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.
After 75 years in business, New York’s Stage Delicatessen announced its closure today. For a deli world already used to deaths and disappearances, having seen thousands of landmarks wiped clean from our palate over the past decades, the end of the Stage plunges deep into the heart of deli lovers. The magnitude of its loss is incalculable. The significance is simply staggering.
Oh sure, in her later years she was easily dismissed as tired, failing, cranky, and limping along. Just a mere hint of her former greatness remained visible through the accumulated knickknacks and tchotchkes, and her telltale shtick. Once the talk of the town, now just seemed warmed over and rehashed for the tourist throngs, like a day old slice of salami repurposed into an omelet. They’ll say it hadn’t been the same for years, or even decades, and that her time was past, but they know in their hearts that even at this age, she was taken from us too soon.
Yes, there were older delicatessens, and bigger delicatessens, and, many will argue, better delicatessens than the Stage in its most recent incarnation. But there are few Jewish delis in America that were as influential to the evolution of the deli’s culture than the Stage. It was the deli that many others took their cues from, the deli that made the food famous, the place that Americanized the Jewish delicatessen.
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.
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.