The “cronut”—the donut-croissant hybrid that had New Yorkers lining up for hours around Dominique Ansel’s SoHo bakery last summer—has remained popular even as its one-year anniversary has come and gone. Loyalists turned a blind eye when the Health Department forced the bakery to shut down and deal with its mouse problem in April. We might say the cronut has graduated from “fad” to “trend.” But what will the next cronut be? That question may be less trivial than it seems.
“Food trends may be cute and fun, but they actually have far-reaching economic, social, and cultural power,” said David Sax, author of The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up With Fondue. “They touch every aspect of our edible lives.”
Alice Robb: What got you thinking about food trends?
David Sax: I was eating at all these new, “cool” restaurants, and they all had the same thing on the menu. We think our sense of taste is so individual, but it had become much more of a collective thing. And food trends were really the driver behind this. I wanted to find out how they worked.
Food trends don't just drive the obvious things, like cupcakes or cronuts, but something as elemental as your daily cup of coffee. The way you have that coffee now is probably very different from the way you had it ten years ago, and it’ll probably be very different in ten years. That has a huge impact, culturally and economically. Think about the makeup of your neighborhood. How many different coffee shops are there? Who’s opened those coffee shops? What type of coffee are they serving? On a bigger scale, the price of the Arabica bean, the way it’s grown and cultivated—that’s all driven by the way we’re drinking coffee.
AR: In the book, you talk about how Sex and the City basically started the cupcake trend by showing Carrie eating a cupcake in front of Magnolia Bakery. How does media drive food trends?
DS: Food trends have been around as long as people have had the ability to choose between different things to eat, but the modern, interconnected media has made food trends a viral phenomenon. Once upon a time, it was just a few newspapers and a few select gourmet magazines that were writing about food. Today it’s every single publication. Even magazines like The New Republic feel that they need to be part of this conversation. Of course, social media and the blogosphere amplify trends; they allow everyone to add to the conversation. It’s not just one person writing a review of a restaurant anymore. It’s 500 people rating that restaurant on Yelp, it’s people posting thousands of Instagram photos of every dish at that restaurant. You don’t even need to go to that restaurant to talk about it with authority, to help spread that trend.
AR: I saw some study recently that found that people enjoy their food less after looking at pictures of food on Instagram.
DS: Like how pornography’s ruined sex for people.
AR: How do cooking shows play into all this?
DS: Food is entertainment now. People tune into Top Chef and they’re not trying to replicate the recipes. Anthony Bourdain is entertainment. Instagramming your dishes is entertainment. As it becomes more entertainment-based, the imperative for finding foods that are flashy and attention-grabbing becomes larger and you get crazes like the cronut last summer. That was pure entertainment for everybody involved, whether they were making it, eating it, lining up for it, taking photos of it, writing about it. This isn’t about feeding ourselves. This is about fun.
AR: How are foods trends like that different from other fads that drive people to seemingly irrational behavior? Say, people signing up to be on a waiting list for a Birkin bag?
DS: In many ways it isn’t that different. The cronut is an edible fashion accessory. Editors from Vogue and Vanity Fair were sending their interns to wait in line for cronuts; it was the thing to eat last summer. A lot of food trends are very much fashion-based.
AR: Why do foods from certain countries or ethnicities take off, and not others?
DS: Part of it is immigration. If enough people move from one place, that food becomes more available. There are other factors as well: increased travel to a certain place, increased trade with that place, cultural figures from there. I talked to some Indian restaurateurs who’d been trying to make a name for themselves for a while, and they said the biggest night of business they ever had was the night Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar. If you have people like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling and Jhumpa Lahiri becoming mainstream American cultural figures, the interest in their culture is gonna grow—and a big part of that’s food. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than buying a ticket to Mumbai.
Think of the sushi trend that started in the '80s. It was as much about the Nintendo entertainment system in your living room as it was about the availability of good-quality raw fish. The Japanese food trend rose as the world of Japanese business and culture was becoming a bigger part of American life.
AR: To what extent do these trends have to do with taste and the biology of taste as opposed to culture?
DS: The biology of taste is a pretty flexible thing. We eat a lot of weird shit that we convince ourselves we like—we eat with our eyes our ears and our brains a lot more than we eat with our mouths. A few years ago, how hard would it have been for you to eat bone marrow? Now, that’s such a trendy food. People are slapping it on burgers and steaks and serving bone marrow in all sorts of hip restaurants. Suddenly people are eating pig face and hoof and all these other parts that previously we never wanted to touch. There’s an element of, “Look how bold I am, eating this pig face. How au courant I am.” That said, it’s hard to make something trendy that isn’t tasty in one way or another. Like the bacon trend—bacon is sweet, smoke, salt, and fat. It’s like a food that’s been perfectly engineered for us to love.
AR: Speaking of bacon—as a vegetarian, that is my least favorite of all food trends. I can’t trust that even simple vegetables are vegetarian anymore.
DS: That’s for sure. The bacon trend came out of an effort by the pork industry to sell bacon when nobody was buying it during the low-fat health craze. They developed pre-cooked bacon they could push on the fast-food industry. It took off there and moved into the culinary world and became this cultural trend, with gags like “I love bacon” bumper stickers and “I love bacon” onesies. It’s even expanded into the vegetarian world. There’s all sorts of fake bacon and bacon-flavored spreads and bacon salt that don’t contain bacon. It’s not only about flavor, but also about being able to participate in that cultural moment.
AR: Do you think bacon will be a fad, or will it stick around? What’s the difference between the trends that fade and the ones that have a lasting impact?
DS: The trends that last are easily replicable—not too technical or expensive. They fit in in different ways. It’s not just something that’s one specific dish eaten one way. It’s something that can work for dessert, for cocktails, for a main course; for high-end and for low-end. Think about the extra-virgin olive oil trend of the '90s. That’s no longer trendy; no one’s really bragging about using extra-virgin olive oil anymore. It’s just the default oil. We absorb it and move on.
I think bacon will always be around in certain dishes— bacon and eggs, BLT sandwiches— but things like bacon cupcakes and bacon-flavored underwear will fade away. Everything has its limit.
This interview has been edited and condensed.