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Book ReviewsComptes rendus critiques

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue (Plus Baconomics, Superfoods, and Other Secrets from the World of Food Trends), David Sax, New York: PublicAffairs, 2014, 320 pages

  • Christopher Laurent

Corps de l’article

In the early nineties, hippie communities across California began to cultivate a strange beverage of fermented tealeaves. The drink, that would later be known as kombucha, appealed to the spiritual sensitivity and holistic living of the times. Entrepreneurs that saw an opportunity with the rising tide of fermented products transformed kombucha from a macrobiotic remedy to multimillion dollars consumption market. In The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue, Toronto based food journalist, David Sax argues that such trends shape our quotidian food choices. Sax launches on an epic journey across America in order to investigate the inner workings of these food trends. His central argument is that a cabal of entrepreneurs, which he calls “The Tastemakers,” are responsible for orchestrating contemporary food fads. In an impressive display of investigative journalism, the author unfolds the various layers of how trends emerge, how they are sustained, and how they fade out of style. In a way, this book is as much about marketing and business as it is about food and taste.

The book is split into three topical sections: types of trends, the people behind creating them, and the impact of these trends. In the first section, Sax singles out four major players in food trends: popular culture, agriculture, chefs, and health. Examples ranging from the proliferation of cupcake shops to the miraculous properties of chia seeds help build the case for the distinctiveness of these trends. The second part of the book examines the mechanism behind how they flourish. How do food industry awards lead to lucrative food trends? How does data research help forecast trends even before they arrive? How do marketing strategies with the right message and the right timing make or break a trend? In the last part, the author builds a case for the significance of these trends. Sax broaches topics such as making ethnic food mainstream, food truck municipal legislations, the economic impact of bacon popularity, and the demise and revival of fondue. In the book’s epilogue, Sax narrates how the cronut, a donut croissant combination, became so popular in the age of social media feeds.

Throughout the book, Sax demonstrates his skills in investigative journalism uncovering in each chapter specific examples that illustrate his argument. In the process, the author unveils the little known inner workings of how food trends become cultural phenomenon. For example, Sax shows how trend forecasters, which the author aptly names the intelligence wing of the food industry, will combine cultural research with big data in order to predict and shape future food trends. Furthermore, the author’s narrative style of writing, which is rich in anecdotes and quotes from interviews, contribute to making the book a very pleasant read. However, the skeptical reader might doubt the accuracy of the claims put forth by “The Tastemakers” as it is in these entrepreneurs’ best interest to contend they have single handedly started a new trend. Had Sax been more thorough in investigating these claims, it would have prevented the perpetuation of the myth of the self-made entrepreneur that ignores the many other forces that shape food trends. Overall, I found it difficult to feel sympathy for the main protagonists, the tastemakers, as they seek to make fortunes from the propensity of people to follow trends. Sax, himself, seems to oscillate between derision and admiration for these food speculators without clearly positioning himself. His closing argument that food trends bring happiness, economic growth, cultural understanding and are at their core democratic, will raise more than one eyebrow.

The book makes valuable contributions in helping us better understand how trends are created and how they shape our daily lives. In this sense, Sax’s arguments could just as well apply to fashion, music, and entertainment. In his final chapter, the author notes that in the age of social media and globalization these trends can take over the world in a matter of days. If we are to take this new informational age into account, are food trends destined to become global phenomenon that will quickly fade into obscurity? The book does not aim to be an academic study and should not be approached as such. It will garner considerable readership among foodies — a term that I am reticent to use but is fitting in this case — who wonder why their newest obsession came to be so popular. The Tastemakers incorporates sufficient analytical content to spark spirited discussions and will captivate audiences in search of an enjoyable read.

Parties annexes

Parties annexes