On the Side: What's cooking for '09? Reading conflicting signs

Posted: January 01, 2009

Now is the season of our disconnect, the scenery on the street telling divergent stories - the soup lines at St. John's Hospice growing (sawhorses keeping the lines orderly); steak-house seats multiplying (the new Table 31, Del Frisco's, and Butcher & Singer have added more than 1,000 in the last few months).

Any bets where business will be steadier than last year?

Or what will be on the plate in the next?

Über-chef Thomas Keller issued a lavish new tome ($75) about cooking sous vide, which involves vaccum-sealing food and cooking it in precise, low-heat water baths.

At the same time, the Spam factory in Austin, Minn., increased overtime shifts. It's cranking out salty canned ham - "meat with a pause button," Hormel Foods calls its star performer ($2.75 a can) - like there's a grim tomorrow.

Rice and beans are selling like hotcakes (and hotcake mixes are, too.) Beer is booming. So are Campbell's reliably high-margin condensed soups, proof that there's still money to be made when people have less money to spend.

In the niche world, the Fair Food Farmstand at the Reading Terminal Market saw sales of produce from local farms jump, up 30 percent over a year ago. And spelt-rich, whole-grain Old World breads at Metropolitan Bakery had a decided uptick, the anti-carb fad having high-tailed it.

There is good news and bad news - sometimes in the same breath: You can sniff a revival for Irish steel-cut oatmeal, sturdy stuff that has seen generations through far harder times.

On the other hand, it was jarring to spot a box of steel-cut oatmeal frozen in the cold case at Trader Joe's, pre-sweetened with maple syrup and brown sugar, microwaveably ready in moments without resorting to "slaving" over a stove, "stirring and stirring."

As if that were such a bad thing.

When did stirring become slaving? What do you do when you aren't stirring? Surf the Web? Watch Rachel Maddow? Ratchet up the stress?

And what is it with freezing things that don't need to be frozen? A story out of Portugal last month talked of the boom in frozen bacalhau, which is to say, salt cod, the salting of which was, for 500 years, how it was preserved. (For the Sr. Bacalhau brand now, the cod is salted and dried, and then soaked to remove the salt, and then frozen in an orgy of superfluity.)

And so on: Local SuperFresh grocers are now stocking frozen Via Roma cannoli, the frosty shells laid to rest alongside an icy pouch of sweet filling, a rather long and unromantic leap from the legendary cannoli that once graced Palermo's original Via Roma.

Can we expect, if the trajectory continues, to see Spam itself - sodden with salt, spiked with sodium nitrite, and vacuum-sealed - to end up frozen as well, in solidarity with the credit markets?

Or the lost souls in the lengthening soup lines?

Still, this season there is one less fear to fret: It is now safe to eat the poinsettias, not that you'd want to, or that they're tasty, or even edible in the sense of being a food.

But the latest word is that an errant nibble (or even small feast) won't poison you, your pet or your young.

The stuff about them being toxic was a myth, it turns out, like the belief that the fundamentals of the economy were strong.

Let us toast the New Year then, clearer-eyed and soup-ful, rooting that the red beet trumps the red meat, thankful for what we've got, chagrined that we thought we could have it all.

And never have to pick up the tab.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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