Reaching the 100 issue mark is no small feat for a print publication. Quite a bit has changed in the city (and the world) since Void’s inaugural issue, but seeing as how this is a food column, we thought it might be nice to reflect on how the food and dining scene has changed during that same span. Here then is your humble Bold Biter’s take on the more impactful trends that have helped develop the First Coast food scene over the past few years and a little taste of what’s to come. Bon appetit!
Perhaps the least anticipated, yet most deserving, trend to hit the food scene in recent years would have to be the elevation of what the culinary elite once may have considered low brow or pedestrian. Southern cuisine in particular has been having a moment lately. Though admittedly it’s a product of importing the flavors, techniques and soul of the myriad cultures that have taken root here over the past few centuries, it seems to finally be receiving the attention it deserves. Here locally, one need not look far to find elevated versions of Southern fare, be it creative spins on soul food, a rediscovery of unique local ingredients worth celebrating or through its fusion with “exotic” international flavors. The rest of the country seems to be taking note as well. Fried chicken is a hot item in Brooklyn now and the city of transplants has even developed what they consider to be a BBQ scene (bless their hearts).
Southern food is not necessarily unique in this regard either. It’s as if society as a whole has come off its high horse, to borrow an expression, and re-evaluated the worth of that which it once looked down upon.
Take donuts for example. Although certainly a food beloved by a significant portion of the population, you most certainly did not see much creativity or fanfare around them outside of say, Portland, until the past few years. In fact, the once humble donut has risen so high of late as to find its place among the high-end retail outlets of the Town Center to be fawned over and Instagrammed by the bourgeoisie.
In my opinion, the most positive trend to emerge has been the enhanced appreciation for international food, especially that of immigrant cuisine. I’ve long maintained that in today’s political and socio-economic climate, if there’s one thing that offers up hope at bringing us together as a society, it’s the sharing of culture through food. And while yes, much of it has fallen victim to cultural assimilation, fusion or even downright appropriation, even that is a small step toward acceptance and appreciation. Nevertheless, we are beginning to see a considerable increase in what you might call authentic or pure immigrant food here in Jacksonville, a trend I find incredibly promising for the future.
On the other side of elevating the commonplace is another hopeful trend that is making what was once elevated more accessible. Food trucks and fast casual eateries have removed much of the overhead typical of fine dining to make their fare more affordable and more available to more people. Chefs and restaurateurs, meanwhile, are creating concepts that offer the same level of quality as their fine dining establishments but without all the pomp and circumstance. Think M Hospitality’s M Shack, Black Sheep Restaurant Group’s Bellwether, or Scotty Schwartz’s El Jefe.
Of course, one can not consider the trends of any cultural phenomenon without taking into account the effect of social media influencers and Instagram in particular. On the one hand, social review sites like Yelp and Foursquare have been instrumental in helping people discover new places outside the channels of traditional advertising. Yet, they’ve also given a platform for the overly particular and opinionated to unfairly bash a place that just isn’t for them. Instagram has created a similar climate although one obviously more concerned with aesthetics; and while the appearance and presentation of food is certainly part of the experience, it’s created an environment in which visual appeal trumps flavor in the eyes of many. That’s just not what eating is all about, my friends. Then of course, there are the “influencers.” While some are well-meaning ambassadors simply drawing attention to the things they appreciate, others have succumbed to the dark side of shameless paid promotion. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the practice, nor is it one that I myself am above (I love free food and money!). Nevertheless, it remains a symptom of Internet culture and a potential harbinger of a future in which we forget how to evaluate what is and isn’t good for ourselves, collecting experiences for social capital rather than the for the joy they bring us.
So, what’s next? If you ask me, Jacksonville has come a long way in the going on 14 years since I arrived here, but there’s always room for improvement. I’d like to see our local chefs and restaurateurs take bigger risks both in terms of creativity and by not watering down their vision to kowtow to the masses. For that to truly happen, the traditional barriers must be removed and failure must be accepted as an inevitable part of the innovation process. Luckily there are existing models out there to facilitate this that I wouldn’t be surprised to see become more commonplace. We’ve embraced food trucks, but where are the food halls? Rumors of them abound, but we still don’t have a proper one that allows chefs to test their concepts by sharing space and enjoying the low overhead that allows them to take those necessary risks. Pop-ups are another easy solution already happening in other places that have yet to really take root here on the First Coast. I expect that to change very soon.
It’s a great time to be a food-lover in our fair city and since we all have to eat, that means it’s a good time for us all. Cheers to Void for keeping their finger on the pulse of all the things happening on the First Coast for 100 issues and for giving me the opportunity to wax philosophical about food. Here’s to 100 more!
This “Bold Bites” column originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 10, The 100th Issue.