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.
There are a handful of New York City landmarks that most people recognize: Lady Liberty. The Chrysler Building. And Katz’s Delicatessen.
Opened on the Lower East Side in 1888 and purchased by the Russian Katz family in 1903, the delicatessen famous for its orgasmic pastrami sandwiches, its Friday evening frankfurters ‘n’ beans and its Cel-Ray soda is one of the oldest continually operating businesses in New York City. And, at the ripe age of 125, Katz’s is still going strong: each week, the deli serves up more than 10,000 pounds of pastrami, 6,000 pounds of corned beef, and 4,000 hot dogs to locals and tourists alike. That’s a lot of cow.
Katz’s has attracted its fair share of attention over the years. But no one had ever written a book about it until now. In September, current part owner Jake Dell wrote the introduction to Katz’s: Autobiography of a Delicatessen in which he traces the famed storefront’s evolution from a tight-knit neighborhood joint to a star-studded celebrity hangout at the height of the early 1900s Yiddish theatre boom to a can’t-miss tourist attraction in the oughts. Large-format, full-color photos by Baldomero Fernandez detailing every nook and cranny of the restaurant accompany Dell’s text.
When it comes to publishing food or cookbooks, it’s usually the restaurant chef or owner that approaches the publisher with an idea. But in the case of Katz’s, Dell said, it was Bauer and Dean Publishers that, a few years ago, came to him. With the big anniversary fast approaching, Dell thought the timing was perfect.
“It was kind of a no-brainer,” he said.
Ask Google about the Jewish food history of Toronto and you’ll get nothing. Ask author/storyteller Michael Wex about Toronto Jewish food history and he’ll talk about immigrants, Sabbath observance, and cholent.
With a population of nearly 2.5 million people, half of whom were born outside Canada, Toronto is the most multicultural city in North America, and one of the most multicultural in the world. You can travel around the world in one weekend without ever leaving the city. Some ethnicities even have multiple ethnic neighborhoods. A short 5 ½ mile walk will take you through four ethnic neighborhoods.
The 75-year-old Midtown landmark located just a couple of blocks from Carnegie Hall (and from its rival, the Carnegie Deli) still has its website — with tantalizing photos of overstuffed pastrami sandwiches, crunchy pickles, tangy coleslaw, and creamy cheesecakes — up, but now the food is only for looking at, not tasting. Gone are the sandwiches that gustatorily honored celebrity customers like Mel Brooks, Larry David, Katie Couric, Howie Mandel, Al Rocker, Cindy Adams and Dolly Parton.
It may be hard to believe that for some bagel lovers, New York bagels are not the be all and end all. Not everyone may know it, but Montreal is a big bagel town, too. And now some U.S. cities — New York, included — are serving Montreal bagels on their turf.
“My folks are from Montreal, so I always grew up with a sense of bagel superiority,” David Sax, Jewish food connoisseur and author of “Save the Deli,” told the Jew and the Carrot. He thinks a niche market for Montreal bagel has formed since word got out around the U.S. about them from ex-Montrealers and others who visited the French-speaking city, tasted the bagels there, and loved them.
Three years ago, Zane Caplansky applied to the city of Toronto to sell Montreal-style smoked-meat sandwiches from a cart. Confronted with red tape that would have required a steep investment in a mobile kitchen, he dropped the idea.
Bad news for the aspiring vendor became a boon for Toronto foodies. Caplansky instead started selling smoked-meat sandwiches from the back of a Toronto bar. Insane demand, fueled by word of mouth, led to the 2009 opening of Caplansky’s, his massively successful deli on the northern edge of the city’s historically Jewish Kensington Market neighborhood. “Caplansky’s did more to put Toronto on the map as a deli city than anyone else in half a century,” says David Sax, author of “Save the Deli” and a Forward contributor.
Animal science expert Temple Grandin suggests some steps that kosher slaughterhouses could take to improve animal welfare on the op-ed page of the Forward.
Josh Ozersky ponders why he thinks Jewish food is bad “I don’t claim to have an answer for this problem, which is one of the most baffling in all of American culinary history.” We’re not sure we agree with his whole shtick but it’s worth a read in TIME.
Couldn’t make it to the Atlantic’s Food Summit in DC this week? Read about it on the Atlantic. One session at the conference sought to define sustainability. “Most people agree that ‘sustainability’ is a good thing when it comes to food, but there’s a big problem with the term: It’s incredibly hard to define,” writes Daniel Fromson about the session, where four experts shared their definitions.
Jewish meat delis have gotten much attention, in the past couple of years (thank you David Sax). But little notices has been given to the fish counter of classic dairy delis. Shelsky’s Smoked Fish, which will open in Brooklyn in the coming month, will offer “smoked salmon, house-pickled herring, house-cured herring, bagels, bialys and rugelach,” reports the Village Voice.
Unlike most of my friends, my parents didn’t inherit a lot of Jewish food traditions from my grandparents. My mother’s family had been in Canada for so many generations that they ate like WASPs. She grew up with roast beef dinners washed down with a glass of milk, and her mother’s cooking, which I experienced on visits to Montreal, was more a source of comedy than comfort.
Grandma cooked from a lot of cans and powders, which came out of a deep pantry that seemed to be restocked every two decades. She was capable of making a mean roast beef, it’s true, but a stern frugality flavored everything in that Formica kitchen. Her favorite dishes to prepare were “concoctions”, essentially experiments with leftovers. Some — the vanilla iced cream she melted, mixed with crushed red and white swirly mints liberated from restaurants, and refrozen — had their charms. Others, like the casseroles of no discernable origin, had my father sneaking out to Snowdon Delicatessen after dinner, to cleanse his palate with salted meats.