The Rockstar Ingredient Theory

Saturday, May 10, 2008

I've slowly been realizing that each year the same pattern emerges. It seems to me that every single year in food is subtly defined by one specific ingredient. Somehow, someway, this possibly unheard of ingredient rises above the thicket with a tremendous rush and takes over the food world by storm. Suddenly, in a dizzying array of photography flashes, blog recipes, and magazine exposes this once underground food legend becomes a flash-in-the-pan rockstar.

For some of us it seems odd. We've been using the now ooh'ed and aah'ed ingredient for years. You haven't noticed it before? Where were you, society? Some of us were loving these guys before they were cool. I don't need the t-shirt, I was at their first concert.

It's hard to trace back, mainly because I wasn't paying too much attention for a long time. For a year or two back in the late eighties and early nineties, the coasts were abuzz with recipes and restaurants toting the use of goat cheese. And who can forget how suddenly every single thing lining the market shelves had some sort of sun-dried tomato in it. How glad,I am that that Tuscan flavored nightmare is over. (Sun-dried tomatoes make me gag.)

Last year, 2007... It was all about tea being used in food. Don't believe me? Look back. Matcha, chai, and Earl Grey. In cakes, tea cookies, for smoking meats, making preserves, and flavoring breads. It was everywhere. What food blogger didn't try using tea for something else other than a cup of hot water? I know I did. I made at least three different tea-based cupcakes using Earl Grey, matcha, and chamomile. Tea has dozens of healthy properties and flavorful opportunities to be explored, and explore we did.

2006? Pomegranate molasses. I grant this one to it being used suddenly on quite a few Food Network shows. That and the ever growing influence of Moroccan and Indian food. I think part of it traces back to the strengthening bonds and seemingly inevitable addition of Morocco to the European Union. With the country being accepted by most first world countries as "one of us" people were more willing to give it a try. Soon we were infatuated with that amazingly powerful fruity and acidic flavor.

I think 2005 was the chipotle pepper. Smokey heat that could give authentic Mexican/Tex-Mex/Creole/South of the Border flavor. We were adding it to BBQ, chocolate (best idea ever), salads, and breads. It flavored our junk food and perked the senses.

This year, 2008? RHUBARB.

Why you say? Look around. Check out any of your favorite food blogs. I bet you dollars to rhubarb jelly stuffed doughnuts you'll find a rhubarb recipe.

But why? Surely it's been around forever? People have been making rhubarb pies since time began. But it's suddenly that people are starting to push it outside the pie. Finding new and creative uses to apply this partly poisonous plant.

My friend Elise thinks it's a slow move from West to East. We on the West Coast have greater access to... well, most all produce. It's California. We just do. The rest of the nation seems to finally be catching up to the same kind of access we have to this veritable ruby-red boon. It's a good theory that seems to make sense, or at least it does to me.

I have no real proof or evidence to back up my claims. Just observations from reading over many, many food blogs and other food websites. It's my Rockstar Ingredient Theory, but if anyone else has any other insights or observations, please, I'd love to hear them.


  1. My friend Jeff sent me an e-mail with some more info on rhubarb. I should really consult my botanist friends before making claims... =P

    "As for rhubarb, it is funny you should have that in today's entry. My housemate just baked an incredibly good strawberry-rhubarb pie this morning, and I commented that I hadn't seen rhubarb outside of Michigan in a long time. I can see it becoming trendy, and I think your analysis is interesting. I'll buy the rockstar ingredient theory, but not the explanation for rhubarb's migration out of California. Rhubarb is at home in Michigan. It would be really hard to grow in CA,and any place you could grow it could be put to more expensive crops like baby greens. Rhubarb thrives in spring, and needs cold to really take off and pick its season. It is always one of the earliest flavorful spring produce items in the cold midwest. While it can be grown in CA (I was surprised to see, it is basically Pacific Northwest and upper Midwest in this country. And there aren't that many acres of it, although that's going to change if you're right about the rockstar year. Perhaps it is a combination of nostalgia-based cooking and looking for something exotic that isn't priced like it is exotic (not a year for pomegranate recipies when people are eating beans and mortgage notes). In fact, unlike many of our produce items, esp. the exotic ones, I'll bet we don't import any rhubarb. While many exotics are imported against a weak dollar, and food prices here and internationally are increasing a lot, somehow ol' rhubarb probably hasn't been much affected, and is just as exotic.
    The only other explanantions I can think of are less credible. Garrison Keilor hasn't had a sudden surge in publicity, even though he's been 'advertising' rhubarb pie on his show for years. I'm still waiting for someone to try to make rhubarb trendy and expensive by doing rhubarb-as-fugu. The leaves are poisonous (mildly) with oxalic acid. I can see a Food TV show getting out their special knife to trim out the dangerous parts by their specially trained chef.... Just like grandma always did for her pie."

    Thanks Jeff for the enlightenment here! Have you thought of doing your own food blog? ;)

  2. i know what you mean about 'fashion food'. it drives me bananas. i mostly rememeber about 10 years ago - before mr atkins made us afraid to enjoy ourselves - it was polenta. my family's been cooking polenta my whole life, i couldn't understand why this was the 'new' thing.

    but if i'll be eating more rhubarb, i'll be happy to go along for the ride. rhubarb and strawberry crumble with home made custard for me please!!!

  3. Ugh...I'm sorry to say that we DO import rhubarb. The only fresh rhubarb I've found in Austin this year (and refused to pay 8.99 a lb for!) was imported from Holland. Ridiculous.
    Guess I'll have to stick with frozen rhubarb...unless Michigan would be willing to share. :-)

  4. Hmmmm. I love sun-dried tomatoes, but rhubarb makes me gag. My mother always made rhubarb pie but I never liked it. I do see it on a lot of blogs though, so obviusly I'm in the minority here.

  5. I'd like to say that rhubarb should share 2008 with ramps, because I have never even heard of them before, and now I see a ton of food blogs singing their praises! surely they have been around for awhile...?

  6. I don't buy the California Theory, at least not for rhubarb. I think it's just a general trend of looking for something a little more homey during a time of economic trouble. The past few years we've played with exotic imports, but the dollar is down and we need comfort so we turn to rhubarb, something many of us grew up with.

    And now we're taking the rhubarb and seeing what we can do with it. It's versatile. It tastes delicious with strawberries and sugar. And it's something half of the people living in America haven't had recently, making it retro-exotic.

  7. I'm going to agree with lauren and put in a bid for ramps. I'd never heard of the things 3 weeks ago and now it's all food bloggers are blogging about.
    I also agree with you about the tea last year, but there also was a lot of salted caramel and brown butter.

  8. Pesto, it reached the middle class english suburbia in the late 80's (well, in my region) everyone was using it, cooking with it and eating it. Unfortunatley I hated it, but I adore rhubarb!

  9. I think there is something to your theory. While I can't say what leads to an ingredient becoming the rockstar, you are so right about identifying the chronological ingredients! Of all the ones you talked about, I think chipotle and goat cheese are the only two I was party to. I am not a big one for fads!

  10. I dislike rhubarb, and so will be boycotting 2008.

    As for ramps, I am the one wearing the t-shirt. Ramps were the first wild thing I ever picked and ate as a young boy in New Jersey.

    Sadly, they do not grow wild in California. I will, however, make do with shallots, green onions, leeks, bulb onions or chives. I think I'll be OK.

  11. Not only are you spot on in your rockstar theory, but food industry magazines note these trends and report on them. Last year browned butter was a supperstar, amongst many others.
    I also agree that rhubarb has become a bit more hip. Everything we make at work with it in it is instantly bought. I think it's seen as homey and quaint. Which is also why I think red velvet cake is such a rage.

  12. Rhubarb in Europe is on the move since the last couple of years. No wonder Holland exports it to the US, we produce it in quantities not eaten here. So much for foodmiles. Recipes for rhubarb-icecream and rhubarb-strawberry compote have figured in 'healthy' living cookbooks. Yet, it is not very popular, too much work for the assemblyline kitchen.

  13. I love your theory. I rememember the Chipotle craze. I live in Texas and was quite amused by it. :)

    This isn't an ingredient - more of a technique, but I remember when Foam was all the rage and then it kind of died out.

  14. As a life-long Michigander (yes, we really do call ourselves that), I can remember picking rhubarb in my uncle's backyard as a child...I'm surprised that it is now considered "trendy" in other parts of the country! What else can you do with rhubarb besides put it in a dessert?

    PS - I blame the pomegranate molasses phenomenon on Bobby Flay!

  15. My husband and I talk about this all the time! We think the recent fad food is Meyer lemons. They seem to be in every nifty new dessert recipe these days. Recent other fad foods, to our way of thinking, include aioli and ciabatta. Also, applewood-smoked anything and cedar-plank salmon.

  16. I'll have to disagree with you slightly. If I want rhubarb, I just have to call one of my friends that has it growing in their yards. I'm in NH. If it grows in NH, it can grow anywhere. I've been eating sugar dipped rhubarb since growing up in Maine.

    I think its more a blogger phenomenon. It happens on all type of blogs, things are just popular for a while.

    I'm looking forward to using all of these rhubarb recipes. My friends can't give it away fast enough. :)

  17. oh I heart you...not only for your witty repartee and fabulous recipes but for taking rhubarb out of the closet. And may I recommend the 'rhubarbtini'. You'll heart it.

  18. arrght. Third try at the comments. My wit was left at the first comment. But I am totally into the year of the rhubarb. Beyond pie, beyond cobbler, consider, please, the 'rhubarbtini'. Stew rhubarb in a simple syrup, strain, chill and mix with vodka and some skewered frozen strawberries.

  19. That is HILARIOUS!
    (And you forgot the Balsamic craze!)

    I posted a rhubarb cocktail recipe, so I have to agree and say you are 100% right, it is the trendiest ingriedient of 08! LOL.

  20. Being originally from the NW, I've been waiting for the rhubarb craze! It is also amazingly high in calcium...

  21. Oh lord. And here I was thinking of getting a mewling little furbundle of joy. Methinks I might rather have a dog. A BIG dog. One that can't possibly fit in the fridge.

    Thanks for being you. Your blog always makes me giggle uncontrollably... which is a good thing.

  22. We planted rhubarb this year, but only because Michael loves it in pie. I'm not such a big fan, but we'll have fun growing it. So the rest of the country is catching up with the Midwest/Northeast? How refreshing! :-)

  23. how funny, i have been digging rhubarb too. a new discovery for me a couple years ago, i look forward to the season now. mmmm....rhubarb....but i just made tea cupcakes. tee hee hee.

  24. The post and the thoughtful comments that follow are really interesting. I think many of us in the food blogger world notice, without really intending to, when suddenly something swings and appears everywhere. There are also more subtle localized versions. Lately I've been noticing seared scallops on pea puree at many of Chicago's top restaurants. Along with a strange resurgence of interest in duck confit (esp quesadillas). What is that all about?

    I'll gladly embrace rhubarb and particularly like the analysis of how the economy impacts trends that push the search for exoticism towards domestic exotics with reasonable price tags.

    I grew up on rhubarb because it was the one plant in my mother's defunct garden that just simply refused to go away. every year, despite her best efforts to the contrary, there it was.

    I would love to see you turn your rockstar ingredient theory into an annual in and out list. I'm sort of a sucker for those things.


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