Eyewitness Of A Revolution

Ruth Reichl, The New York Times’s restaurant critic, has resigned from her influential perch as the doyen of the culinary establishments in the most important food town in the world. But before she hung up her wig – Ms.Reichl always visited restaurants in disguise, including a series of wigs – Ms. Reichl left a parting column that, in many ways, explains the quandary supermarkets find themselves in as they wrestle with providing meals at the turn of the millennium.

Ms. Reichl recounts how reviewing restaurants was viewed by many, including her mother and herself, as somehow vaguely frivolous. She started 23 years ago when she first began reviewing restaurants in San Francisco and as she put it, “It was years before I understood that I had been sending bulletins from a revolution most of us didn’t even know was taking place.”

The nature of this revolution: Food, at last, was taken seriously as a component of culture, as a component of the good life. Ms. Reichl writes that “If you had told me then that Americans would one day buy sushi in the supermarket, that universities would offer graduate courses in food history and that chefs would become superstars, I would have said you were crazy.

“The very notion of something called a Television Food Network would have seemed simply absurd. And you could never have convinced me that Americans would end up discussing restaurants with intensity then reserved for books, theater, and movies.”

Put another way, what Ms.Reichl is chronicling is a change that supermarkets have never quite been able to reconcile themselves to or, put another way, its changes that have thrown into question the very purpose of a supermarket – and with this, the purpose of the supermarket deli operations.

What Ms. Reichl catalogs are a shift in the role of food in our lives from strict sustenance to cultural enrichment. She explains the nature of the shift in New York: “What exactly did happen? In a food sense, everything. The Green Market movement, which had been chugging quietly along suddenly exploded. Local farmers, dairymen, and fishermen, spurred by chefs and encouraged by a hungry public, began bringing extraordinary products to markets all over the city. Bakeries selling great artisanal bread seemed to spring up on every corner. Ethnic ingredients, once hard to find, became commonplace. Cooking in New York began to be a great joy.”

All this can be overstated. Most people eat at McDonald’s, not being exposed to much “fine artisanal bread.” But just as one impact of the growth of fat-free and low-fat foods has been a bifurcation of the market, with people insisting on fat-free most of the time but wanting the richest highest fat items when indulging, the food culture also has bifurcated itself between “refueling” – fast food on the run, etc. – and “dining”, in which new demands for quality are being set.

The greatest failures of the contemporary food scene are the midrange dining houses and the “upscale” fast food joints – most notably Boston Market. Not surprisingly, both of these types of concepts attempt to bridge this bifurcating marketplace.

Ominously, it is this model that supermarket delis have mostly chosen to adopt. This explains, as much as anything, the failure of so many HMR programs. They are geared for a mid-range market that is rapidly disappearing.

Ms. Reichl’s column goes on to mention some of the great new restaurants of New York. These places are authentically foreign, as in a bunch of hot Japanese restaurants or Latin-influenced or simply, American. Indeed, part of what she chronicles is the creation of a cuisine – American cuisine – having local ingredients served with finesse but served without pretension.

“What these restaurants share,” writes Ms. Reichal, “is a sense of possibility; they know what they want to do, and they know that their customers trust them to do it. They are redefining the very idea of what an American restaurant might be.”

Recently on Hollywood’s famous sidewalk of the stars in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater, a previously unheralded star made his handprint in concrete. His name is Gerry Thomas, age 77, and he also dipped one of Swanson’s classic TV Dinner trays into the concrete with him. Mr. Thomas is the father of the “TV Dinner.”

Inspired by a glimpse of an airline trying out a new hot food tray, and motivated by pressure to find a way to sell excess turkey from Thanksgiving, Mr. Thomas created a little piece of Americana.

He may be 77 today, but he still rides the zeitgeist like a master surfer. He explains why it was named the TV Dinner: “Television was the talk of the day. Television was something that if you had one, you were contemporary, you were cool…today, we’d probably call it the digital dinner.”

So the father of HMR warns us that we can’t just give them food and packaging, we have to make consumers feel contemporary and cool. It is not just providing calories; it is helping people live a life.