The Jew And The Carrot

Why Are We Obsessed With Cupcakes? David Sax Knows

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share

It was the humble cupcake that set David Sax on a years-long quest to explore how food trends emerge, evolve, and explode — often at warp speed. “The cupcake was the food trend that kicked off the 21st century,” he told the Forward. “It was the first food trend to grow up on the internet, go viral, and go global.” The result of Sax’s delicious investigations hits bookstores today: “The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue” is the journalist’s first book since his 2010’ James Beard Award-winning “Save the Deli”.

Deeply reported and cogently argued, The Tastemakers also ends up touching on culture, psychology, business, and science — all through the shape-shifting lens of food trends. The Forward caught up with Sax from his Toronto home office to chat about deli, upcoming food trends and cupcakes (of course).

In a world where one Tweet from the middle of nowhere can influence millions of people, how does the notion of “tastemakers” still apply as you present it in the book?

A tastemaker is anyone who can influence the way you eat. Twitter might be true on a day-to-day level, but the most powerful, sustained influence and impact comes from within the food industry. Chefs are the most visible. There are also people at flavor houses or large corporations, or buyers for stores like Whole Foods, who really set trends for what we’ll be eating and where our tastes are going. But it doesn’t have to be a big company. It can be an entrepreneur with a food truck who creates something new and takes a chance. Or someone down the line who says, “Let’s make gefilte fish into a Dorito” or whatever.

In The Tastemakers, you write that healthful-food trends nearly killed Jewish delis not long ago. But it seems deli’s back, big-time. How has that played out?

It really happened against all odds. It starts with one or two people who take risks against everyone’s advice: the guys from Saul’s in Berkeley were doing it a decade or two before everybody, or Kenny & Zuke’s, Zane Caplansky, Noah Bernamoff at Mile End. You quickly saw it spread to other places – Columbus, Ohio, DC, Los Angeles. It became a movement. Several people wrote cookbooks about it. People blogged and wrote about it. It spread through the modern cycle of food trends. I think it’s great. It’s pushed delis everywhere, and pushed Jewish and Yiddish food forward. If something as improbable as Jewish deli can see a resurgence, it can touch any culture.

What do you predict we’ll see as food crazes in the next year?

That’s always a difficult question. There are constantly new things coming up — seasonal fads, cronuts, cragels, Sriracha-flavored everything. If we’re staying in the Jewish food world: What no one’s really done, and what you’re going to see, is real Mizrahi-Sephardi food coming out. Someone’s going to go deep into the history and those communities. Someone will do the Ladino restaurant.

How much of food trends now is driven by commercial interests as opposed to genuine, bottom-up interest in a particular food?

It’s all commercial interests. Even the guy at Smorgasburg starting a black-and-white cookie stand is a moneymaking project. Everybody’s trying to drive demand for what they’re doing. The cookie guy tweets and makes t-shirts to sell cookies. If it turns into a trend and evolves, good for them. It does get manipulative and twee at a point — when Buzzfeed’s doing listicles about top ten black and white cookies, for example, or Manischewitz does their version of something and calls it “artisan.” It’s a fine line. But everyone who’s in it — starting a trend or capturing one — is doing it because it’s a business.

Why should the average person on the street care about food trends, and how do they affect our lives and habits in practical ways?

Because everybody eats. What you eat is dictated by food trends, even if you’re not a foodie. Even if you don’t go to hip restaurants, and you only frequent McDonald’s or Starbucks or TGIFridays, it’s there. Everybody’s eating Greek yogurt these days, for example.

A lot of people just don’t care — my grandfather was like that. But most people do. And North Americans are the most neurotic about what they eat. It’s worth knowing how something gets to your plate, and to approach it with a dose of skepticism.

A cupcake’s on the cover of your book, and kind of represents the apotheosis of everything you describe in book. Why cupcake?

The cupcake was the food trend that kicked off the 21st century. It was the 9/11 food trend – after 9/11, people sought out comfort. It became a symbol of an era. I was at [Toronto mall] Eaton Centre last year. One of the shoe stores had a whole a display of heels for spring, with cupcakes on the display. There’s no association with stilettos for a cake connected with childhood. But it became that because of the Sex and the City association. It became a symbol. Not many foods became that. No one was selling shoes with muffins.

Are we at a point where globalizing food trends will obliterate regional differences? You saw a cupcake shop in Asuncion; a hotel in Dublin left me a cronut as a welcome gift.

It won’t obliterate food culture. If anything, it helps. Look at the trend of Israeli food. It’s going around the world. It’s the most reviled nation by many people’s standards. But the world’s going crazy for Ottolenghi and pomegranate. Here in Toronto, we’ve got a bunch of new Israeli restaurants. Trends introduce new flavors and new ideas, but they will never supplant local cuisine. People are very attached to it.

Going back to the deli food trend: Of all the things in my previous book, becoming trendy is what gave deli the best chance to be saved. Deli got cultural currency. That in turn has challenged those in it to do more with it. I have a friend who runs an artisanal gefilte fish company in Brooklyn. If he can make gefilte fish trendy, the sky’s the limit.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Save the Deli, The Tastemakers, David Sax

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.