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Food Trends Are One Way to Eat the Modern Zeitgeist

We have a choice about what we put in our mouths, but our cravings are often driven by a social collective. Food trend expert and author of brand new book, The Tastemakers, David Sax believes we want to eat the contemporary zeitgeist.

You literally can't move for craft beer in supermarkets these days. Sales are up 82 percent year on year, and the aisles are chock-a-block with pallets of the stuff: Crying Lamb, Fisherman's Tongue, Monkey's Cough. It's all there warming gently by the orange squash on the shelves, ready for a ride in daddy's Volvo. Ditto beetroot, coconut oil and chia seeds, 2014's superfoods, all highly prized and all proliferating our nation's supermarkets.


Food, like fashion, moves in trends and like fashion, precisely why we consume what we do is not entirely within our control. Hunger, once a physiological state, now plays fifth fiddle to social, cultural, geographical and marketing cues. This is the crux of a new book, The Tastemakers, by David Sax, a 34-year-old writer from Toronto with a weakness for Jewish delis.

"We do have a choice about what we put in our mouths, but the reality is that our appetite is collective. We are driven to try something because ultimately, we want to eat the zeitgeist."

Sax's book, a thorough journey through the provenance of our collective taste, has been a runaway hit in the states. It doesn't profess to change the way we eat, or indeed over-moralise our complete dependence on MSG, but it does explain why the Western world—and in particular countries that, although strong on foreign policy—seems to lack a historical cuisine ("namely the UK and the US"). He argues that we are at the mercy of food movements.

We are, says Sax, controlled by four key trend-drivers. In ascending order of excitement: agricultural (anything that is season and weather dependent, like black rice or grain); health (namely diet-related food trends perpetuated by science and tabloids, however dubious—think kale and cold-pressed juice); chefs (why, thanks to chefs like Simon Rogan, your steak now comes with a side of tulips) and cultural (films and TV, you know, why we all ate a lot of spaghetti after watching Blue Is The Warmest Colour and are currently bat-crazy about sponge thanks to the social media floor-wiper that is Great British Bake Off).


One of the biggest food trends in recent times is the cupcake, with sales that grew 56 percent between 2008 and 2012 according to Sax's research. But why? According to Dr. Jean Retzinger, a baker-turned-media studies professor at Berkley, "cupcakes were an edible, easily obtainable icon of modern womanhood." She doesn't suggest that this kind of trend is bad, but says they are "unavoidable. Trends are a byproduct of evolution—we have moved from hunting what's there to choosing what to hunt."

In our social media-dominated age, the speed at which something is hot and then not is staggering. "Instagram and Twitter propel food trends at an almost blitzkrieg rate," says Sax.

While cupcakes lingered around for a decade, Cronuts (last May's spurious New York phenomenon, a deep-fried croissant-doughnut hybrid) came and went in a year. For Sax, "Social media has the power to turn trends into fads. Cronuts would not have existed without cupcakes, the parent trend, but when it comes to staying power, they are not in the same league. So long as social media and media exist as they do, this new 'fast food' culture will only get quicker."

Another recent development, according to Sax, is the "mainstreamification" of gastronomy. "There are some people who are serious epicureans and loathe the fact that something pure can become so diluted by mass culture. Then there are people who like to eat trends but can't be bothered to read about them. But ultimately, whoever you are, wherever you're from, what you eat is part of a trend or a movement. It's almost completely unavoidable."


Kale is a case in point. You see someone eating kale and you immediately assume they are wealthy, special, or hip. Does that make white sugar, food of the poor, scourge of the soul-cycling, upper-middle class Western world?

In the UK there has been more of a readjustment of priorities since the recession, with an emphasis on comfort eating, pub food, and local ingredients. Think the rise of microbrewed lager, Welsh rarebit, and crumble, now served in loftier environs. We can now afford to travel again, too, which explains the resurgence of Asian food tourism—in particular Vietnamese and Korean.

Of course, the power of food trends have their drawbacks. Many trends have become gender-led. Women are often more susceptible to any trend which promises weight loss, which is the likely culprit for why the no-carb trend won't quit. That said, men are getting to be equally conditioned, weakening under the drip-drip onslaught of protein and Paleo diets that promise bigger guns and, let's face it, with all that new, lean muscle: loads of sex. Neither are balanced life plans.

So what's next? "High end ramen noodles, I think," says Sax in a heartbeat. Like posh Pot Noodles? "Sure. We're only going to embrace Asian cuisine more and more, and you guys already have high end Indian dining down. Vinegars, heritage grains, and black rice as well. These are health and agricultural trends which I suspect will boom." Lo and fucking behold, a slew of ramen places are now popping up at the rate of bakeries on London's St. Giles High St.—once home to quiet, unassuming gay cafés serving pudding bowls of frothy coffee.

Another chef I spoke to admitted with spectacular chagrin that he thinks "we'll be hearing a lot more about alternative protein sources; insects, weird fish, squirrel and other invasive species. I'm also sure, though, that we'll continue to hear about frankenpastries like cronuts and waffagatos because it's still a fun concept to some people. We young trendies forget that we're not the centre of the universe sometimes."

If trends are anything to go by, Sax even concedes that this cycle of innovation might well replicate fashion to the extreme. In a word, normcore—last spring's completely made up idea of dressing in a bland, conventional, nondescript way. Forget craft beer and Mason jar cocktails. "It's hard to make distinctions," says Sax, "but I guess, in the food sense, that'd be akin to hipsters eating tuna sandwiches."

Well, Pret A Manger's fucked, then.