AMERICANS ARE in too much of a hurry" to savor good food, said Trader Vic's traveling chef in 1969. He was shocked, he told a reporter, to find that Washington's best restaurant was serving "obviously frozen shrimp."
Washington's best restaurants may still be serving frozen shrimp 10 years later: It's almost impossible to get fresh. And Americans are still "in too much of a hurry," but we are learning to eat and drink well, moving beyond not only Trader Vic's Polynesian food and drinks, but past Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese cooking to Szechwan and Hunan. In search of exotic cuisines we have embraced Thai, Vietnamese, Moroccan and Tunisian. Surely Japanese is next. Certainly its low-fat, high-carbohydrate content is appropriate for the next decade -- the Pritikin diet of the Orient.
The '70s, which started out in love with classical French cooking, took up with nouvelle cuisine mid-term. But the excesses of nouvelle cuisine have brought it many detractors. Many dishes are often raw and unappealing. Some of the fruit and meat combinations taste like desserts. It is such a demanding style of cooking, errors cannot be concealed.
Paul Bocuse, one of the nouvelle cuisine promoters, now claims he always meant cuisine bourgeoise, or women's cooking, the simple cooking of the French countryside. If that's where we are headed in the '80s, it will fit right in with American interest in nostalgia cooking -- chocolate chip cookies, three-bean salads, homemade peanut butter, sausages, ice cream, pasta, greens in pot liquor and yeast baking.
The return of bread baking finds bleached, enriched white flour, once the only variety available in the supermarket, not joined on the shelves by unbleached white flour, whole wheat, graham, and even bread flour.
Along with this return to the hearth, many small commercial enterprises have sprung up to do the "home" baking and cooking for us. They represent the return of the food craftsperson, all but out of business 10 years ago.
The revolution which brought us so many frozen products, including things that don't freeze well, like potatoes, has led to a counter-revolution. Supermarkets sell fresh turkeys, even fresh ducks and fresh Cornish hens. You no longer need your own garden to get certain fresh herbs. Parsley and watercress are periodically joined by fresh dill and chives; specialty markets often have fresh basil, cilantro and sorrel.
When the decade began we had two choices of vinegar in the supermarket: white and apple cider. Now tarragon and wine vinegars are everywhere and shops catering to cooking enthusiasts offer fruit and spiced vinegars.
Not only have corn and peanut oils taken over shelf space, there often is a choice of more than one brand of olive oil. Purists insist none available in the average supermarket is good enough and the chic olive oil today is the first pressing of the olives, or virgin oil. If you don't want to use any of those oils, there are other choices in specialty markets, like walnut and sesame, which give distinctive flavors to cooking.
You can select from all kinds of olives, too. Supermarket deli counters have moved beyond canned pimento-stuffed green olives and ripe black olives to those wrinkled salty Greek olives and now they have new challengers in small food stores: olives pickled in brine, dried olives, oil-cured olives, etc.
In addition, the resolute shopper can find more than 50 varieties of mustards.
Produce departments in supermarkets tell a lot about the last 10 years. Iceberg lettuce and heads of escarole and Romaine must share the spotlight with Bibb, Boston, limestone and red lettuces. We've gone from canned (soy) bean sprouts to fresh bean sprouts. Now we are sprinkling alfalfa sprouts on almost everything. Adzuki and red mung bean sprouts are next.
Vegetables and fruits, virtually unknown to most Americans 10 years ago, now supplement carrots and green beans, pineapples and pears: Snow peas, spaghetti squash, hot peppers (chiles), papayas, mangoes, kiwis, burpless cucumbers and of course the rage, sugar snap peas. Old-fashioned vegetables are also staging a comeback -- turnips, butternut squash and Jerusalem artichokes, now called sunchokes.
At the end of the '60s we were trying canned mushrooms, sauteed in butter. We graduated to fresh mushrooms we could saute ourselves, probably when we discovered they didn't have to be peeled. Now we eat them raw as hors d'oeuvres and in salads.
Fresh mushrooms as hors d'oeuvres are just part of the move away from clam dip, California onion dip and bacon-wrapped chicken livers. Today it is crudites, raw vegetables cut in thin slices or bite size pieces to be dipped in curried, pesto or anchovy mayonnaise (homemade, of course.)
Our love affair with zucchini is unlikely to diminish. An exotic 20 years ago, by 1969 it was being sauteed and mixed with other vegetables in another '70s food fashion plate, ratatouille. Then we found out it was wonderful raw and that it added just the right texture and moisture to quick breads. Now it is being french fried and grated into pancakes.
The presence of the "gourmet" cheese cooler in the supermarket has paralleled the increase in wine and cheese shops. Velveeta may still be our national cheese but it has rivals in brie and Port Salut. Fresh parmesan and an occasional goat cheese are no longer impossible to find. Even our beloved cream cheese has to share the spotlight with French triple cremes and herbed triple cremes. Herbed brie is next.
The bread revolution of the '70s has changed the entire look of the bread shelves and small bakeries are going into business instead of out of it. Balloon white bread is being replaced by breads that either seem to weigh seven pounds a slice or French bread which costs four times as much. This change is partly due to an interest in taste; partly it's a matter of health. The heavy whole grain breads have fiber, touted a few years ago as the magical cure-all for almost every disease known to Western civilization. The fiber craze was responsible for another phenomenon, a bread containing powdered wood pulp made by ITT-Continental Baking Company.
Fiber is also responsible for the new bran cereals on the shelves and the appearance of unprocessed bran under a cereal company's label. Bran is just one of many foods to move out of the health food stores into the mainstream.
Ten years ago honey was honey. Now it's alfalfa, buckwheat, Acacia, heather, thyme. Granola now comes in eight different flavors, with or without nuts, with or without raisins, figs, dates.
Carob as a replacement for chocolate has had limited success, but tofu is coming on strong. Brown rice and bulgur are making inroads. Maybe buckwheat groats are next. Herbal teas are part of the same trend. Orange pekoe is being eclipsed by spearmint, pink mint, Red Zinger, camomile.
It's all part of our interest in new foods and a national health kick. The decade began with vegetarians who carried the idea to extremes, into macrobiotic and into nutritional deficiencies. Now the "new vegetarians" have surfaced. They don't eat meat but they eat fish and poultry.
Even beef Wellington has taken a back seat to salmon souffle en croute. And just last week I saw vegetables en croute in an Aspen restaurant. Liver pates are being pushed aside by fish and vegetable pates as the tables of the culinary trend setters.
Mineral waters, almost unknown at the beginning of the decade in this country, are taking up space once reserved for soda pop. They've been joined by a couple of salt-free club sodas.
Diet ice creams, technically called frozen desserts, were making waves at the beginning of the decade. Now it's fruit sorbets. But Haagen Dazs came on strong mid-decade, part of that other trend toward quality without concern for calories.
When we want it rich, we know exactly how to glid the lily. Once the only suitable dessert for a company meal, a three-layered chocolate cake is a relic of another age. It is more likely to turn up now, with a blue ribbon pinned to its side, at a county fair. Chocolate cakes were aced out by chocolate mousse. Then someone put some chocolate cake around the chocolate mousse and called it chocolate mousse cake. (The current fad in white chocolate mousse can't last: White chocolate has no taste.)
Even our fresh pasta is covered with richer sauces than ever. From spaghetti and meatballs to fettucine alfredo, we are "into" pesto -- lots of fresh basil leaves with even more olive oil, plus freshly grated parmesan and pine nuts or walnuts.
But when will we be delivered from quiche, which started out innocently enough as ham and cheese custard in a crisp buttery crust and has degenerated into any kind of custard which fills a sodden crust? And crepes! When they started making $250 machines for homemade crepes (a popular Christmas gift of several years back), and began serving them in cafeterias, crepes were out. Now that frozen puff pastry dough, made without butter, is being marketed by a large food company, it must be time for something else.
The woman working outside the home is no longer the curiosity she was at the beginning of the decade. Half of the women in this country bring home paychecks now, along with heat-and-serve dinners. The typical family of four is no longer typical. The number of single parent families, couples and single person households is rising at a phenomenal rate. This change has a lot to do with the new trend in convenience foods, toward single servings and small packages, and with record sales for microwave ovens and food processors.
But food processors are also used for more elaborate cooking. They represent an increasing interest in quality cooking at home that has spawned a new kind of shop -- the store specializing in kitchen equipment. It takes very little effort to spend $1,000 in one of them and still not own a stove.
The direction in which we go in the '80s may have more to do with economics than our interest in good food or nutrition. Those who can afford it will continue to seek quality food at any price, whether they have time to make it themselves or pay others to make it for them. Those with limited incomes may have to leave more of the mass-marketed convenience foods in the stores and do more cooking from scratch, even if their time is limited.