Kale. Cupcakes. Bacon-wrapped everything.
What do all of these foods have in common? Besides being delicious, that is.
They’re all trendy. Who could possibly forget the internet’s obsession with bacon? Or the prevalence of fondue in homes in the 1970s? Or even the spread of the chia seed as the next superfood?
Spurred by the cupcake craze of the early 2000s, journalist David Sax takes on the mission of deciphering the popularity of different food items in The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed up With Fondue. He doesn’t stop there, though. Sax takes us on a journey through the kitchens of top-notch chefs who have a renewed interest in the artisanal, the fields of farmers experimenting with crop cross-breeding, and the board rooms of food corporations spending millions to create the next big thing.
There is a nice variety in the topics covered by Sax–a literary buffet, if you will. He covers the usual offenders like cupcakes and bacon, but also devotes entire chapters to food items so up-and-coming they haven’t made it big yet, like a particular, specially-bred strain of black rice, food items that have gone from trendy to passe to trendy again (like fondue), and cuisines that just can’t seem to break through to the success they deserve (like Indian). Sax is thorough in his investigation of each delectable dish, and ties the narrative of The Tastemakers together by trying to answer the overarching question of why and how certain foods come to be so popular. Is it luck? Is it corporate research? Is it popular media?
While I don’t necessarily consider myself a foodie, I am interested in how people think about food. (I also love to eat and increasingly enjoy trying new things.) So I surprised myself by being most interested in the chapters that focused on market research. I am not a statistics- or math-minded person, but the glimpse that Sax provides for us into the rarified world of food market research–and what the results of that research mean for us, the consumers–was very engaging. By tracking information like what people are currently buying, these market researchers provide large food corporations with the ability to predict exactly what the next big thing in food might be.
There were only a handful of bitter notes for me in The Tastemakers. One was the single, throw-away comment made that alluded to the cognitive dissonance required to be pushing trendy foods, and privileging some foods over others, when there are millions in the U.S. and around the world who are starving. If Sax wasn’t going to focus on the important topics of hunger and food insecurity in a chapter of its own, it shouldn’t have been mentioned at all; it’s too serious and pervasive a problem to gloss over like that. Limiting the coverage of food insecurity to one sentence in the book’s epilogue just left me with a sour taste in my mouth.
The other (and this is simply a pet peeve of mine!) were Sax’s multiple references to his past book, another nonfiction account of the revival of the Jewish deli. One mention would have been fine, but there is a scene where he realizes his book ends up being cited in one of the trend-tracker’s research, and it reads as humble-bragging that’s hard to swallow.
Other than those two quibbles, I found The Tastemakers to be a sweet treat of a read that should appeal to a wide audience. Folks interested in food, advertising, market research, and trends (and certainly anyone who has ever groaned that “cupcakes are so over!”) would enjoy the lessons learned about each of these presented by Sax. It’s a pretty fascinating account of the work going on behind the scenes–as well as the seemingly-random strokes of luck–that result in certain foods becoming staples and others ending up in the trash.
I received a copy of The Tastemakers free for review from McClelland & Steward at BEA 2014. It is now available for purchase.
Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Why cupcakes? That’s the question that keeps Warren, muffin bakers, food writers, and flour suppliers up at night.”