Food as the Crossover


Originally published in the Memphis Daily News. Last week, upon experiencing SXSW in my old stomping grounds of Austin, I listened, networked, and ate far more in one concentrated period than I ever thought possible. The sights and tastes were exhilarating, and the opportunities were empowering.

Among panels on technology insights and digital engagement strategies, one session titled “Culinary Innovation: Tracking Food Trends” specifically stuck with me.

I was personally motivated by my food blog Caramelized to enter this Downtown Austin ballroom versus the other 40 panels that morning, though my intention to draw Memphis parallels pushed me into a deeper conversation.

Lucie Greene, worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, thoughtfully presented her findings and visions for innovative trends in the food and beverage industry. With pen in hand, I was eager to scribble down the “aha” moments to share upon my return.

Notably, Greene stated that research shows millennials spend more on food than anything else. This finding was no surprise considering my current spending habits. I wrote it down anyway.

Greene next stated that now, more than ever, food is serving as the ultimate cultural crossover, offering a convergence with other well-followed trends such as fashion, beauty, health, sports, and music. Food obsession is no longer a niche; rather, it’s a mass behavior.

The crowd of 500 was infatuated. I was perplexed.

Is this trend new for Memphis? No. It’s an old ritual, like a coveted index card from our grandmother’s recipe box studded with splattered sauces and spice smears. We’ve translated that ritual into gems like Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman’s Southern Italian standouts, Kelly English’s homegrown Cajun cooking and Wally Joe’s unmatched Asian-Southern fusion.

I do not believe our city is defined by food, though a Canadian conference attendee defined Memphis as “barbecue sauce” upon my asking for his perspective. Memphis’ flavors and the accompanying authenticity and hospitality, however, enhance and enliven the fabric of our city. Food serves as the binding element, the ingredient that reveals a resonant, familiar flair far beyond any urban or suburban market’s “trends” of the moment.

Sure, Bon Appetit editor in chief Adam Rapoport deserves his national recognition for the March “culture” issue, boasting food’s parallels to platforms from millennial dialect to travel, tech and novels.

However, I am confident that Memphis has been the unrecognized model for the appreciation for and association with food. We value a meal, and we value what goes behind it. Perhaps we’re almost so comfortable that we take the ritual – or trend – for granted. Let’s own it.

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