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Has the economy really pulled out of its slump? According to a July 2010 poll on CNN Money, 31% the population seems to think the economy is better now than it was in 2009, and 4% think we are entering another boom. The United States is apparently coming out of its recession, both emotionally and financiallybut memories of hardship still linger.

When we entered the recession in late 2008, the emotions tied into eating out affected restaurant prices, diner choices and available menu options. We saw prices drop, and new menu selections included traditional comfort foods like stews, meatloaf and pork chops. Foods that people usually ate at home were making their way more often into both casual and fine-dining establishments. Fine-dining restaurants in Las Vegas began to go bistro” with paper tablecloths and more-casual, price-friendly menus. Emotionally and financially stressed out Americans were instinctually choosing foods that were based on their emotional cravings, and the restaurants responded by making those items available at affordable prices.

As we emerge from the recession, however, our tune is beginning to change, and we are seeking out more experimental luxury food items. According to Suzy Badaracco, owner, Culinary Tides, Tualatin, OR, a firm that focuses on trend forecasting, this is a repeatable pattern that has been seen several times in American history. Foods are now emerging with a strong voice that ties the consumer to a specific time and place,” she notes.

Current emerging food trends reflect our desire to augment traditional comfort-food choices with new varieties more-sophisticated and exotic thinking” versions that give consumers something new to ponder while making their selections in the retail and foodservice worlds.

Emerging comforts

The comfort foods that are emerging for 2010 and 2011 fall into several categories that strategically connect consumers to a specific time and place. American retro foods are tied to an era, typically the 50s through the 80s, and appeal to both baby boomers and Gen-Xers.

With the economy steadily improving, Americans are beginning to spend more money on desserts. There is opportunity for more authentically flavored rice pudding with cinnamon and raisins, a dessert that resonates with baby boomers and the Gen-X crowd. The whoopie pie, originally a Pennsylvania Amish tradition, has become the new cupcake in both retail and foodservice. Bacon, which reminds many of a time when cholesterol did not exist, has been in everything from ice cream to donuts and cocktails. Other retro items, like smores, malts, and milkshakes, and nostalgic soda flavors like cream and orange, and even nonalcoholic versions of the classic lime Rickey cocktail, are also showing up in vending machines, dessert shops and multi-unit establishments.

International comfort foods” are also emerging, and are very popular with the Gen-Y crowd who continues to seek out global flavors. Several national dishes from untapped countries like Korea and Morocco feature hallmark attributes of typical comfort foods and can be easily translated into workable American retail and foodservice items. The Moroccan dish bastilla, a mixture of ground chicken, almonds and cinnamon wrapped in a warqa (similar to phyllo dough), and Vietnamese pho noodle soups are examples of national dishes that are easily adaptable to the American casual-dining restaurant table. Both dishes have a longstanding history in their own countries and are made with simple ingredients familiar to most Americans.

Comforting dishes from countries like Italy and France think lasagna and pizza, and crêpes and beef bourguignon have long been part of the American casual-dining experience. However, the new trend is to offer dishes from specific regions of those countries, such as Parisian macarons (sweet, multicolored sandwich cookies made with almond paste) and Roman porchetta (herb-stuffed pork roast). These dishes have a voice and story that gives the consumer an opportunity to ponder not just the food, but where it came from and how it became a staple in that region.

Street food and food trucks are also part of the new comfort-food scene. The consumer gets to see their food being made in an unpretentious environment, which connects them to the dish in a way that fine dining never can. Street food simultaneously satisfies our craving for global cuisine and comfort food, while playing into our love for all things artisanal and handmade. Serving up everything from Belgian waffles to Korean bibimbap (bowls of rice, vegetables and chili paste, and sometimes beef and/or fried egg), street food is comforting for all generations seeking flavorful global cuisine.

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