How does a recession taste?

Hoping to put slightly more spirit into what even the most optimistic economists fear will be a dreadful holiday season, New York City last week orchestrated a celebration of the Bloody Mary’s 75th anniversary, complete with a Times Square toast and free drinks all around (or, at least, all around the tri-state area).

Tummy comfort: Experts predict 2009 will be a big year for mashed potatoes, turkey legs and other simple comfort foods, with playful, artisanal items like the homemade corn dog at Tod’s Tasties leading the pack. Photo by Jon Elliston

Of course, as cocktail historians know, the Bloody Mary may very well have been invented in 1920 or 1934 or 1939. But dating its creation to 1933 made for a nice round number, and the year has a certain resonance these days. When Ferdinand Petiot allegedly first spiked a tomato-and-vodka with Tabasco, the men gathered around his bar were well acquainted with lost jobs, slashed wages and failing banks.

What didn’t dry up during the Great Depression was culinary innovation. Whether or not Petiot’s contribution is counted, the decade was enormously fruitful for the nation’s eaters. Resourceful home cooks embraced affordable Chinese and Mexican flavors. Grocery shoppers trimmed their meat consumption, but found room in their carts for plenty of brand new products, including Twinkies, Snickers bars, Fritos, Tootsie Roll pops, Ragu spaghetti sauce and chocolate-chip cookies. The majority of Americans not only ate their way through the financial crisis—they ate rather well.

Indeed, foodies may be among the few groups to benefit from the current dismal economy. Those familiar with the local food scene predict the downturn may spur area chefs to compete for the coveted dining-out dollar by exercising greater care with ingredients and more creativity in the kitchen.

While 2009 is bound to be a tough year for Asheville restaurant owners, insiders say their struggles are unlikely to manifest as culinary conservatism. Porterhouse steaks and caviar won’t be big sellers, but Asheville diners—who’d probably rather have seitan and Sunburst trout eggs, anyhow—don’t have to brace for an uninspired diet of starchy comfort foods either.

“As restaurant folks, we always have to be creative,” says John Atwater, owner of Mamacita’s and Mo’ Daddy’s. “It’s all about taking what you can find and making something wonderful out of it.”

Technomic, a research firm that monitors chain restaurants, last month released a study showing that franchises in October introduced 547 new menu items, a full 40 percent more items than the year’s monthly average. According to the study, restaurants suddenly found all sorts of new ways to employ pumpkin, chipotle and pecans.

“With consumers cutting back on eating out, restaurants need to find new ways to bring customers through their doors,” spokesperson Bernadette Noone explained in a release highlighting the firm’s findings.

That seems to mean doing more with less, a concept that has girded many of the world’s great cuisines. Damien Cavicchi, who closed Sugo earlier this year after too many customers starting balking at the prices necessitated by the rising costs of food, was trained in the Italian tradition, a cookery deeply rooted in peasant foodways.

“A lot of my cooking comes from poverty, it comes from beans and flour,” Cavicchi says. “I think that if a chef cannot be creative with potatoes and flour or chicken and celery, that he or she is doing a disservice to our profession. It’s always nice to have expensive ingredients around, but we are craftsmen in the business of finessing and dressing up ordinary ingredients.

“Maybe instead of reaching for the quart of heavy cream, chefs can dig a little deeper,” he says.

Cavicchi is confident the faltering economy won’t stifle culinary creativity by rendering chefs risk-adverse, although he worries about the near future of fine dining. “I myself eat a lot of humble food these days,” he says.

Luxury is out for 2009, says Michael Whiteman of Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co., the New York City restaurant-consulting company best known for developing the Rainbow Room and Windows on the World.

According to the company’s annual trend report, “costly frills are out” and “wanton indulgence is bad manners.” Restaurateurs will instead focus on customer satisfaction, keeping longer hours, offering more generous specials and encouraging plate sharing. The niche eateries that were all over last year’s trend report—think ceviche bars, rice-pudding shops, mozzarella specialists and chocolaterias—and opulent foie-gras-smeared burgers have been elbowed out by simple bistros and small plates.

“Decent chefs and cooks can run their riffs on the basics without doing gastronomic handstands or using outrageous ingredients,” Whiteman writes in an e-mail.

The existing emphasis on local ingredients is likely to harden in the coming year, predicts Peter Marks, local foods program director for Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.

“People in crisis times want to keep their money closer to home,” Marks says. “Lower spending may be offset by an interest in what’s closer to home and unique.”

Marks points to a solicitation ASAP recently received from Dollywood, which is seeking regional growers to sell their wares at the theme park. Biltmore Estate also made a foray into vernacular eating earlier this year with its Field to Table festival.

“Rather than trying to offer what’s bigger and better, the strategy they’ve come to is ‘What’s local?’,” Marks says.

Marks is maintaining an optimistic outlook. According to him, many Western North Carolina farmers are still more troubled by traditional agricultural concerns, such as the weather, than the economic situation. He hypothesizes the recession might even stimulate development of the farming sector by reducing land prices—which have long been a barrier to young growers buying their own farmsteads—and replenishing the labor market.

“There’s been a labor shortage as workers have gone over to construction,” Marks says. “Now there’s a greater availability of agricultural workers.

“So far, people are doing OK,” he adds. “People are saying it was a great year at the markets.”

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