A friend in Los Angeles asked, has artisanal toast made it to Canada yet?
No, I said proudly, as if we were immune to such foolery. And then I looked into it.
You’ll recall, a few years back, tales from San Francisco, of cafés selling bread, sliced an inch thick, toasted and topped with a schmear of apricot marmalade or almond butter. For $3. That’s U.S. currency. So nearly $4 Canadian.
I’d love to say the artisanal toast trend never made it across the border. But it did. By 2016, you could find it creeping onto menus in Vancouver. Last week, Monogram Coffee in Calgary unveiled its spring toast menu. And relatively light showing in Toronto didn’t stop media from doing backflips to sell the idea that French or Scandinavian restaurants serving open-faced sandwiches were part of the toast trend.
And before you say, "Yeah, but chumps in Toronto will pay for anything," don’t get too smug. I’m looking at you, Hamilton, with your butternut squash toast at Saint James Espresso Bar & Eatery. And you, two slices of Park Road sourdough for $4.95 at Station 1 Coffeehouse in Grimsby.
If you have ever put Nutalla, cheese, or a sardine on toast before 2014: congratulations, chef, you were ahead of a trend. (Actually, the real trendcaster was my father, who told me, in 1990, that when my metabolism changed I would yearn for the taste of toasted bread with butter.)
Our natural human reaction, before we hear about quality — breads made with organic, freshly milled flours or spread with flavourful hazelnut butters — is to scoff at this. Because the idea that toast is new is like pretending that you’ve discovered sleeping in on Saturday or using an umbrella when it rains.
Which brings me to a real distinction: a trend is not the same as a fad. A trend is something that redirects our collective attention in a lasting way. A fad is temporary. And while trends may include initially silly-sounding things like pricey toast, they also, sometimes, help shift and expand our diets, and get us to try new things. Fads, by contrast, disappear as quickly as they come.
There are real downsides to food trends, including the erosion of our attention spans, the Columbusing of cuisines — when white people “discover” something like chopped cheese or quinoa and act like it was just invented — and boom-and-bust cycles that wreak havoc with agricultural prices.
No one expected the silliness of infused foams to be around or for long. But over the last decade, thanks to trends that were often mocked, home cooks have learned to prepare non-prime cuts of meat. They’ve found uses for highly nutritional greens like kale and collards. They’ve figured that you can put any nut in the food processor and turn it into a creamy paste. And while it’s still not universal or perhaps even the majority, more people care about where their food is coming from than I would have believed possible 10 years ago.
These are not the same as fads. Every week my inbox fills up with press releases predicting or advertising the popularity of foods that already exist. They all come with the general message, “Don’t you want to be part of the thing everyone is talking about?” And I do understand the desire, though I think it’s insidious, to be “on the winning team,” the impulse that makes us vote for people we don’t like or cheer for sports teams from places we don’t live. But you can’t move merchandise with the pitch, “Here’s a thing no one will care about in six months.” So every fad is marketed as a trend, as the potential next big thing that, if you only pay attention, you can get in on early.
Consider, for instance, the “crazy/epic milkshakes,” in which overflowing shakes are topped with other desserts (doughnuts, cake, pie). The two objects stacked together are the antithesis of creativity, like a Hollywood pitch for “Star Wars meets Pretty Woman” that turns out to be a four-hour movie that’s just the two hits run back-to-back.
Having said that, while I was just looking up images of these monstrosities, my wife walked past the sofa and said, “Ooh, milkshakes.” Because that is the mega-shake’s intention: not to satisfy, but to look good for social media.
After eating a slice of apple pie and then the milkshake underneath, you are going to feel like garbage. You would never return for another. Likewise for the rainbow bagel or rainbow grilled cheese. Once you’ve photographed your artificially coloured food, you have no use for it again. And any business that doesn’t generate repeat customers is going to be a fad, not a trend.
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Ideas can spread between chefs rapidly — from one chef’s brain, to Instagram, to another restaurant’s special the next night. But national supermarket chains move slower. It takes years of market analysis and product testing before Loblaws releases a trend-driven product like quinoa crackers with black sesame seeds. Actual trend forecasting happens, much more slowly, in the boardrooms and labs of large food producers and distributors.
This year, cauliflower is predicted to be the new kale — for what seems like three years in a row. That relatively safe bet is compounded by long shots on charcoal, jackfruit, mead, and, according to impartial prognosticator Whole Foods, “purple food.” I read on the CBC that chefs are going to become obsessed with vegetables and diners will start caring about seafood sustainability. These perennials (along with insect protein, which people are never going to eat until we run out of every other food) are pitched every year, so that if they ever do capture the public’s imagination, the predictors can finally say they told you so.
The majority of consumers are not giving up their supermarket staples of boneless, skinless chicken breast or bottled vinaigrette. The trends don’t replace these basics; they help us add to our repertoires. But that’s a step in the right direction. Once upon a time Canadians still had yet to Columbus garlic.
Toast is good. Toast has always been good. I welcome any cultural shift away from the vilification of bread that has persisted for the last 15 years. If it’s made with whole grain bread, all the better. But if I have to choose between diet trends that tell us to hate our bodies and food trends that require us to love ourselves, I’ll eat the toast.
Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer.
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