This is a top nine list. Yep, nine. I’d like to say I have some clever reason for rejecting the base-10 sys-tem of year-in-reviews or that I’m rebelling with purpose. Really, I only get so many column inches to play with and I’m over the limit. Rather than shorten one I already like to make room to cram in another, I’ve simply shortened my list entirely. So, these are my nine pithy observations about food and drink for 2012. Most are local, some stretch beyond our community, but all of them I feel strongly about. I’ll spare you any trite nonsense like calling them “food for thought” or other such dreck. In no particular order…
• Out with the old, in with the new.
Though I hate to see any restaurant fail—and hate even more to see kitchen and service staff pounding the pavement—the adven-ture-seeker in me can’t help but love the constant turnover in the food industry. Our com-munity won’t stand for too many unimpressive or poorly run restaurants (some good ones fail also; be sure to light a candle for Deluxe and Crow Hill among others). There will always be some market for culinary mediocrity; The Ol-ive Garden stands as a temple to blandness in the heart of our fair city. But there’s enough good and even great food available here to force everyone in the restaurant industry to stay on top of his game.
• The food truck revolution.
Flaming Amy’s, Catch, The Cheesy Banker, The Patty Wagon, Poor Piggy’s… Wilmington may not be on the cutting edge of dining trends but when we catch up, we do it right. The meals-on-wheels offerings have made it easier to get good food in random places and at odd hours. I applaud it, and look forward to a few more food truck reviews in 2013.
• Moms and dads who do it on a budget!
I get to spend all year singing the praises of chefs who create remarkable meals, but we should recognize the parents who stay on budget and feed a family of five. Spaghetti may not be glamorous, but the love of the culinary arts begins at the kitchen table.
So let’s each give a shout out to our mom’s (or dad’s) go-to comfort food as a reminder that we didn’t always need dinner to be served with a demi-glace or velouté to make us happy. Mom, consider this praise for your chicken parmesan.
• Local ingredients!
Some chefs have been on this kick for years and others are new to the game, but everyone who buys and cooks local deserves a pat on the back. Whether for environmental, economic or culinary reasons, the results speak for them-selves. They taste better, remain healthier, take up less of a carbon footprint, and impact our local businesses and farmers greatly.
Particularly here on the coast, is there anything better than knowing that dinner was swimming in the ocean only 12 hours ago? Check into local CSAs from Progressive Gardens in 2013 or from places like Down East Connect and Feast Down East, where local produce comes every week for pickup or delivery to your own home.
• And not so local ingredients—the greatest blight on the Wilmington food scene continues to be the Azalea Festival.
Nomadic street merchants fill the downtown air with the odor of deep-fried everything while tax-paying restaurateurs stare at emp-ty tables. Please, let this be the year we see the light.
Please, let 2013 be the year that the downtown streets are filled with more lo-cal artisans and culinary booths, along with Wilmington’s own food trucks. Please, let this be the year that we focus on our lo-cal economy and not hand our hard-earned money to people who will simply pack it up and take it out of town at ever street fair they can book across America.
I can’t say I’m holding my breath waiting for any improvement on that front, but I will be doing my part. I will be eating in our local restaurants during Azalea Festival weekend, whether downtown or elsewhere. I hope you’ll do the same.
• Cooking competitions.
Personally, I find it preposterous anyone believes there’s a quantifiable and numerical difference be-tween the works of two innovative chefs. Even if there were such a difference, I’d be loath to waste my time trying to find it. It’s the reason I don’t put stars on my reviews. In fact, I’m reminded of the Robin Williams line from “Dead Poet’s Society” about rat-ing poems as though they were on American Bandstand: “I like Byron. I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it.”
However, cooking competitions were popular this year, and they brought a nice chunk of revenue locally thanks to Got to Be NC’s Fire on the Dock. The three-month-long event took place twice weekly at Shell Island Resort and shed a lot of light on our local chefs. Likewise, other competitions like Manna’s School of Fire donated funds to Cape Fear Community College’s culinary programs, while another raised funds for Food Bank of NC. I suspect the trend will continue (and hopefully for charity), so I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize it.
• Paula Deen’s diabetes.
Calm down, calm down! I have nothing against the queen of Southern cuisine and I don’t wish debilitating illness on anyone. Still, her diagnosis serves as a reminder to epicures every-where that bacon, butter and bourbon are ingredients, not side dishes. Those of us who love the kitchen must also remember that our diets are fraught with peril, and a little moderation may well save our lives.
• Wilmington is a great town for libations.
Manna and Cameo19Hundred give us old-timey cocktails with fresh ingredients. Cape Fear Wine and Beer and Lighthouse Beer and Wine are there to remind us that brew comes in shades other than yellow. Front Street Brewery gives us local beers and cool bourbon dinners. The Fortunate Glass pairs with Coastal Cupcakes for innovative wine pairings. The Port City is a great place to learn about beer, wine, and spirits. I hope more pairings to show-case great cocktails will continue in 2013 and at even more establishments.
• Dinner with friends.
A critical reread of my reviews this year made me realize I was pretty generous to one or two rather unimpressive meals. My overly kind reviews had one thing in common: The meal featured great conversations with good friends. The more fun I have at a meal, the better the food tasted.
Companionship is more valuable to the table than salt and pepper. So I remind every-one to find excuses to gather around a table. Go out to one of our fine local eateries. Have a picnic. Enjoy a potluck. Cook for someone you’ve never invited into your home before. Take the time to eat with friends.