Bad food trends take two forms. Some are flashes in the cast-iron pan; others have exhibited a little too much staying power. Going forward into 2013, and surveying the nation’s culinary landscape, these are the ones I’d like to see stopped in their tracks. I doubt any of them will end anytime soon, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Rock slime as food. We haven’t seen much of this, I’ll grant you; mostly it’s appeared in a few avant-garde restaurants. Let’s hope, for the love of God, it stays there. Born out of the intrepid, terroir-crazed cauldron of the new Scandinavian cuisine, where nearly anything on or under the ground is considered fair game for foragers, the use of lichens, moss and other primal organisms functions, I believe, largely as shock value. If lichens taste like anything, it is something bad; that’s why the stuff is more often the dinner of snails and bark lice than of people. It’s not as revolting as the equally ostentatious bug-eating movement, but I believe it’s more obnoxious for being more high-minded.
Pro-am charcuterie. Here’s the thing about salumi, charcuterie and all the other forms of cured meats that we have come to know and love: they were always the province of experts. And there’s a reason they were the province of experts: they are hard to do well. Now every other restaurant has its own in-house cured-meat program, and the results are often nasty: leathery hams, moldy sausages, and industrial-strength lardo, just for starters. The country’s great salumi artisans, like Salumeria Biellese in New York City, Salumi in Seattle, Boccalone in San Francisco and Olympic Provisions in Portland have years of experience behind them, big facilities, impeccable hygiene and, most important, a sense of what the stuff is supposed to be like. (Read Boccalone’s “Salumi Manifesto” if you want to be inspired.) Most beginners don’t aspire to any ideal, any more than do their customers. Google “bad salumi.” You won’t find a single negative review anywhere on the Internet. That’s bizarre and says something about how uncritically the stuff is eaten these days. Leave it to the pros!
Fake smoke. A recent trend has been the use, or rather overuse, of artificial smoke as a flavoring agent or even as a theatrical effect. Often it comes from acrid camphor pans or, worse still, from a postmodern instrument called the Smoking Gun. It would be great if chefs could get real smoke flavor from these expedients, but they can’t. Creating actual smoke flavor means burning actual wood, which requires the kind of dirty, dangerous equipment that few restaurant kitchens can handle. So various technologies have come into play involving the placement of a wood chip next to an electrical element – basically the same method used by pot vaporizers, which have sometimes been drafted for it. I realize this may seem like a peevish quibble, but it bothers me nonetheless, because it is frequently used in conjunction with equally unnatural modes of cooking like sous vide. You take a piece of pork or duck, cook it for 10 hours in a tepid bath and then try to impose a sham smoke flavor at the last minute with another equally ludicrous tool. This is one trend that contains its own punishment, though: the smoke these things produce tastes like a blend of old cigarette butts and stripper perfume.
Postmodern desserts. As David Kamp observed in The Food Snob’s Dictionary, pastry chefs are “the most perverse of food-snob subcultures,” and boy, was he right. Who in their right mind wants to eat an enormous meal, replete with bread, wine or liquor, meat, pasta, vegetables, the inevitable charcuterie and God knows what else, and then have to face a $14 plate of tiny mountains, swooping smears and little heaps of powder. What am I supposed to do with this? I’m not hungry at this point. It adds empty calories and a not-insignificant sum to the bill. And really, the only satisfaction derived from it by anyone at all is the chef who called it into being (and who never actually eats it). If I could have one wish come true for 2013, it would be dessert reform. A single scoop of sherbet is all any human being wants or needs at the conclusion of a big meal. It’s time to take a step back from our gastronomical excesses. And this is the place we ought to start.
Optional tipping. Remember the scene in Reservoir Dogs when Mr. Pink announces he doesn’t believe in tipping? Well, there are a lot of Mr. Pinks out there. More than you think. And when you consider how much diners spend on some of the items mentioned above, their cheaping out on the staff is one of the grossest acts of impudence in modern society. I don’t know what monster first conceived of the laws by which restaurateurs are allowed to pay sweatshop wages to their employees on the assumption that guests will do the right thing and make up the difference, but until the laws are repealed, we need to pay the people who serve us. I believe there should be a fixed percentage, a rock-bottom minimum of 15% that every diner has to pay. If we don’t want to pay it, we are all welcome to eat cold cuts at home.