David Sax - The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue (2014)
This is a journalist’s book, mainly a slapped-together collection of articles related in some way to food trends. Sax did the research, interviews and pulled that together into stories but there’s nothing to synthesize them and barely even a connection among them. For instance he opens with a chapter about the cupcake trend, locating the start at a bakery in New York that accidentally became a hotspot then the NYC-based media picked up the story, fed each other’s interest and that spilled out to the rest of the country. It’s a familiar story and seems likely to be true but that familiarity and nothing new means that the story feels a tad dubious. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that this started in LA or Minneapolis but NYC gets the credit because that’s where the journalists are. More importantly the chapter doesn’t get into why this became a trend – after all not everything pushed by NYC media hits the rest of the country. Sax does offer the idea that cupcakes appeal to people because it reminds them of childhood, something that makes sense, is easy to believe and is obviously wrong. That he doesn’t see how his stories are just more gloss means the book becomes mainly one to be mined for stray bits of info and background. I didn’t realize for instance that one reason bacon started appearing on fast food menus is because they began to overcook them from fear of lawsuits and consequently needed a flavor boost. The book has bits like this but tends to lose sight of its purpose. When he gets to food trucks for example Sax spends most of the chapter on their legal battles which is interesting (well ok it’s not at all interesting but let’s just say it is) without getting to the point of why something that can offer only convenience and the probability of inferior food became trendy. The Tastemakers is a book that touches on various trends offering little of substance about them.
Michael Pollan - Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013)
Pollan had the idea to explore what he considers the four approaches to food preparation – heat, liquid, baking and fermentation. Like the Sax book he’s done the research and in this case even gone out to do this first-hand. And like the Sax book he doesn’t really bother to pull together the material. Though it feels like a stronger editor could have helped, for all I know the book was even more a mess and the editor did make it somewhat readable. Let’s just give Pollan his basic idea however unlikely or even silly it might be. (Tying these approaches to the classic four elements? Really? You know that’s a European thing that won’t explain other cultures right?) The bigger problem is that going hands-on meant he only uses historical information in scattered bits though he certainly gets more substantive material than Sax apparently even thought to do. With this ready then he gives us a lopsided book that jumps from watered down academics to overly detailed descriptions of baking. When talking about barbeque he even spends pages on the biography of one cook for no real point. That’s what an editor or Pollan himself should have done – cut the book by about half. Trimmed and focused this might have been something worth reading.