food trends happening in Halifax. I wrote:

The best trend in this city right now is how we, the dining public, look at food. We, as diners, have become much more adventurous in what and where we eat.  We just want to eat good food, and that comes in all sorts of places, from fine dining establishments playing with modernist techniques to hole-in-the-wall joints that serve cheap burgers. We are treating food as a much more democratic place, and everyone and anyone can eat anything and anywhere.

I was thinking of doing a year-end “best of” or “fave things” list of some sort, but ever since I wrote that, I feel like I’m not done with that comment.  If I want to leave the year on some sort of note of reflection, I’d rather do it on how we as Haligonians eat, rather than post a list of enjoyable things.

It’s hard to talk or write about food today without the word “foodie” come up.  We already know that the term has been experiencing a backlash for some time now – B.R. Meyers wrote about it in March of 2011 – and it could almost be argued that the term is garnering derision amongst food-loving circles.  It’s like being called a hipster, no one wants to be called it or admit to being one. But those of us who love food, read about it, think about it and plan our lives around it, are often called it. Many of us – myself included – have been guilty of taking photos of our food and posting them to Instagram or Facebook or various other social media platforms.

This post amounts to more than a hill of beans, I promise you

But beyond the social and cultural critiques of how we look with food, the point is that we are looking at it, thinking about it and are cognizant of what food means, perhaps now more than ever.  Brillat-Savarin’s famously misquoted quote of, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are” has even more resonance now in a world of ethically sourced foodstuffs and “epic” meal. (I use the term epic in quotes because I’m one of those people who think the word should be used for grand stories in grand books and not for gluttonous though delicious experiences).

Think back to the food and dining scene in this city and in this province ten years ago. Ten years ago it was hard to find a bowl of pho in this city’s restaurants, let alone a good one.  Korean food was nearly non-existent and sushi was exploding. Thai food was just starting to blossom, and vegan food options were scarce and generally un-appetising to many non-vegan diners.  The Halifax Farmers Market (singular, at this point in time) was busy, but not crazy.  Farmers offered what the general public knew about.  Exotic was not a term used often in those times when talking about produce or foodstuffs.  This is not to say that there weren’t interesting things to find in this city, if you knew where to look. The city’s specialty food stores – Indian, Greek, South Asian, health food, etc. – would often be small treasure troves for eaters who wanted to try something new and different.

And then a shift happened.

There are lots of things that brought about this shift, and it’s not only here in Halifax, Nova Scotia, or Atlantic Canada.  Cable television brought chefs into our home, and at that these were “celebrity” chefs, chefs who were famous for being on television as well as for their restaurants and the brands that their names were connected to.  We’ve all heard that “chefs are the new rock stars” and to a certain degree, they have became so.  Food lovers started talking about how they ate here or there, or bought this or that product that so-and-so put their name on or talked about.  Those of us who haven’t or didn’t drooled with envy.

The Internet also changed the way we look and talk about food.  For years, trends moved at a certain pace from one side of the world to the next.  They were only talked about by chefs or hard-core gourmands (as the first foodies were once known).  But the Internet helped democratise how information about food and food techniques and trends is spread.  Some guy in Spain is making spheres of food. Who? What? How? Google the answer. Now you can find spherical taste globules and aromatised foams on plates in this city. It’s even being taught at our local culinary schools. Cold-brewed coffee? You don’t have to be in Portland or Seattle to know how good it is, because you can find it in Dartmouth.

Mainstream media also pitched in to food mania. They sussed and discovered the hardcore food lovers and makers – people who had toiled away and nibbled away –and showcased the what and why of their work. But soon that small group of people grew. They saw things, heard of things and some of them tasted things that changed their relationship with food.  These were the first foodies.

I’ll admit, I was one of those people who read “Kitchen Confidential” and started telling friends, “Don’t order fish on Mondays.”  Then I started reading cookbooks, learning how easy it was to make thai curries (even from scratch) but bitched and moaned about the fact that I couldn’t get kaffir limes, let alone fresh (not frozen) limes leaves in this town.  So I made friends with cooks who hooked me up with ingredients.  Yuzu juice?  Thanks, I’ll take 100 ml.  Yes, I know it costs and arm and a leg but it will be the best damn lemon curd I’ve ever made.

Yup, I became one of those people.

And then I found other people like me. People who had cared or dared to find Filipino blood stew (Dinuguan) and fertilised duck eggs (Balut) for snacks.  We went into restaurants for dim sum and asked, “Is there anything not on the menu we should order?” and we would get it. I, and other people like me, started asking farmers for off cuts of animals, things like heads, hooves and caul fat.  We got excited when we found out that this farmer was growing this herb that you can’t find fresh anywhere east of Montreal. We started asking for more, and more is what we got.  More ingredients, more techniques, more restaurants, more interest and more people.

Chefs got into and promoted local food as a viable way of eating. In a place like Nova Scotia, eating locally becomes a political statement.  Many of us have connections, either familial or fiscal, to the people who produce our food.  We not only started buying locally as a way of helping our palates grow, but our economies as well. Farmers established stronger connections with the people who bought their produce, and vice-versa. We began to understand what and why this seasons’ strawberries were so few, or why the apples were so plentiful.  Faced with eating what was in season, some of us learned to prepare dishes in new (or old, depending on who you ask and what you’re cooking) ways. Eating locally became a synonym for spending locally. And that got everybody talking. And doing. And buying. And eating.

More and more people came into the fold.  They too wanted to be in on it, “it” caring about food.  It was no longer only a place for exclusive and expensive dinners, or people who were “in the know” Everyone became “in the know”.

Food has become democratised.  You too, can have a zaa’tar-dusted flatbread stuffed with fried halloumi.  You, the guy who lived at McDonalds in your early twenties was now forking out the extra money for grass-fed beef because you know not only that it tastes better, but also you also now are against feedlot and grain-fed beef.  Your dad is reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma and your mom is joining a CSA.  Good food is no longer for the culinary cognoscenti. It is for everyone.

And that’s how it should be, especially in a place like Halifax.  We’ve already talked about how no, we don’t have places like The French Laundry, and we probably won’t. That doesn’t make us – as Passable’s own Melissa Buote pointed out – culinary sad sacks. It makes us cogniscent of what is available to us, and gives us room to explore and celebrate what is.  It gives room for this province’s food producers, chefs and eaters room to grow their palate, collectively.

And now it’s 2012. More and more farmers are producing and growing fruits, vegetables and meats in sustainable and ethical fashions, as well as fostering a desire for specialty items.  Ethnic communities are finding farmers who will cater to their desire for produce that reminds them of home.  One farmer told me about how he had grown a specific type of radish/daikon for his Korean clientele, but soon realised that he had grown it at the wrong time of year.  The radish is mainly bought during kimjang, or kimchi-making season. He now grows Napa cabbages, various turnips/radishes/daikons and even perilla leaves for his clientele.

We, the eaters of this city, have brought this upon ourselves.  And it is a delicious thing to have wrought upon us.