Food for Thought: Why we’re crazy for cupcakes but behind on hipster deli food
by Anna Goren
David Sax's new book "The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed with Fondue" explores how food trends impact our daily lives. Credit: PublicAffairs
It’s happened to all of us. You’re out in the world and someone asks where you’re from. “Seattle”, you say, your chest puffed out cautiously.
The immediate conversation that follows is usually a robotic hum of recognition: Kurt Cobain, precipitation, Starbucks. On mention of the latter, your blood temperature rises.
“Oh, but nobody actually drinks Starbucks” you assure them. “There are so many great independent shops in Seattle — we’ve got a great coffee scene. Come visit! In the summer.”
With 23 shops for every 100,000 Seattle residents, somebody has got to be drinking it. Could it be true that Starbucks, a name that has now become so synonymous with Seattle, gentrification and corporatization actually gave the world better coffee through its rapid expansion from a little shop in Pike Place Market?
According to David Sax, noted author and expert on food trends, it is. Though not in the sense that the coffee found in stores playing the same playlist in 64 countries is actually better than the fair-trade, single-origin espresso from any place on Capitol Hill. Starbucks and its rise normalized a new coffee culture, raised the bar for independents to make even better coffee, with even better ethics and cozier couches, for the new market of drinkers who demanded it. Though its hipness is passé, Starbucks nurtured a food trend that lives on.
“If it weren’t for Starbucks, there wouldn’t be Stumptown,” he offers confidently, gesturing to my bottle of cold-brew, which he assures me will be in Costco by 2016.
Sax explained it all in a talk at Town Hall last week, on tour with his latest book The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up With Fondue. He sat down with me at Melrose Market, mecca of Seattle food trendiness, to talk about the fashion behind what we eat.
“We think that appetite or sense of taste is such an individual thing, and it’s actually driven by trends, by the industry. I wanted to find out how that happens,” says Sax, of the inspiration behind his book.
Food trends, he asserts, unlike fads (cronuts, ramen tacos), have staying power, and with it, the power to change how we eat as a society. It’s what’s for dinner.
Sax’s first book, Save The Deli (2009), tracked the downward trend of dying Jewish delicatessens across North America. Replaced by haute cuisine and a slew of ethnic foods brought in by immigrant cultures in American cities large and small, Jewish delis seemed to be going out with Bubbe and Zaide.
A new trend, documented in a recent New York Times article, however, has seen a resurgence of deli food, with restaurants like Mile End in Brooklyn. The new deli isn't geared towards Jews of the past, but fixie-toting hipsters in their twenties and thirties. “It’s not tied to nostalgia, or the past, or any sort of religious thing,” says Sax. “That artisan movement — it’s just being applied to now to Jewish delis”.
Scratching your head? Sax proposed to the audience at Town Hall that, though it hasn’t yet, the hip deli trend will make it’s way to Seattle, in due time. The audience, all of us starved of a decent, nearby bagel, let out a cheer of cautious optimism.
Food trends, says Sax, demonstrate the power of consumer demand to shape the market via four types of trends: chef-driven, agriculture-driven, health-driven and culture driven. That last one is the reason we’re hard pressed to find a good whitefish salad in Seattle's fish food culture.
While trends begin as place-based, they eventually take hold and spread like wildfire (or cupcakes). In Seattle, trends like ‘local’ and ‘farm-to-table’ took off with gusto because of a combination of agricultural offerings and political leanings. “The Pacific Northwest is very fortunate,” says the Toronto-bred Sax, who fantasized of Seattle-ites dragging 90 lb. salmon from the nearby stream before foraging for a dinner of wild mushrooms.
Unlike global cuisines rooted in thousands of years of history, American food is based on the factors that shape our culture: innovation and change. It is fluid and dynamic. And Seattle, Sax says, is especially receptive to this type of food innovation.
An entrepreneurial city at heart, Seattle has already laid the groundwork supporting the four types of food trends outlined in Sax’s book. Washington is an agricultural and producer powerhouse and we’ve been ranked by both Nerdwallet.com and Forbes as one of the healthiest cities on the continent. We also host a burgeoning foodie culture and have produced globally recognized chefs. Anthony Bourdain called Seattle “one of the best and most interesting food scenes in North America” during his episode of “The Layover” in 2013, and Top Chef chose Seattle for filming its 10th season in 2012.
For better or for worse, Seattle has been on the forefront of many trends that have taken root, from local and farm-to-table, to DIY, coffee, salami and toast.
When asked what makes a city a good food city, Sax says it’s a place that does what it does, and people catch on. The internet age allows people to pick up on a trend without actually visiting a place or eating the food, and make it relevant to their community. Sex In the City's Carrie Bradshaw appeared on-screen for 20 seconds with a Magnolia Bakery cupcake, and there are now cupcake shops in Paraguay where there were none before.
Eventually, he says, when a food idea spreads, it is taste that gives momentum to a social or political goal behind a food idea. Once that trend becomes widespread, it forces the creator to either improve their version, or move on to something else. What is left, as in the case of Starbucks, is an overall better product for the masses, and a better market for the independents.
“This is what pushes food forward—it’s the innovative side of how we eat”.
There are downsides. Food trends can stress the demands of agriculture and nature (sushi and over-fishing), water down a political goal (organics at Wal-Mart), fetishize other cultures and class groups (an eatery in Portland called Blue Collar in a fancy business district, where no actual blue collar worker would ever set foot), or be just downright annoying (cupcakes). In Sax's book, the biggest downside of trends is the fear-mongering that ensues when food marketing companies play to health and diet trends. Otherwise, at the end of the day, taste rules.
“Things only take off when they taste good,” he says. “What could be the downside of that?”
So next time you see a food trend in action, don’t automatically roll your eyes. “No one’s forcing you to eat it,” says Sax. “Embrace it”. In terms of coffee — don’t mind if I do.