Fads in Food

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FADS IN FOOD. Food fads are interwoven with people's lifestyles, trends, and class aspirations. In all forms, fads are usually ideas that enjoy a quick popularity and soon disappear. Some fads, however, may actually become trends that develop into accepted style, indicating where society is moving. Fads in food are not a new occurrence. Ancient Roman recipes document demand for fattened snails and dormice as popular appetizers. During the 1700s, Americans craved ice cream, newly introduced from France, and lobster Newburg became fashionable in the 1800s. Lollipops were the rage in the 1920s. Current nostalgia for "retro" 1960s foods, such as fondue, accompanies a renewed interest in retrospective house and automotive design.

Health Food Surges in Popularity

Nutrition is often a rationale for food fads. In the late 1800s, Kellogg, General Mills, and other manufacturers created cereals from grains, in the interest of promoting a cleansing diet. Turning fad into substance, the interest in health food became entrenched in American diets over the succeeding decades, with foods like smoothies, meatless burgers, and whole wheat baked goods emerging in the marketplace. Fears of irradiated foods, the drive for organic, calorie-reduced foods, brand name diets, and multivitamins all contributed to the faddish style of healthy living. Vegan and macrobiotic diets, brown rice, tofu, and "live foods," now readily available, once were fads. Vegetarianism, seen as a fringe diet, has become mainstream, and organic ingredients are now basic supermarket fare.

The Orient and Other Ethnic Influences

America's fascination with the "exotic Orient" is an example of the pervasive influence of ethnic food fads. In the 1930s Chinese mah-jongg parties were popular among the socially style conscious. Accompanying food included egg foo yung and fried rice. Oriental themes characterized popular restaurants like Trader Vics, where diners could surround themselves with a sanitized Western version of exotic travel. Bars served unusually named Polynesian drinks with paper parasols. A Hawaiian craze followed, and backyard luau parties paralleled the emergence of Polynesian restaurants. Processed Spam with a sweet and sour sauce was a popular dish. Rumaki, a chicken liver, bacon, and water chestnut hors d'oeuvre, wowed guests. Japanese steak houses cooked sukiyaki and tempura before admiring diners.

Many other ethnic groups have contributed to fads in American cuisine. In the late 1960s the growth of the civil rights and Black Power movements led to the rediscovery of African-American roots, including southern soul food. Grits, collard greens, and ham hocks were served side by side with other American traditional foods. Interest grew in Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, transcendental meditation, and other beliefs of India and Asia, which emphasized the spiritual aspect of foods. The immigration of Latinos, Vietnamese, and Middle Easterners have added to foreign food interests. Immigrant grocers have introduced new foods to Americans, increasing demand for exotic imports. In the late twentieth century, fusion cooking, combining several cultural food styles, created a second wave of interest in Oriental "style" foods, popularizing sushi bars and sushi kits.

Travel and Tourism Contribute

Since the 1880s, immigrants and overseas tourism have influenced American cuisine. While some believe that GIs returning from World War II initiated the discovery of foreign food in postwar America, there is no strong substantive evidence to this effect. Sociologists theorize instead that, with an improved lifestyle, Americans had time and resources for travels abroad, from which they brought home cookware and ingredients. Hibachis enabled the suburbanite to barbecue Japanese style; fondue pots evoked trips to Zurich; copper pots decorated the French gourmet kitchen. Italian pizzerias and spaghetti houses sprang up to meet the demand for Neapolitan food. Chains of Italian restaurants and take-out pizza counters are their descendants.

Similarly, the popularity of Scandinavian design in the 1950s included appreciation of the smorgasbord, deli plates, and unusual drinks, such as Aquavit. European simplicity was not inexpensive. Stores featuring the high-end styling of Dansk, Braun, and later Crate and Barrel kitchenware changed the appearance of home kitchens and tables.

Haute Cuisine

Fashionable in the last century, haute cuisine restaurants featured haughty waiters and showy decor. Servers cooked flambéed dishes, such as crêpes suzette, tableside. At home, any recipe that evoked the Parisian food scene had style. Chiffon pies with meringue toppings suggested restaurant desserts. In her kitchen, the trendsetting housewife would use readily available preprocessed sauces for dishes, such as lobster Thermidor, beef stroganoff, and chicken divan, served in chafing dishes to recreate the fine dining of four-star restaurants.

Media Influence

Food magazines, epitomized after 1941 by Gourmet magazine, promoted food as fashion. Sunset magazine depicted the Western California scene, a sophisticated style of casual living, including football weekend tailgating, backyard cocktail parties, and barbecues. Playboy appealed to the urban bon vivant with a monthly column for the male chef, contributing to the craze for shish kebabs.

The chef as personality. The cult of personality chefs created through television programming resulted in the notion of the chef as star and creator of fancy cookbooks based on image, as well as in the exploding growth of fancy foods. One of the most significant personalities was The French Chef, Julia Child. She led the way for other television personality chefs to teach home viewers about good cuisine. James Beard, a food writer and chef, popularized classic American cooking. Paul Prudhomme, a Cajun New Orleans chef, demonstrated the "blackened fish" style of cooking. He used fiery spice rubs on fish, then seared them over high heat. There were many other food celebrities in the 1960s. In the 1990s, television's Food Network catapulted interest in the celebrity chef, professional techniques, and personalized ingredients. The growth in cooking stores and vocational cooking schools is a direct response to the cult of the personality chef. Through these chefs, recipes that made use of goat cheese, aioli, beurre blanc, and green peppercorns became trendy pantry staples.

Among the fads connected to food are political movements targeting agricultural practices. In the 1960s César Chávez led a boycott of grape harvests in California to advertise the plight of farmworkers. Bans on large tuna nets in order to save dolphins were an early precursor to contemporary concerns about overfishing.

Time Savers

As early as the 1900s, the goal of saving time created fashionable food fads. Refrigerators allowed homemakers to create quick, chilled desserts, epitomized by heavily sweetened marshmallow salads, fruit cocktails, and gelatin parfaits. The crock-pot, blender, and electric wok all promised to save time. One notable example that has faded is the 1980s "Impossible Bisquick Pie," in which preblended ingredients sink to the bottom of an egg custard to form the "crust."

Space-Age Influence

Fascination with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the space race in the 1960s produced many fads. Even before the emergence of health foods and healthy planet foods, space technology influenced trends, especially snacks. TV dinners and other aluminum-clad, quickly prepared foods surged in popularity. After the astronauts appeared on American television, anything freeze-dried or dehydrated, previously associated only with military rations or camping, became food for the modern age. Space sticks, chewy rolls of power food flavored with vanilla or chocolate, predated today's energy bars. Tang, the sugar-powdered orange drink, was advertised as "drunk by astronauts."

A fad develops as a result of a social aim, interest in other cultures, and advances in technology that promise that the home cook can become a chef like Escoffieror at least cook like a pro. Some, like space sticks, fade with time, while others, such as organic foods, have helped to change dietary and farming practices. Within an evolving lifestyle, food fads both reflect and change contemporary society.

See also Beard, James ; Child, Julia ; Comfort Food ; Escoffier, Georges-Auguste ; Fast Food ; Food, Future of ; Food Politics: United States ; Health Foods ; Ice Cream ; Kellogg, John Harvey ; Kitchen Gadgets ; Macrobiotic Food ; Marketing of Food ; Nostalgia ; Organic Food ; Take-out Food ; Vegetarianism .


Lovegren, Sylvia. Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads. New York: Macmillan, 1995.

Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. American Gourmet, Classic Recipes, Deluxe Delights, Flamboyant Favorites, and Swank "Company" Food From the '50s and '60s. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991.

Terrie Wright Chrones