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Summer Reading: 'The Tastemakers'

Idon’t know that I will ever encounter a dessert more controversial than the cupcake. I don’t consider myself a cupcake aficionado, but the amount of debate the tiny frosted bits of cake can evoke fascinates me. About a year ago, I happened upon an angry tirade eviscerating the cupcake as the enemy of feminism and calling for its demise, as it would be a “victory for womankind.” The article stuck with me for no apparent reason, and the cultural obsession with the cupcake took over a permanent but dormant part of my brain. When I happened across David Sax’s “The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue,” the cupcake on the cover reawakened my intrigue, and his promise for answers cemented my decision to read the book.

Each day, I left my commute behind as I joined David Sax on his romp through the foodie fad jungle. While it was the cupcakes that drew me in, Sax’s pithy accounts and deep case studies kept me coming back. Sax begins the book by breaking down the different forces fueling food fads: culture, agriculture, chefs and health. Sax bolsters his points with personal anecdotes detailing his interactions with the various individuals in the culinary world, whether dealing with eager Dole employees pushing Chia seeds or the Hollywood servers he deems “alphas of the waiting world.”

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Sax emotionally delves into the cultural impact food trends can have on our lives. He focuses on the steady influx of ethnic foods in mainstream American diets to contrast with the rabid rise of fad foods. As we eat new foods, we wonder about the ethnic histories and the cultures surrounding them. Sax touches on immigration and urban analysis as he navigates the various foods that have gained prominence throughout the country and those that have remained in the shadows.

He devotes an entire chapter to bacon and its seemingly limitless financial potential. Sax hones in on Chicago’s Baconfest, an event which sold out despite offering over 3,000 tickets, which drew bacon aficionados ravenous for specialties like bacon-spiked Bloody Marys, bacon cotton candy and bacon peanut butter macaroons. Here Sax’s research and my own overlapped, as the newest addition to my blooming Chicago neighborhood was “The Kaiser Tiger,” a beergarden specializing in bacon, beer and sausage. Opening just a few months before my summer arrival, the Tiger was already reaping the profits Sax enumerated in his chapter on the economic benefits of bacon. And honestly, with a menu offering “5 lbs. of spicy beef and pork sausage stuffed with pepper bacon and wrapped in a brown sugar bacon weave” called “The Bomb,” how could they not succeed?

As I finished Sax’s culinary critique on the bus, my journey came full circle. I sat squashed between two people overflowing into my seat and stared into the darkened windows of Crumbs Bake Shop as my bus streamed forward, leaving the former cupcake dynamo in the dust.?

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