From experiential journalism and non-fiction research to treatise on eco-conscious eating and the perfect diet, today’s food writing has for better and for worse grown beyond monotonous foodie memoirs. Released in June, David Sax’s The Tastemakers: Why We’re Obsessed with Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue presents an interesting conundrum about the limits of writing on contemporary food culture. In an environment where trends move at the speed of a twitter post, the majority of the food fads that evolved during the writing process would complete their life cycle before the book’s release. This is evident from the start. Sax discusses the role Crumbs, the Manhattan-based cupcake chain, played in the petite-treat zeitgeist. The chain would suddenly close most of its shops only months after the book was released. These details don’t detract from Sax’s argument, but illustrate just how quickly a foodstuff can fall out of favour.
Despite the subtitle’s claim to expose why trends occur, Sax focuses on how they grow from a single cupcake to culinary sensation. The book broadly follows a trend’s life cycle, organizing it by type, mechanics and social ramifications. To examine each step of the process, Sax surveys a different case study, swiftly transitioning from celebrity chefs to heritage grains and ethnic foods. For super-trends, such as the cupcake or, increasingly, the cronut, Sax argues that each stage must be optimised and unite under the proper cultural and economic circumstances. A food must appeal to the social atmosphere, have a figurehead to support it and nourish the individual either physically or mentally. Distribution pathways must ensure sufficient supply, marketers must promote the products and consumers must select the new foodstuff. Under the best circumstances — such as Mexican cuisine’s transition from cheap bodega fare to high-end dining — food trends can broaden society’s worldview, mobilise groups into collective action and generate revenue for everyone involved in the production process. Sax points out that a food doesn’t need to tick all these boxes to become popular, but the more the product harnesses, the more momentum will push the trend from niche appreciation to common good.
The ideas presented are fascinating if not particularly earth shattering. Fortunately, Sax’s writing and research makes up for the critical issues that go unexamined. As the reader travels with him to a bacon convention in Chicago to learn about the economics behind trends, they see the event beyond the hype that marks its representation in magazines and newspapers. Extricated from the marketing speak that surrounds bacon candy and perfectly frosted cupcakes, Sax refreshingly treats trends as social phenomenon. Bacon doesn’t make you salivate, but is a product that brings plenty of people and money into one space. Similarly, fondue wasn’t just about eating copious amounts of cheese, but also about coming together and sharing experiences that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. As Sax experiences the various powers of food trends firsthand, he proposes a new reading to familiar events that suggests there’s more to these seemingly innocuous cultural whims than might initially appear.
What this ‘more’ might be is never discussed. The curious reader will wonder about the social, cultural and political ramifications of these food trends. Sax leaves his audience with journalistic cliff hangers regarding the viability of heritage grains and the meaning of cupcakes. Although there are certainly social forces that allow divergent trends to arise from the same time and place, Sax doesn’t approach the evident conflicts between chia and bacon. While the reader could say that it’s because of economics and collective desires, there’s little examination of how these collective desires might arise. This research needs to be done to give society a more complete view on food trends and understand how they impact various food pathways.
The Tastemakers is a welcome addition to the growing bibliography on contemporary food culture and highlights the necessity for further research into the subject. Food trends move so quickly nowadays that it’s difficult to define when something has captured the collective appetite or merely appears in a lot of places at once. Sax peripherally addresses this issue as he focuses on the mechanics of these trends. While the points discussed won’t be brand-new to the reader, Sax subtly shifts the dialogue on food trucks from cool to cultural.