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Of droughts and foie gras angst _ the year in food

Tuesday - 12/18/2012, 3:46pm  ET

In this April 27, 2010 file photo, chef John Besh holds the "French Crawfish Boil," which includes Spanish tarragon and Tennessee truffles in his restaurant, "August," in New Orleans. For the truly hot food scene in 2012, the South is where it’s happening. Besh, Hugh Acheson, Tim Love, and a gaggle of others are putting a fresh face on what it means to eat well when you’re below the Mason-Dixon Line, and the rest of the country started to wake up to this. (AP Photo/Judi Bottoni, File)

J.M. HIRSCH
AP Food Editor

Most Americans never will sip the watermelon margarita at Guy Fieri's behemoth Times Square restaurant, nor savor the chicken Alfredo at the Olive Garden in Grand Forks, N.D.

Yet both eateries somehow shot to the top of the nation's culinary zeitgeist in 2012, for this was the year of the viral restaurant review, when the rants and raves of seasoned pros and naive octogenarians alike got superstar treatment on the world wide smorgasbord.

It was a year when drought crippled farmers while Californians clamored for foie gras. Twinkies died and Paula Deen endorsed a diabetes drug. Which is to say, it was a year when the unlikely was the norm.

While restaurateurs bemoaned the influence of Yelp and other social media review sites, 85-year-old Grand Forks Herald restaurant columnist Marilyn Hagerty cut through the noise, heaping near rhapsodic praise on the fine dining at her community's latest chain restaurant. All she wanted to do was get to her bridge game, but her review became a must-read sensation.

And lest they be considered elite for dissing her devotion to this fine fare, the nation's culinary upper crust rushed to praise her. It was an amusing -- and embarrassing -- display of the food world's split personality, an ever growing chasm between how real Americans eat, and how real foodies want real Americans to eat. Either way, Hagerty did OK for herself, landing a book deal with Anthony Bourdain.

Meanwhile, New York Times reviewer Pete Wells scored a celeb smackdown when he slammed Fieri's New York restaurant, Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, in a scathing 1,000-word review written almost entirely in questions. Wells took heat for beating on Food Network's bad boy, but the review -- which tore across Twitter the instant it was posted -- certainly drove hordes to Fieri's tables, even if only to rubberneck the culinary accident.

Speaking of restaurants taking a beating, the Chick-fil-A chain earned plenty of scorn -- and some support -- this summer when company president Dan Cathy came out about his opposition to same sex marriage. The dustup spawned online "Chick-fil-Gay" mockery, but ended with the company saying it would stop funding anti-gay marriage groups.

Another revelation -- Twinkies may not last forever. Blaming a labor dispute for ongoing financial woes, Hostess Brands decided to close shop this year, taking with it lunch box staples such as Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Wonder bread. The company said it would try to sell off its many storied brands, so maybe there is hope for the mysteriously enduring snack cakes.

California's foie gras fans may not get a similar second chance. Despite opposition by the state's restaurant industry, as of July it became illegal to sell foie gras -- which is made from goose or duck livers enlarged by force-feeding through funnel-like tubes.

Back in New York, the too-cool-for-you folks spent the summer angsting over whether Brooklyn really did have a hip dining scene. Not that anyone outside New York gives a flying (artisanal bacon-wrapped) fig. But silly one-upmanship gave way to legit worry -- and unity -- when Superstorm Sandy dealt a devastating blow to the city's restaurant scene.

For this year's truly hot food scene, you needed to head south. Because THE South is where it's happening. Hugh Acheson, Tim Love, John Besh and a gaggle of others are putting a fresh face on what it means to eat well when you're below the Mason-Dixon Line, and the rest of the country started to wake up to this.

And then there's Paula Deen, the doyenne of butter, deep-frying and -- at least this year -- public relations travesties. Though diagnosed with diabetes several years ago, she waited until January -- coincidentally when she also had lined up a lucrative drug endorsement deal -- to go public with it. She came off looking money-grubbing, and an opportunity to educate Americans about a devastating disease was mostly lost.

But Americans did learn plenty about their hamburgers. In March, the Internet exploded with worry over so-called pink slime, or what the meat industry prefers to call lean finely textured beef. Though it had been part of the food chain for years, by the end of the kerfuffle the product had all but disappeared.

Filling your grocery cart was -- and will continue to be -- costly. This summer's massive drought in the U.S. devastated famers and drove up global food prices. And the hardship isn't over. Analysts say we can expect food prices here to go up by as much as 4 percent in 2013.

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