Food Trends of the Past, Present, and Future

While restaurateurs often focus on the future, trying to anticipate the next trend that will capture their customers’ attention, it can sometimes be fun to look back at the precursors to the foods we enjoy today. Many foods we consider to be modern innovations actually have roots in practices established hundreds or thousands of years ago. Some people even claim that certain historical eating habits are healthier than the modern diet and attempt to emulate the diets of old (we’re looking at you, paleo dieters). We’ll take a look at some of the trends and recipes of the past that are the ancestors to some of the meals we enjoy today.

Bread Trenchers

Bread has been around for tens of thousands of years, but it turns out that it wasn’t always used solely for eating. In 15th and 16th century Europe, bread was used as a disposable plate called a trencher. These trenchers were generally made of crusty bread that was several days old and cut into flat squares to support meals and soak up gravy. While they could be eaten by hungry dinner guests, they were more often given to the dogs or donated to the poor.

1491 woodcut by Anton Koberger featuring trenchers.

Bread bowls, the modern-day equivalent to trenchers, rose in popularity in the 1980s and are becoming popular once more, thanks to social media recipe videos. Pizza bowls, which end up with a bowl-like crust holding the traditional pizza ingredients, went viral in 2016, and social media giants like Buzzfeed’s Tasty were quick to jump on the trend.

Fast Food

Fast food history has been in the news recently with the upcoming release of The Founder, a movie about the founding of McDonald’s, a name synonymous with fast food in modern times. Fast food is seen by most as a modern invention, with its history commonly traced back to 1860 when the first fish and chips shops began popping up in the UK. However, people have been relying on ready-made takeaway food for centuries, though the term ‘fast food’ was coined fewer than 70 years ago.

Members of elite classes once had large homes that included kitchens built as a separate building from the rest of the manor or castle to reduce the risk of a kitchen fire destroying the entire house. However, the urban poor rarely had room for an oven or food storage in their small homes, and often could not afford essential items like cooking vessels and utensils. As a result, food stands serving bread, pasties, and pies that could easily be eaten on the go were a popular solution. Archaeological discoveries in Pompeii confirmed the ancient Romans also commonly dined at ‘fast food’ restaurants called thermopolia that had counters with recessed food pots open to the street to allow easy access for customers.

Thermopolium in Herculaneum, a town near Pompeii.

Food Hybrids

It could be argued the cronut, a blend of croissant and donut created by a New York baker in 2013, started the current food mashup craze, or at least served as a harbinger of its existence. The pastry inspired questionably fanatical devotion. Several bakers introduced similar creations as far back as 1991, but the 2013 cronut went viral, leading to a series of other food mashups, with varying degrees of success. The cruffin (croissant/muffin), turducken (turkey/duck/chicken), and piecaken (pie/cake) all had their moment in the spotlight; current mashup trends include ramen burgers and sushirritos. While the fascination with individual mashups seems to come and go quickly, the trend of combining apparently unrelated foods doesn’t seem to be dying down. The bakery that first popularized the cronut recently introduced its newest mashup: the apple pie corn dog.

While food mashups are having a resurgence in popularity, they are hardly new. The cockentrice, a pig/chicken combination, was popular 500 years ago among the elite in Europe. The dish consisted of the rear of one animal sewn to the front half of the other. The concoction as a whole was then roasted and basted until the outside was shiny and golden, perfect for impressing guests.


Presentation was everything to rich dinner hosts, a fact made evident by a dramatic variant on the cockentrice: the coqz heaumez, or helmeted cock. This was also a combination of pig and chicken, except in this case the chicken was, after being roasted, dressed in a military uniform, given a weapon, and set astride the roasted pig as if riding it into battle.

Helmeted Cock

Food as Medicine

The concept of a balance between bodily humors was popularized in the third century B.C. by Hippocrates, who developed the long-standing theory into a system of medicinal care that would last for thousands of years. The theory claimed that the human body is host to four humors – black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm – and that these humors being in balance is critical to health. Your temperament would help determine which humors were out of balance, and certain foods were believed to help balance any excess humors. As the gastronomically adventurous hosts of The Supersizers Eat… found out, this led to some strange food combinations, such as fish in a sugary sauce.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – attributed to Hippocrates

Many industry publications are predicting the use of food as medicine to grow in popularity throughout 2017. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how what they eat affects their overall health, and many are attempting to cure or prevent specific health issues with their diets. ‘Superfoods’ like acai berries and kale seem to rise and fall quickly in popularity, but the superfood concept continues to fascinate consumers.

The dosha diet, a traditional Indian method of eating for health that involves determining your body and personality type and eating food tailored to that profile, has begun to gain ground and is predicted by many industry professionals to be a rising trend in 2017. The principles of the dosha diet are said to be more than 5,000 years old, a prime example of how history continues to influence the eating habits of today.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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