Our obsession with good eats has surpassed nutrition and function. Taste, emotion, and entertainment are new cuisine traditions that have caused a North American food revolution.
Photo by Linh Ngyuen of Paul Bergeron, chef and owner, Relish the Flavour
“Once upon a time, coffee in North America was served at truck stops, was brewed four hours ago, was watered down and tasted awful, but everybody drank it as if it was fuel because they needed their caffeine fix.”
As a college student, Michael Mulvey, a marketing professor at the University of Ottawa, never drank coffee — it just didn’t appeal to him. But by the time he entered grad school, things had changed.
“They started offering things like lattes, cappuccinos, and mochaccinos. It introduced me to a whole world of beverages that I had never been exposed to,” he said. “All of a sudden I realized, ‘Coffee doesn’t need to be mediocre. It can be fantastic.’”
Mulvey, whose research focuses on how products, brands, and behaviours gain personal relevance to consumers, attributes the evolution of the coffee industry to what he calls the “Starbuckification of North America,” a process that has redefined the way we think and feel about coffee.
In a larger sense, Starbucks epitomizes North American food culture in the 21st century. It’s modern, hip, and allows customers to personalize their order from an extensive menu selection. It also professes to use the best, high-quality ingredients and to conduct its business responsibly and ethically.
It’s a way of doing business that has vastly changed North American consumer habits and a concept that is likely to define the food industry for years to come.
Do you eat for fun or fuel?
Food has always served different purposes, but it has never served as many as it does today.
“For some people, food is purely functional, physiological,” said Mulvey. “At the other end of the continuum, you have people who see food as fun, hedonic, pleasurable. And in between you get varying degrees of people who use it for things like health and social goals. It’s a complicated system, one with a lot of potential choices.”
Of course, the fundamental purpose of food is and always will be to fill our stomachs and nourish our bodies. But over time, consumerism has transformed our perception of this basic necessity of life. Today, food choices can express identity and status, can put individuals in contact with new cultures, and can evoke a sense of environmental responsibility or connectedness to the land. In brief, they allow the consumer to fill his or her own unique needs that extend well beyond nutritional sustenance.
Food’s varied purposes have given rise to what Mulvey referred to as the “diversification of food products,” the same phenomenon that can explain the evolution of coffee into a cultural staple denoting sophistication and personal taste.
The Global Consumer Trends report published by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada suggests that the diversification of food products stems from modern social trends like globalization, immigration, travel, social media, and the mass production of commodities, all of which have exposed us to new things and left us wanting more.
“As incomes rise and globalization becomes even more pronounced, consumers are regularly being exposed to new flavours, products, tastes, and experiences,” the report states. “In turn, this results in generations of consumers who are eager to take risks for the sake of enjoyment, adventure, and discovery.”
According to Mulvey, health awareness also increases the diversification of food products, as companies react to the demands of their health-conscious consumers.
“Companies are first of all responsive to what the market wants,” he said. “So I expect that companies will offer more choice. Maybe they’ll offer healthier options or smaller portions, maybe options that weren’t there beforehand.”
In addition, he believes the growing popularity of cooking shows, like those on the Food Network, influence the variety of products making their way into mainstream North American cuisine.
“I think that cooking shows have had a massive impact,” he said. “People watch the shows and think, ‘I never thought of this kind of food, or of using these ingredients, or I never realized how easy this is to make.’”
As a result, people are getting into their kitchens and cooking more, and they’re feeling more adventurous when doing so. Our growing itch for experimentation and discovery has given rise to a whole generation of foodophiles: those easily bored with the old, and perpetually hungry for the new.
It’s all about flavour
Relish the Flavour, a food truck on the U of O campus, offers comfort food choices like no other. Bacon, old cheddar, crispy onions, jalapenos, and red truck sauce. S’Mac N Cheese, with its enhanced and unexpected flavours, is like no other macaroni and cheese around.
“We’ve sort of become known for it,” said Paul Bergeron, the truck’s owner and chef.
After having spent a few years cooking in restaurants, Bergeron was hungry to start his own business, and a food truck seemed like the right choice. Within a year of having started Relish the Flavour, he was recruited by Patrick Genest, the U of O’s Food Services director, and invited to park on campus at the corner of Copernicus Street and University Private.
Bergeron’s lunch menu includes a mix of Canadian, Mexican, and Asian fare, which offers students a chance to enjoy their favourite meals in a way that goes beyond the traditional or expected.
“I often say that my style is no style, but basically I try and put out some tasty food with some change in menu at a fair price, while trying to put my heart and soul into it,” he said. “I try to offer variety so that students don’t get bored of the menu, and I don’t get bored of making it.”
Bergeron’s ability to strike a balance between familiarity and originality, perhaps best expressed in his take on macaroni and cheese, could explain his truck’s appeal to a generation of young foodies.
According to the Global Consumer Trends report, consumers are attracted to the idea of trying something new when it offers a heightened sensory experience. Despite the increased urgings to eat healthy foods in recent years, many consumers continue to place significant importance on the pleasurable aspects of food, as they look to engage all of their senses while eating.
“S’Mac N Cheese is one of our more sinful menu items, but I like that one of our more sinful items is popular. It makes people feel happy, and I think that’s one of the great things about food,” said Bergeron.
“Food is very emotional, and people know when something is good,” he added. “They can taste when you put love into something, which is what I try to do here, and I can see that they enjoy it. People just love to eat.”
Concerns of the modern foodie
From her bright green, solar-powered food truck, Jacqueline Jolliffe, owner and chef at Stone Soup Foodworks, has been serving up wholesome lunches made from local and sustainable products on campus for the past two years.
With a wide selection of soups, tacos, and other seasonal offerings, Jolliffe ensures her menu reflects her guiding philosophy: Our relationship with food should be a rich, healthy, and sustainable one. But that doesn’t mean food can’t also be downright delicious.
“We’re providing high-quality foods that are interesting and playful, but in a convenient manner,” she said. “We do a lot of local sourcing and we make everything by hand, which is rarer than people realize.”
Stone Soup Foodworks, located at 11 Marie Curie Pvt. appeals to a new and growing demographic of young foodies. Although consumers continue to crave foods that will bring them hedonistic pleasure, the Global Consumer Trends report suggests that many people are interested in forming a connection with food that goes beyond the product itself.
“Consumers want to know about the source location for ingredients, the people involved in the production process, and what that process requires, as a way to further engage with their food,” the report reads. “They are not simply purchasers of an item, but participants in a story.”
Our interest in the source and production of our meals, as well as increased health-awareness, has led us to desire products that are more authentic and that are made with quality ingredients. This has increased demand for products that are natural, organic, and local, according to a market analysis report called The Canadian Consumer that discusses Canadian behaviour, attitudes, and perceptions towards food products.
Nevertheless, we remain concerned about the convenience and speed at which food is made available to us. That’s where Jolliffe believes food trucks come in.
“There’s a new demand for wholesome foods that you get on the go,” she said. “Food trucks provide access to these foods, because they’re basically take-out for pedestrians. Food you would typically get in high-end restaurants has suddenly become more available.”
Stone Soup Foodworks was recruited by Food Services for the same reason Relish the Flavour was contacted: the university was looking to offer more vegetarian options and to serve underserviced areas on campus.
Food Services’ decision to have food trucks on campus has been well received by students, according to a study conducted by Mulvey in one of his classes last semester. He asked his students to bring pictures of things that either enhanced or diminished the quality of life on campus: food trucks and vendors were among the things most cited as enhancing students’ quality of life.
This might suggest emerging trends in eating preferences, but it may also point to the ability of food trucks to deliver meals that are quick, fresh, authentic, and tasty.
“It wasn’t long ago that we used to refer to food trucks as grease trucks because they smelled like grease and served greasy foods,” said Mulvey. “Now they offer some really interesting options.”
It’s a question of health and ethics
For years, food has been the focus of Pamela Tourigny’s life. A vegan for nearly a decade, and having started as a vegetarian a few years earlier, she is now a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Vegetarian Association, a not-for-profit membership-based organization created to inform the public on the health benefits of plant-based diets like veganism.
Tourigny is among the growing number of people choosing to adhere to an herbivorous diet, for any number of reasons. Although the exact number of vegetarians and vegans is difficult to pin down, studies show that the movements have indeed been growing in popularity.
According to Google, there has been an increase in the number of people searching for the term “vegan” online, and a study by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that the number of vegans in the United States has doubled in the last three years.
As for the number of vegetarians, a study conducted by the American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada found that approximately 2.5 per cent of adults in the United States and four per cent of adults in Canada follow a vegetarian diet.
“I think that there’s an activated interest that has come out of a much wider movement of people wanting to know about what’s in their food,” Tourigny said. “People want to feel more connected to what they’re eating.”
The largest growth has been in the number of people considered semi-vegetarians: those who dabble in veganism and vegetarianism by trying recipes and supporting restaurants that provide those services, but who are not living that way 100 per cent of the time.
The study by the American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada showed that approximately 20 to 25 per cent of adults in the U.S. report eating four or more meatless meals per week.
Tourigny believes that most semi-vegetarians adhere to these diets due to growing health consciousness and knowledge of the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Although many arguments continue to be made against plant-based diets, she affirms that there is cogent scientific evidence supporting their health benefits and environmental impact.
Food culture in North America is consequently making room for veganism and vegetarianism because their values are in many ways harmonious with those of the larger population.
“There’s strength in numbers,” said Tourigny. “It’s not as taboo anymore to be vegan. It’s really evolved. Some of the most well-respected, powerful people in the world are now vegans.”
Part of the reason these diets have become more accepted is due the increase in people trying them, which has created more of a market.
“Suddenly it’s easier to be vegan,” she said. “I don’t find it hard at all because my whole life has been set up that way, but it’s an isolating experience for a lot of people who are just starting out as vegetarian and vegan.”
When Tourigny first became vegan almost 10 years ago, she had to order products from the U.S. However, she said it’s now much simpler to find these items in Canada and therefore easier to adhere to plant-based diets.
The food trucks on campus are good examples of the accessibility of these products. Both Relish the Flavour and Stone Soup Foodworks offer vegetarian options that are highly popular. In fact, Jolliffe estimates her vegetarian menu items make up roughly 30 per cent of her total sales.
Mulvey believes that our new cultural trends have helped shape an era in which consumers have never had more choice when it comes to chowing down. This has in many ways redefined our relationship with what we eat, as food takes on an increasing number of roles in North America.
Today, food can be a marker of status and identity, a means of expressing environmental responsibility, and a way of discovering new cultures.
It puts a whole new spin on the saying that we don’t eat to live, but live to eat.
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