Food Trends Keep Coming, and Coming and ...

Although like old soldiers, some just fade away before they even get their 15 minutes of microwaved fame

Just how long will it be before nettles make more than an indentation in our diets? They can be found poking out of cheese and popping through loaves of bread. But will they become the big trend they were predicted to be a few years ago?

Yes, food trends are a burgeoning topic of conversation, as Americans become more sophisticated about cuisine in other cultures and more eager to experiment in their own kitchens. Trends stem from consumer choices, but much is based on the professional expertise of those in the food industry.

Chefs, upscale restaurants, food industry aficionados, fancy food shows (where producers of products come to pitch their wares), specialty shops, and magazine and newspaper food writers all have their input.

The spreading enthusiasm about food, in fact, has helped make chefs real stars, with industry empires. On the small screen, cable stations are devoted to cooking 24 hours a day, and on the big screen, movies related to food are considered a new art form. (Witness "Like Water for Chocolate," "Babette's Feast," and "Big Night.")

Chef events being held across the country are turning "chefdom" into a form of entertainment. Meanwhile, produce markets are becoming the size of shopping malls.

Food choices are based on economics, technology, socio-cultural factors, politics, and convenience. There will always be a changing plethora of food products on the market, but there are very few really new products in the marketplace. It doesn't seem the food industry is inventing new wheels, just retreading old ones.

What was once considered immigrant food is now highly prized ethnic cuisine, micro-regionalized no less.

We've come a long way in the past 25 years when it comes to ethnic restaurants. Back then, the choices were minimal and Americanized to fit the mass market palate. Foods like "American" Chinese still remain for those that are afraid to try the real stuff.

But Thai, Peking, Vietnamese, and genuine Mandarin restaurants are serving up true homeland foods: whole fish in black bean sauce - eyes and all, shrimp with heads in a satay hot pot, and accompanying sauces free of congealed cornstarch. Noodle bars are hot on the scene, Italian food is now Tuscan, Middle Eastern food is mainstream, and exotic cookery is coming from other foreign lands we visit in travel magazines.

The more adventurous home cooks are picking their own favorite exotic recipes from the every-growing choice in ethnic cookbooks.

Grains are grainier with names you can't pronounce (quinoa is pronounced keen-wah and is noted to be ancient, not new).

You can still buy white rice, but it is now short, sweet, long, sticky, calcium-fortified, as aromatic as your grandmother's perfume, and graded like a report card.

Tinned pts resembling Army rations (but tasting a lot better) line the shelves of upscale food specialty shops, along with a multitude of chutneys, flavor infused caviar, and specialty pastes such as black truffle, sun-dried tomato, and pesto.

Instant demi-glace and prepared-product, scratch-cooking bases are available so the home cook can easily prepare food like a restaurant chef's (or so the directions on the packages tell you).

The cuisine conscious know that the biggest food trend is back to what's good and delicious, but in moderation: real butter, real flavors, real cheese, and even real meat - forget the veggie burgers and sauted tofu on a bun. Steak is back - big, thick, and rare.

Certainly there are those who are faithfully loyal to whatever fads make up the current "health food" trend, and those that are total dietary extremists. (You know the type, the one who has a salad for lunch with one tablespoon of salad dressing, no bread, diet soda, and then, feeling all self righteous, tops it off with three-scoops of ice cream in a banana split for dessert.)

Bread bakeries are on the rise, seemingly on almost every street corner. Bread machines are still selling at a fast pace, including models with new gadgetry.

There are also restaurants with hearth ovens aglow as well as bagels, bagel machines, and bagel shops aplenty. More dough is definitely being spent on dough - and on kitchen equipment and cookbooks.

Thousands of cookbooks are out on the shelves, and more are being pumped out by publishers every day. More than 600 cooking Web sites are on the Internet, with chat rooms all aclatter.

Even the most culinary-challenged are becoming "foodies." There is a definite message here - food is hot (even when it's ice cream) and trends are to be as closely watched as those in the fashion industry.

* Ruth Mossok Johnston is a food writer and cookbook author who also appears frequently on TV and radio.

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