I’ve never really understood food trends. I mean, I understand them in function, but not in principle. How can food be hip? How is it that foods go in and out of trend? In fashion a designer can create a new aesthetic that catches on for a while, before it eventually becomes oversaturated and the crowd moves onto the Next Big Thing – I get that; but food is different. Kale, for example, is an oh-so-hip foodstuff that’s as much a mark of hipsterdom these days as exposed brickwork walls and bushy beards, yet kale has always existed – it has always been accessible to us – but why is it that it’s more hip now than it was 10 years ago?
Admittedly this question is half rhetorical: it’s trendy because trendy people eat it, because cosmopolitan 20 and 30-somethings with lots of Instagram followers like to paste aesthetically-pleasing shots of their hip meals, fashioned from fashionable, Monsanto-free ingredients, all over social media. Sometimes this is done for health reasons, sometimes not. But either way, it’s still absurd.
If you live in a major Western city and are moderately familiar with current fads, you probably understand what I mean when I write “hip food.” As I mentioned earlier, kale is a hip food. Avocado toast? Definitely hip. Quinoa, maybe a bit too 2012, also fits into this category. Collard greens? Basically the Brooklyn of vegetables. Maybe there’s some secretive food marketing campaign that I’m not familiar with, but usually these sort of foodstuffs spike in popularity when nutritionally-conscious, media-literate middle-class types uncover some sort of lesser-publicized health benefit, then proceed to eat loads of them.
Inevitably the lifestyle sections of major metropolitan newspapers pick up on the latest food trend, amplifying their popularity exponentially, and before you know it they’re everywhere; talked about in the sort of terms that’ll make you feel like a culinary philistine if you don’t eat them. There’s a certain irony in this: although a love for these foods is often held up as a signifier of cosmopolitan sophistication, there’s a dark side to them that’s seldom talked about. For all the supposed liberal values that these foods represent, their rising trendiness often has a terrible effect on the lives of poor people that traditionally rely on them. The concept of hip food might sound absurd, but it’s real, as is food gentrification.
Take quinoa for example. I was initially introduced to the South American grain through a hippie friend that likes to spend their weekend walking barefoot through the English countryside, and talks about “energy” and “the universe” without any hint of irony. In parts of Peru and Bolivia, where it has been cultivated for several millennia, quinoa is an essential cornerstone of the local diet in the same way that rice is in Asia and bread is in Europe. But a spike in Western demand for quinoa caused its price to triple in the years between 2006 and 2013.
By the end of this period, quinoa had become more expensive than chicken in the Peruvian capital of Lima, not to mention that the lucrative sums that could be earned from exporting it to moneyed overseas markets made supplies scarcer. This has forced the local populace into spending their money on cheaper imported Western junk food because they can afford little else. So much for those hippie ideals of universal love.
Similar parallels can be drawn with the growing popularity of collard greens among the American chattering classes. Collard greens used to be cheap food for poor people, hence their popularity in the south, particularly in African-American cooking. A boom in trendiness has inevitably been followed by rising prices, putting them beyond the financial reach of people who eat them out of necessity, rather than a hipster obsession with working class “authenticity.” A number of African-American commentators have railed against this trend, which is often described as the “gentrification of food.”
Avocados are another problematic superfood adored by champagne socialists in the West. The high demand and the sizable profit that comes with it has led to a deforestation problem in Mexico, where farmers from the state of Michoacan are known to clear pine and fir forests to make more room for avocado crops. Because avocado orchards demand twice as much water as the forests cleared to make room for them, a knock-on effect is that animals and nearby vegetation are left dehydrated, not to mention that avocados have been linked to a rise in crime, too: in New Zealand thieves break into avocado farms and sell off the fruits that they manage to steal, while Mexican drug cartels like the Knights Templar plunder local farmers for extortion money. Like drug-related violence, this isn’t fueled by the foodstuffs themselves but rather First-World demand for them: the demand makes them profitable, and the pursuit of profit leaves a trail of reckless and exploitative behavior in its wake.
There’s a terrible irony to all of this. The middle-class liberals who brunch at vegan cafes and upload snaps of their quinoa salads or avocado toast onto Instagram probably view their dietary choices as a mark of their intrinsic open-mindedness, but it’s arguably a very modern form of colonialism. Just as the British plundered India for its tea and spices with force, this modern arrangement leverages the financial muscle of developed nations against the poverty and desperation of lesser powers. Sure, there’s an economic exchange, it’s not comparable to the horrors of slavery, but it’s still pure exploitation. Money just coats it in a civilized veneer and gives us something to scrub our conscience with.