Unless you've been huddled—-Twinkie-like—in a protective cocoon of your own hydrogenated shortening, you've probably noticed that food isn't what it used to be. Not merely in the sense that our industrial food system is teetering further in the direction of the unwell (for a thorough discussion of this topic, see our book Empires of Food, out now). But culturally, too, Americans now straddle extremes where there used to be a narrower menu.
Twenty years ago, we ate Chef Boyardee and liked it. Many of us still do. But thanks to the upswell in food education, millions of Americans discovered that cooking doesn't end with a can opener. So, on the one hand, we all still feed at the trough of the modern food empire, enjoying the cornucopia of corn that gluts us with cheap soda, frozen pizzas and discount deli meats. But on the other hand, gourmand chic—the New Gluttony—is now a potent cultural and political force (arguably more so than, say, trade unionism, or professional women's sports). Even during this, our Great Recession, any city worth its lifestyle rankings boasts an abundance of valet-parking restaurants and natural food markets that charge $6 for a locally-grown pepper. If you're a member of a certain economic class, you know the difference between portobello and crimini mushrooms. You buy sea salt. You understand what evoo means. You are, in a word, a foodie.
There's a disconnect between the two sides of American consumption, between the 20-ounce tortilla bag and the dainty cut of Mediterranean sea bass (or "loup de mer") with spicy yuzu. Gluttony used to mean eating too much, and it was frowned upon both as evidence of poor character and for squandering valuable food. The New Gluttony co-exists with the old, but instead of too many calories, it craves refinement. Instead of the chili fries, it orders the glass of aged port and the imported cheese. And instead of being frowned upon as indulgent and wasteful, it's applauded as a mark of sophistication.
Food is, of course, the most elemental of consumer products. For the bulk of human experience (to say nothing of our evolutionary one), it's been more elemental than product—food has simply been sustenance, a building block for the body and for the next day's little cache of life. You don't need a heritage pork chop with mustard spaetzle or sustenance. You consume it because it's delicious, or because it hasn't been drowned in hormones, or because you've been taught to enjoy the finer experiences that money can buy. It is a consumer product in the purest sense.
Yet as our food system faces the pressures of climate change and drought, among other challenges, food may once again resume its elemental role. The very people who are educated enough to be concerned about the future of our food empire are often the same ones who celebrate New Gluttony. So while much of the New Glutton's focus is on novelty and individual pleasure (a morally ambiguous thing), some of it is on natural, conscientious ingredients (a good thing). Kobe beef is awfully popular, and if you view it from the perspective of natural resources, imported, grain-fed meat is a shocking misuse of water and energy. But local, seasonal vegetables are also in vogue, which is exactly the sort of trend we need to build a more sustainable system.
Our planet has never been more productive in calories. We've also never been so addicted to them. Not just to the usual, deep-fried culprits, but to splendid, elevated foods that, even if they're clean of pesticides and antibiotics, carry a heavy environmental cost (a challenge: walk into your local, upscale seafood restaurant and try to order a meal that's genuinely sustainable. Sardines don't count.)
Thankfully, the New Gluttony requires education, and education means that terms like "local," "grass-fed," "Fair Trade," and "natural inputs" are now part of the popular lexicon.
Only by sifting ideas like these into the popular consciousness can we hope to solve the problems that will wrack our food empire in the decades ahead.