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An anatomy of food trends

Using the cronut as the point of departure, Helen Rosner urges chefs and writers and everyone to look beyond hybrid wordplay and dig deeper into the conditions for the latest “it” dish:

From a trademarked pastry to the entire concept of “street food,” a trend follows a predictable path, one that’s consistent whether applied to technology (the hype cycle identified by tech research company Gartner), youth culture (Fuse Marketing’s five-point map), or gastronomy (the eleven-stage process broken down in the food-culture-skewering book Comfort Me With Offal). However detailed your drilldown, the story is the same: Something bubbles up for one reason or another, feeling right to a small group of people who are open to new ideas and who speak with loud, influential voices. More people pick up on that right-ness, and then more people pick up on the fact that people are picking up on something, ultimately reaching a critical mass of interest and awareness.

At this point, most of the early adopters tend to fall away: trends are driven at different points in their life cycles by a desire to fit in and a desire to stand out; if someone’s engine is the latter, she’ll cut and run when adherence to the gospel of locavorism becomes more about the former. Once Starbucks puts a flat white on their menu, cortado devotees start eyeing matcha. Once your mom buys bacon-scented hand soap for the guest bathroom, there’s an unshakeable pall cast over your Benton’s-washed bourbon. When something makes that leap into ultra-mass culture, showing up on t-shirts at Target and as a punchline on the Tonight Show, it’s a sign that its original engine โ€” novelty, exclusivity, difference โ€” has worn out.

It’s that “why do things bubble up in the first place” question that’s harder to answer. These things are always time-dependent, sometimes place-dependent, and usually driven by more than just food. (Ditto trends in tech or whatever. There are games beyond the game.)

“The thing that truly jumpstarts a trend is that it solves a problem we perhaps didn’t consciously realize needed solving,” writes Rosner.

Trends are driven by broader forces: Kale and quinoa are driven by an obsession with healthfulness and nutritional density, artisanal-everything is a backlash to the sterility of mass production, toast with fancy things on it looks incredibly pretty on Instagram. And not all these forces are consumer-side: The sudden glut of hip chicken sandwich restaurants isn’t the result of some shady collusion of culinary illuminati; rather, it nails the intersection of comfort food, Southern food, and fast-casual’s potential for extraordinary (and extraordinarily scalable) profits.

Also, it should be delicious.