Mixing the cultural with the culinary, the newest book by Toronto writer David Sax, The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue, looks at how food trends start, spread, and fizzle out. According to Sax, “once we developed the economic means to select a variety of foods, certain ones inevitably became more popular than others.” This is epitomized in the craze for cupcakes, which continues today in a frenzy of sugar and icing, but began more simply after World War I when Hostess issued to groceries stores the recognizable chocolate cupcake with braided white icing on top. The cupcake’s popularity has risen ever since, certain ones becoming especially coveted, like the red velvet cupcakes from New York’s Magnolia Bakery that got airtime in an episode of Sex in the City.
The hand-held simplicity and the universal appeal of the cupcake has propelled it to be not just a passing fad. In the same vein, but with broader significance to the world at large, organic farming has become trendy. Sax writes: “Though it remained a niche trend for many decades, organic farming grew rapidly from the 1990s onward and today represents one of the fastest-growing segments of the agricultural industry, driven largely by consumer food trends that have embraced organic products as healthier and their agricultural practices more environmentally sustainable.” Certain forward-thinking tastemakers, like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, position their products in the hands of influential people to make a food become popular. In Roberts’ case, he wanted to save heirloom grains and rice with an effective strategy; Sax reports: “He had targeted the most respected, visible chefs in the world and had his company’s name on all their menus, Roberts had harnessed their visibility and influence as tastemakers, turning those grains into a trend and using the trends’ success (and profits) to further his mission.”
Before the rise in popularity of food media, chefs cooked in seclusion in restaurants for their hometown customers. But now “a ravenous online ecosystem of food blogs, review sites, and social media opportunities has not only cemented the idea of the chef as artist and celebrity but has also given chefs everywhere a vastly greater audience.” Many food trends come from these uber-creative kitchen artists, while others emerge from trade shows, like the Fancy Food Show in Washington, DC or Baconfest in Chicago. These types of gatherings forecast what new flavours will surface from the tongues of tastemakers. Many food trends start small at trade shows and make it big with the proper exposure. It is these smaller innovators that get trends started more quickly than the product development bureaucracy behind the new ideas of larger corporations that manufacture food or run chain restaurants.
Foods also become trendy by being associated with health fads. This bandwagon links healthy living to foods with disease fighting properties, like chai seeds, kale, and acai berries. Some foods become so popular they develop their own cult following, like bacon, incorporated into all sorts of zany recipes like smoked bacon bread pudding or bacon cotton candy. Even naming foods differently can increase their popularity, as was the case when prunes were officially changed to dried plums.
Sax reveals trends that are long-lasting (cupcakes), lightning-speed upstarts (the Cronut sold out of its first batch in half an hour) or nostalgic (fondue doesn’t get the same attention it did in the 1960s, but still gets pulled from basement storage once in a while). Trendy foods fall into place for any number of business or marketing reasons, or they can just become popular by association depending on who’s eating or blogging about them. Whatever the case, Sax ponders that “if food trends are overtaking our thinking about the what, where, when, how, and even why of eating, then surely there must be something to them.”
DARIN COOK is a freelance writer who works and plays in Chatham-Kent, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.