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Broyles: Blue Bell is just one of the biggest food stories of 2015


It’s hard to look back on the year that was without starting with Blue Bell.

One of the biggest ice cream companies in the U.S. shut down operations in April after several people died after eating listeria-contaminated ice cream. Blue Bell closed all three of its production facilities over the summer for a deep cleaning, but the ice cream was back — at least in some Texas markets — around the time the kids went back to school.

It was perhaps the first time in history that crowds gathered to celebrate the return of a once-contaminated product that had caused fatalities. The Brenham plant was the last to resume production in November. Even though there are still several lawsuits pending and lots of people thinking about whether they should trust the brand, it appears that it’s business as usual for Blue Bell.

The Austin-based company that owned Stubb’s barbecue sauces sold the brand to McCormick & Co. for $100 million, which is a huge boost to the Austin consumer packaged goods industry. Many of the people who benefit most from that sale now have additional cash to invest in other up-and-coming local food products, and the sale also fueled Austin’s reputation as a hotbed for food innovation.

Food delivery services, especially Instacart and Favor, gained a lot of ground with consumers, even as Amazon launched its same-day delivery service in Austin. The basic Prime Now, which offers everyday products including both shelf-stable and perishable groceries for delivery within two hours, came to Austin in April, but it wasn’t until December that Amazon added restaurant delivery as an option.

I’d been wondering when we might hit our saturation point for farmers markets, and it appears that this was the year. The newest market, the Texas Farmers Market at the Domain, opened last spring and closed in August, indicating that the dozen or so other markets that operate all but just a few days a week are sufficient to meet current demand.

Trader Joe’s opened its third — and, for now, final — location in Austin, at the Seaholm development downtown. With the newest Whole Foods now more than a year old, it appears that the great grocery boom of the early 2010s is winding down. Next year, we’ll see a few food markets, such as Fareground, under construction at 111 Congress Ave., blur the line between restaurant and market.

Thanks to an international trip I took in June, I started seriously listening to podcasts in 2015, including Gastropod, which is my favorite food-related podcast. I’m also subscribed to Gravy, from the Southern Foodways Alliance, and 99 Percent Invisible. In 2016, I’d like to get into Food is the New Rock and Eater Upsell.

My fascination with Soylent continues. This year, the San Francisco-based food startup launched its ready-to-drink meal replacement. I don’t know anyone who drinks this instead of food all the time, but I’ve enjoyed having it in my pantry for those hangry moments between arriving home from work and making dinner. In those cases, it’s not a meal replacement, but a nutrient-dense snack (mixed with a little chocolate syrup to improve the taste) to tide me over until I can eat some real food. But the drink also represents a willingness to be open-minded about things I’d usually reject without further contemplation.

That kind of deep thinking has extended way beyond a drink with a questionable name.

In 2015, I’ve been growing my own consciousness about the connection between food and privilege, both as it pertains to race and economic status. It hasn’t been an easy conversation to have with both myself and others who are closely examining the social injustice tied up in something as seemingly innocent as the word “food desert” or even an urban farm. However, it’s essential work to be done both in my official capacity as a food writer and as an individual who is trying to raise children who have a consciousness about simple concepts, such as food shaming, and bigger ones, like why economic disparity exists in the first place.

What am I looking forward to in 2016? A continued nuance in our conversation about food. That means thinking about the Paleo diet with an awareness of the environmental impact of all that meat consumption, while also talking about the cultural importance of meat as we advocate eating less of it. (Not to mention what would happen to organic vegetable production, which relies on manure-based fertilizer, if everyone actually stopped eating meat — but that’s another story for another day.)

I want us to think critically about food delivery and how it might contribute to Austin’s traffic problems, and what a privilege is to be able to tack on $5 to $15 to a meal or grocery bill to have someone else do the work for you.

I want us to think about food safety, not to complain about how unsafe our food is now but how far we’ve come from the days when hundreds of people would die a year from unknown contaminants. On the flip side, we shouldn’t let nostalgia for a brand stop us from keeping a critical eye on a for-profit business that might not have done as much as they could to keep a tainted product from the supply chain.

I want us to celebrate our local farmers and ranchers and all the small business owners who are trying to carve out a space for themselves in a Big Food world, while recognizing that big isn’t necessarily bad.

I want us to cook for ourselves as much as we can but not feel guilty when we can’t or choose not to. I want us to eat at the mom-and-pop food trucks and restaurants but recognize that many people — both as consumers and employees — rely on chains, and that’s OK, too.

What do you think the biggest food story of 2015 was? What will be the biggest story of 2016? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter — I’m @broylesa — or via email at abroyles@statesman.com.


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