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March 27, 2011

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Influencing our eating habits

BACON is everywhere. Wendy's have it in the "Baconator" and Paula Deen crumbles it into quiche. Ditto for those deluxe cupcakes top-heavy with frosting. Is there a bakery or supermarket that doesn't sell them?

Bacon and cupcakes like sliders, bubble tea, popsicles, food trucks and chipotle have caught on from coast to coast.

But how?

Food fads don't always spread exactly the same way as other types of pop culture, such as fashion and music. Chefs don't walk the runway at food shows holding up this spring's hot pad thai dish. There are no authoritative top-10 charts for food that show red velvet cake is No. 1 with a bullet.

But favored food items can go viral in the time it takes to upload a picture of salted caramel ice cream.

The arbiters of trendy tastes include big-name chefs, bloggers, urban hipsters, eater tweeters and journalists. Usually, they work in some hard-to-quantify combination.

"It's kind of like trying to grab a jellyfish, in terms of trying to understand it," said Ted Allen, host of the Food Network's "Chopped."

Food fads are older than the fondue pot in the back of your parents' pantry. But the lines of dissemination were easier to track before the existence of the Food Network and the Web. The high-brow authority was Gourmet magazine. Home cooks took cues from cookbooks and friends. There were only a few famous culinary authorities, such as Martha Stewart or Paul Prudhomme.

Top-down authorities live on in the food world, even if they now share the stage with the cyber-masses. Serious eaters are still influenced by the magazines such as Food & Wine and Bon Appetit. But the rise of food TV has increased the number of celebrity cooks who can popularize a food item. Think of what Rachael Ray did for extra-virgin olive oil.

Television is widely believed to have kick-started the long-running cupcake craze, though celebrity chefs had nothing to do with it. Credit here goes to Carrie Bradshaw and her pals on "Sex and the City," who treated themselves to the luxurious cupcakes at Manhattan's Magnolia Bakery. Mainstream and social media took it from there.

The obvious difference now is how food blogs and food-centric websites offer more possible trends at a faster rate, whether it's Epicurious listing "16 Restaurants that count" or a contributor posting a picture of tuna tartare on Foodspotting.

"Because of social networking, everybody is now a food expert," said Phil Lempert, a food marketing expert known as The Supermarket Guru. "When you look at Yelp, when you look at Foodspotting, when you look at all the social networking tools that are out there, everybody is telling everybody about every food trend that exists. The rules have changed dramatically and you can get something going very quickly."

If there's one food trend that illustrates how top-down and grassroots phenomena combine it might be bacon.

It likely started with chefs tossing bacon into dishes earlier this century to add a dash of umami flavor. That encouraged others to think of bacon as more than just a complement to eggs. The movement gained sizzle through media exposure and word of mouth. It appears that it was not one big thing that led to the bacon Renaissance, but a bunch of smaller things.

For instance, when Rocco Loosbrock paired peppered bacon with Syrah wine at a tasting, his "swine and wine" was such a big word-of-mouth hit it inspired him to go whole hog into bacon. Today, he sells bacon jerky, bacon chocolate, bacon coffee and more on his Bacon Freak website, part of a suite of bacon sites.

Today, talk of bacon in sophisticated circles can bring on the same eye-rolls teens react with when middle-age people say "Dude." But while food hipsters may have moved beyond bacon, America has not. Chain restaurants serve everything from bacon-wrapped sea scallops to bacon club chalupas.

And perhaps it was simply inevitable, but there also are recipes online for bacon cupcakes.

"Bacon is one of the greatest things that was ever invented," said Allen. "I think what has peaked is us discussing that fact."


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