Author David Sax explains why we are crazy for cupcakes

Toronto writer explores popular food trends in ‘The Tastemakers,’ the follow-up effort to his ‘Save the Deli’

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

'The Tastemakers' author at David Sax at Magnolia Bakery, ground zero of the cupcake craze. (Credit: Christopher Farber)
'The Tastemakers' author at David Sax at Magnolia Bakery, ground zero of the cupcake craze. (Credit: Christopher Farber)

Some people eat to live. Others live to eat. And then there is food writer David Sax, who doesn’t fall neatly into either categories. He eschews the “foodie” label: His tastes run to the stories where food, business and culture blend.

Sax’s first book, “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,” savored smoked meat, matzah ball soup and chopped liver, but also served up a hefty portion of Jewish food history with a side of delicatessen economics.

For his new book, “The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy For Cupcakes But Fed Up With Fondue,” Sax employs the same basic ingredients, but applies them more universally, aiming to tickle the taste buds of a broader audience. Not everyone eats kugel and gefilte fish, but almost everyone has given their stomachs over in recent years to the celebrity chef, food truck and super foods trends.

“This book has broader appeal,” the author agrees in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel from his home in Toronto. “It doesn’t have the tongue,” he adds, referring to one cut of beef featured prominently in his first book.

Sax, 34, explains that, although he is never one to pass up a chance to eat a scrumptious meal, he is even more interested in finding out what remains when the food’s taste is stripped away.

“A food business works and a trend takes off only when its culture resonates. Food has to be meaningful. Delicious is not enough,” he says.

'Delicious is not enough.' David Sax at Whole Foods Market (the supermarket he writes is the most influential in terms of American food trends) in New York's Union Square. (Photo credit: Christopher Farber)
‘Delicious is not enough.’ David Sax at Whole Foods Market (the supermarket he writes is the most influential in terms of American food trends) in New York’s Union Square. (Photo credit: Christopher Farber)

“I was given many opportunities to write about food after ‘Save the Deli’ came out, but I’m interested in the why of it,” he shares. “I want to know the deeper story, to go beyond the food porn level.”

In “The Tastemakers,” the author starts his travels across North America exploring recent food trends by riding along on a “Sex and the City” fan bus tour and considering one of the biggest and longest lasting food trends of our times: cupcakes.

The bus arrives at Magnolia Bakery in New York’s West Village, ground zero of the cupcake craze. Sax gets off the bus and stands there reflecting on the seminal moment when Sarah Jessica Parker (as Carrie Bradshaw) and Cynthia Nixon (as Miranda Hobbes) sat on a bench on the very same spot and merely held (they didn’t even bite in to it!) a cupcake.

'The Tastemakers' is David Sax's second book. (Courtesy of PublicAffairs)
‘The Tastemakers’ is David Sax’s second book. (Courtesy of PublicAffairs)

“Will the archeologists recognize cupcakes? Will they know that in the first decade of the twenty-first century there were cakes baked in cups, cakes of every imaginable flavor and combination; that these cakes were covered in the sweet frosting, in everything from simple vanilla creams to elaborate artistic creations; that for more than ten years these little cakes were a subject of great power and fascination all over the world; and that all of that, from the global tribes of devoted bakers to the chroniclers of the phenomenon to the multibillion-dollar cupcake economy, all began here, on this sacred corner of Manhattan, at this small bakery, with these two women and a twenty-second scene of a television show that, once a upon a time, changed the way we ate dessert?”

Sax goes on for another 330-some pages in the same highly engaging style (there are laugh-out-loud moments), but the content of “The Tastemakers” is much more substantial than fluffy icing.

Before starting to write this book, Sax knew food trends were nothing new. But he wanted to know what was causing them to spring up quicker and grow faster than in the past. First, he wanted to discover the tastemakers behind the trends; the people who take an idea, cultivated it, and change the way we eat. Then, he sought to shine a light on the forces in the food business who take a food and grow it into a widespread trend.

Sax also wanted to find out why food trends matter. What impact do they have on a culture, politics and society? And finally, he wanted to come to terms with his own complex relationship with food trends. Are they just passing fads, or do they open him up to cultural opportunities and broaden his understanding of food in every stage, from the field all the way to the plate?

The 'Save the Deli' author at Katz's Delicatessen in New York. (Photo credit: Christopher Farber)
The ‘Save the Deli’ author at Katz’s Delicatessen in New York. (Photo credit: Christopher Farber)

In the book’s pages, the author takes readers along with him as he meets Glenn Roberts, owner of Anson Mills and the man most influential in the revival of heirloom grains and the preservation of a Southern US cuisine known as the Carolina Rice Kitchen. He also investigates how and why chia seeds have been sprouting up as a key ingredient in so many food products, and why so many other so-called superfoods and health and diet regimens have similarly taken the country by storm.

He especially questions the whole gluten-free thing going on now. It seems like everyone he knows is suddenly gluten intolerant — even though few — if any — have Celiac disease.

“Jews have all discovered they are gluten intolerant. It’s like, ‘What are we afraid of now?’” he quips.

‘Jews have all discovered they are gluten intolerant. It’s like, “What are we afraid of now?”‘

In one chapter, Sax breaks down the economics of bacon, or Baconomics as it is known to the millions of Americans who must have bacon in everything they eat, from hamburgers to ice cream sundaes to, yes, even cupcakes. In another he researches why some ethnic foods take off in a America and others don’t. A chapter on food trucks in Washington, D.C. serves up an important lesson on food politics.

Amazed and flattered to have discovered long sections of his “Save the Deli” quoted in reports generated by one of the biggest food trend analysts, Sax is proud that a Jewish deli mini-trend seems to have sprung up in the wake of the book’s 2009 publication.

“There’s Mile End in New York, Wise Sons in San Francisco, and Caplansky’s in Toronto,” Sax names the best known delis that have been opened by young Jewish artisanal food entrepreneurs in recent years. “And there are a number of others, plus there has been a renewed surge of interest in older delis,” he says.

However, he tempers his enthusiasm by highlighting that the influence of authentic Jewish deli food on the mass market is not huge. “Deli is a bit trendy, but it is niche. It’s not a cupcake.”

Sax does, nonetheless, point to several Jewish food trends that he thinks are starting to break out. He’s noted the Tel Aviv chefs are moving out all over the world and introducing hummus and other Middle Eastern-style foods.

“It’s the Ottolenghi effect,” he says, referring to London-based Israeli chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi, whose 2011 “Jerusalem” cookbook has been a huge success.

The author also perceives the nascent stages of a possible artisan, wood-fired bagel trend.

“Mile End’s Noah Bernamoff has opened Black Seed [a bagel shop in Lower Manhattan selling old-fashioned bagels that are a kind of cross between Montreal and New York bagels] and the line ups are an hour long,” he reports.

As informative as “The Tastemakers” is, Sax came away from writing it with more than just an academic knowledge. He may be most interested in the nexus of culture and business when it comes to food, but he still likes to literally chew on his subject.

“I just ordered a bag of Glenn Roberts’ Anson Mills grits,” he shares. “They are seven dollars a bag and worth every penny.”

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