Top Food Stories and Trends of 2012

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Food Trends 2012. Photo collage by Wendy Goodfriend
Photo collage by Wendy Goodfriend

Delicious, or disgusting? The top food stories and trends of this year offered plenty of both. While the rest of the country worried about pink slime and contaminated peanuts, and dealt with the fallout of a devastating drought and a stalled farm bill, San Francisco debated its upcoming bans of foie gras and plastic shopping bags.

This was the year that big money and the usually New York-centric food media finally started to notice that our local food scene is no longer just figs on a plate or (humanely-raised) tripe in a bowl if, really, it ever was, for those of us who live and eat here every day. A few of our local stars decamped for the Big Apple. Big music festivals found that concert-goers now come as much for the food and drink as for the headliners, while other food-centric street festivals proved that standing in line for Korean tacos, Himalayan dumplings, or Mexican huaraches could be the main event.

Coconut water and kale chips went from trendy to kiddie, and doughnuts (and bagels) became the new cupcakes, at least in the East Bay, where everyone, it seemed, opened a bakery this year. So here, looking back on a year's worth of columns from NPR, Bay Area Bites, and the rest of the media from the Bay Area and beyond, some reflections on what went right (and wrong) in food in 2012.

Don't They Have Chinese Food in New York City?
What do New Yorkers really, really want? To wait in line for hours and hours, drinking free keg beer, for the chance to numb their tastebuds and sear their gullets with the likes of kung pao pastrami and pork-laden mapo tofu at what even Pete "Guy Fieri, You're Dead to Me" Wells called the city's most exciting new restaurant. Sorry, Gotham, but your hot ticket is our Tuesday night take-out. Mission Chinese Food got its start as a quirky pop-up sharing kitchen and table space with a Mission Street Cantonese joint, and we know that GQ darling chef Danny Bowien will always love us best. Even better than those black-vinegar peanuts? That in two years, the restaurant, which donates 75 cents for every entree, has raised almost $170,000 for the SF Food Bank.


Take Our Plastic Bags, Take Our Foie Gras, But Hands Off Our Sodas
While New Yorkers kvelled about "Nanny Bloomberg's" attempt to limit their Big Gulp consumption, San Francisco took October's ordinance against plastic shopping bags in stride. A 10 cent nuisance fee for paper bags encouraged city dwellers to make reusable bags as much a part of daily baggage as cellphones and keys. And where San Fran goes, Oakland will follow: On January 1, Alameda County joins the plastic bag ban.

In July, the gavage (force-feeding) method of fattening geese and ducks became illegal in California, wiping foie gras off menus, shutting down foie gras production statewide, and inspiring a disproportionally large amount of media coverage, like this soul-searching piece by L.A. Times writer Ed Lebowitz in The Atlantic. Hot on the heels of Humphry Slocombe's last-chance foie-gras ice cream sandwiches was the well-publicized attempt by the Presidio Social Club to circumvent the ban. (Their argument--that the restaurant, located in the Presidio, was on federal land and thus not subject to state regulations--didn't fly, and the restaurant took foie gras off its menu shortly thereafter.) Meanwhile, Richmond residents defeated Measure N, a proposed penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and other high-sugar drinks, after the American Beverage Association poured over $2.5 million into a "No on N" campaign.

Backyard Chickens Jumped the Shark
OK, not really. We like waking up to the clucking of our blond, bosomy Buff Orpingtons just as much as the next soft-hearted urban homesteader. But when Williams-Sonoma's new Agrarian catalog category started offering a Reclaimed Rustic Chicken Coop, "built by hand using reclaimed redwood and decorated with a hand-painted rooster" for $759.95, we did wonder if there wasn't some truth to this Deadspin writer's hilariously bitter rant about the San Francisco-based retailer. And just as you shouldn't plant veggies in untested urban soil, so you might want to consider where your cute, free-range city birds are scratching. A recent New York City study found high lead levels in eggs from community-garden chickens.

Big Money Found Our Local Favorites
Starbucks spent $100 million to buy Bay Area-based bakery-cafe chain La Boulange, while venture capitalists True Ventures and Index Ventures poured $20 million in funding into Oakland's Blue Bottle Coffee. A German conglomerate, Joh. A. Benckiser, bought Peet's for nearly $1 billion. South Park's American Grilled Cheese Kitchen won a $250K grant from Chase as a winner of their Mission: Small Business competition. And tech money did more than just fuel impossible rents, $18 pizzas, and another round of $13 Corpse Revivers: business partners Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring poured their big software-company payoff into Dandelion Chocolate, a small-batch bean-to-bar operation. After starting the business in Dogpatch, they turned a former auto-repair place on Valencia Street into a full-service chocolate factory and shop just in time for holiday shopping, offering cool stuff like this chapbook and chocolate combination, produced with neighboring writing center 826 Valencia.

And Small-Money Operations Got the Nod from Jerry Brown
In September, Gov. Brown approved AB 1616, the "cottage food law" that allows for home production and less stringent health-department regulation for typically non-hazardous foods such as bread, pastries, dry pasta, granola, jam, honey, candy, coffee beans, spice blends and more. "Cottage food" industries for such items now don't require a commercial kitchen, as long as the businesses don't do more than $35K/year in gross sales this year. You still can't make hot or ready-to-eat foods or highly perishable items without full regulation and a commercial kitchen, which meant that Forage SF's very popular but renegade Underground Market ended its 3-year run with a final food blitz on December 22.

Put a Hole in It

The East Bay, in particular, had a doughnut-and-bagel renaissance this year, with the opening of Beauty's Bagels and Authentic Bagel Company, plus Baron Baking, Doughnut Dolly, and Doughnut Savant. Meanwhile, the newly opened Sweet Bar Bakery drew crowds for its I-can't-believe-they're-vegan "faux-nuts," a baked doughnut-like pastry that owner Mani Niall invented while working in Hollywood. It was just one of many small food businesses that opened this year thanks to crowd-sourced fundraising campaigns. Later this year, look for a revival of Charles Chocolates, which used Kickstarter to raise both money and public awareness that the much-missed chocolatier was planning a comeback.

Who's Playing? Who Cares? We're Here for the Lamb Poutine
2012 was the year Outside Lands and other big-draw music and entertainment festivals around the Bay became as much about the food as the entertainment, as anyone who spent time at John Fink's mini-empire Outside Lambs can attest. Oakland's Eat Real Festival was better than ever and La Cocina's Street Food Festival was bigger, with a fun, if chilly Night Market added on.

You Like Us, You Really Like Us
Danny Bowien was definitely a cool cat in the San Francisco chef scene, but it wasn't until he and his long locks showed up on the Lower East Side to open an outpost of Mission Chinese Food in New York that his celebrity-chefdom flamed hotter than one of his own plates of cumin-spiced lamb. And this year, after moving, then closing, her restaurant and bakery Citizen Cake, California native and longtime San Franciscan Elizabeth Falkner resurfaced in Brooklyn, opening Krescendo, a pizza place. Still, the Bay Area felt some more love than usual from the national media this year, as Travel and Leisure's Adam Sachs sang the praises of a a new crop of (mostly Mission-centric) San Francisco restaurants, including Bar Tartine, Craftsman+Wolves, St Vincent, Outerlands, Park Tavern, Benu, Rich Table, and others, and Bon Appetit dubbed Pacific Heights' State Bird Provisions as its 2012 Restaurant of the Year.


Smart Choices for Brain Food
With dispiriting reminders that seafood mislabeling and ocean depredation continues around the world, KQED and other local publications helped raise the profile of sustainable fishing and seafood consumption, with pieces like Nothing Fishy About Sustainable Seafood, The Whole Fish: Snout to Tail Movement Meets Gill to Adipose Fin, and What's Cooking with Sustainable Seafood?