06/11/14
Food and Wine Editor
From “Save The Deli” To “Enough With The Cupcakes!”

Journalist David Sax’s new book examines the wild world of food trends.

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“When people talk about cupcakes today,” David Sax writes in his new book “The Tastemakers,” “they don’t talk about their sweetness, the colors and flavors they’re made in, or any aspect that’s inherent to how a cupcake tastes. Instead, cupcakes are a lightning rod, drawing in the energy and emotion surrounding the complicated and rapidly expanding world of food trends, a world that has come to shape nearly everything we eat.”

Sax, a journalist and the author of 2010’s “Save the Deli: in Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,” is interested in why certain delicious, culturally-rich cuisines fail to become crave-able among the general population, and, conversely, why other no-big-deal, been-around-forever foods suddenly become so popular that not only are they eaten, they adorn T-shirts and baby onesies (I’m looking at you, kale). In “The Tastemakers”—subtitled “Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue”—Sax takes his keen, observant eye to food trends, analyzing them for his readers and telling us what, exactly, accounts for the meteoric rise of particular edibles.

“Everywhere I look these days I see food trends,” Sax writes in the book’s introduction, “and what I see are trends springing up quicker and growing faster than they ever did before…Each new trend I have witnessed in recent years left me to wonder how this whole ecosystem functioned.”

In his book, Sax breaks down that “ecosystem” into four categories: cultural trends; chef-driven trends; agricultural trends; and health-driven trends. As Sax explained to me, most food trends start as either chef-driven, health-driven or agricultural; only rarely do the most pervasive of food trends—think cupcakes, think kale—make it to a cultural trend, one that pervades other aspects of our lives besides our dinner plate.

“That’s when it’s no longer about eating,” he said. Kale, for example, Sax said, started out as an agricultural trend—farmers began offering varieties like lacinato and dinosaur in addition to the standard curly kale that everyone knew about already—and then was picked up by chefs, becoming a chef-driven trend. Of course, kale is a health-driven trend, too, with “health benefits of kale” the second most-search health benefits query on Google. All of these factors combined to give kale its (very long) day in the sun, the enduring type of food trend that becomes a cultural marker of the type of people who eat it.

Since the publication of his last book, Sax said, a wonderful surprise has been the rapid ascent of traditional Eastern European Jewish food—the exact cuisine that, only six or seven years ago, Sax sounded the alarm call for, writing about how the beloved traditions were fast disappearing. Neglected for so long, now bagels, lox, blintzes and pastrami are a bonafide trend, even meriting a mention in the new book when Sax visits CCD Innovation, a food and beverage trend-predicting firm in San Francisco, and learns that his own book and articles helped push artisan Jewish deli to the forefront.

“Years ago, with my last book, I told people to embrace this tradition and to support artisan Jewish cooking where they could find it—but, honestly, it seemed like a pie-in-the-sky idea that this food could someday totally take off,” Sax said. “And now it has. It’s amazing.”

Asked to situate the Jewish deli scene into the four trend categories outlined in the book, Sax said that it’s essentially a mix of chef-driven and cultural. Passionate young entrepreneurs such as Noah Bernamoff in New York, Ken Gordon of Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen in Portland, Oregon and Zane Caplansky of the eponymous Caplansky’s Deli in Toronto opened up their shops under improbable circumstances, lavished care and attention on their food, and customers responded.

“Deli food was so beaten down, so forgotten about, and had become so industrialized—when people thought of Jewish deli, they thought of pre-packed, salty Hebrew National pastrami,” Sax said. “And here these young chefs were asserting that this food mattered. A lot of people called them crazy—but they succeeded. A generation was inspired to go into this business.”

Backed by such talented, committed chefs and business owners, Sax said, the revival of the Jewish deli tradition is one trend that’s sure to endure.

“For sure it will stick around,” he said. “Like any good trend, it will keep reinventing itself.”

Last Update:

06/11/2014 - 12:19

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