The Anatomy of a Cronut: What Makes a Food Go Viral?

I have determined, using no science whatsoever, that the key to a food becoming "trendy" is possessing at least three of the following traits.
Publish date:
July 2, 2014
xoFood, ramen burger, trendy food, cupcakes, pizza cake, cronut

A fair amount of my time is taken up making, eating, and writing about trendy food. You know my beat. It’s The Ramen Burger, the Taco Bell breakfast menu, anything that this guy does.

Everyone has a different reaction to these insanely popular edible trends. Some of us love them, enthusiastically sharing Buzzfeed articles celebrating the newest doughnut that is not a doughnut and waiting in obscene lines for the latest "it pastry." Some of us will go so far as to cite said pastry as "proof that god loves us." On the other side of the coin, some of us are quickly annoyed by what they deem to be excessive fuss over "something that will kill you anyways, geeze this is why America is so fat you guys." Some of us are just really unimpressed by cookie shot glasses.

And then there are those of us who feel very passionately about the subject, and write irate, but humorous, lists dictating which foods should or should not exist.

But what determines a food's "trendiness factor"? Why do some culinary monstrosities "go viral" while others cause vague controversy, and then fade into the ether, never to be heard from again?

I have determined, using no science whatsoever, that the key to a food becoming "trendy" is possessing at least three of the following traits. Again, and I cannot state this clearly enough, this list is in no way scientific and is mostly composed of things I thought about in the shower this morning.

1. It is a combination of two things no ordinary person would fathom on their own.

This one depends on two awesome flavors tasting awesomer when combined. Ever since chocolate and peanut butter, we've been searching for the next great unexpected flavor combination. Though such pairings may be deemed unseemly at first, successful experiments leave the rest of us kicking ourselves, shouting at the heavens "WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?"

The Ramen Burger is a prime example. I mean, what's not to like? Ramen? Good! Burgers? Gooooood!

2. It is mildly to moderately off-putting.

A truly trendy food should make you a little queasy at first; you should feel a little like clutching some pearls. I have never offended harder than I did with the Ramen Burger. (People were equally grossed out by that time I made one and by that time I ate the original in Brooklyn).

An aspect of “You've gone too far this time!” really seems to help trendify a food. The more polarizing the creation, the more people will talk about the creation, and the more people will taste the creation. Generate enough controversy, and naysayers will try it just to prove to themselves and the world that "SEE? I thought it would be gross and I WAS RIGHT."

This is how bacon in everything gained so much traction.

3. It originates from a "big city," preferably New York or Los Angeles (maybe San Francisco or Portland).

Los Angeles is currently beating New York because of the Churro Ice Cream Sandwich. (What? No portmanteau?)

Because big cities have more people and more chefs and more press and more everything, foods hailing from these cities (especially those "known for their food scene") are apt to generate more buzz. But it's not enough on its own. Even the prestige of San Francisco's food culture couldn't help the nontroversy that was Artisinal Toast.

4.It is impressive in some way.

Trend foods should at least pretend like they're trying to impress you; they should make me feel like I am paying $5 for a pastry because the chef knows something that I don't. It can't look too easy.

I hate to keep picking on San Francisco's thick, burnt toast (no I don't) but really "fancy toast" is the most boring "trend" of 2014. Unlike the recently unveiled Carl's Jr. Bisnut -- a biscuit with sprinkles that is trying way to hard -- the purveyors of artisnal toast simply aren't trying at all. Can toasting bread really be "artisinal"? Does toasting bread and spreading things on it really make one "a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand"?

I guess you could argue that skill is involved when baking the very expensive bread, but then I would die of boredom because OH MY GOD WHY AM I STILL TALKING ABOUT REALLY EXPENSIVE TOAST?

5. An old favorite in a new configuration.

I call this the “Taco Bell Model.” It's just a shuffling of ingredients. You aren't really getting anything new or different, food-wise, but you are getting it in a new shape, and you are excited about that new shape. The pizza cake was just a stack of pizzas surrounded by a little extra dough. But that new configuration was enough to delight/astound/disgust readers, Facebook friends, and my family in one fell swoop.

But yeah, it was just a stack of pizzas; everyone calm down.

6a. It must be hard to obtain and/or make.

You know why people love buying macarons? Because they're kind of a pain in the ass to make. Between worrying about the stability of the egg whites and whether or not they have "feet," it's a lot less stressful to just go buy a bunch.

"Oh but Claire," you say, "you make trendy foods all the time." Yeah. A lot of them are annoying and I never make them again. You know how many times I've made a pizza cake? Exactly one. You know when I will make another pizza cake? Probably never.

There is, of course, an exception to this "can't be made easily at home" deal.

6b. If it can be made easily at home, it must involve a new use for an already present kitchen utensil.

The current crazy DIY food trend is making a giant pancake in your rice cooker. I was going to do this for you, but my rice cooker is broken and I feel weird about asking xoJane to buy me a new rice cooker.

Part of this giant pancakes appeal, besides the obvious, is that you are making a PANCAKE in a RICE COOKER. I mean really. What a crazy world. And did you know you can make cookie bowls by flipping over a muffin tin?

That business is Pinterest-able, and ladies love to Pinterest.

7. It's on a stick.

Folks love food on a stick. I get it. Sticks increase the portability of food by at least 200%. Walking tacos? Psh. Show me tacos on a stick and then we can talk about walking. Though bags are all well and fine, I still have to stick a fork down in one and look in the bag and just who has the time?

Food on sticks are where it's at.

Madison, Wisconsin (home of some of my favorite foods and one of my favorite people) just blew all other impaled foods out of the deep fryer with the Bratwurst Lollipop. This has all the makings of a trendy food; it's not boring, it's slightly off putting, it combines two things that had yet to be combined (bratwurst and funnel cake), and it is on a stick.

Well played, Madison.

In similar news, people are losing their minds over this machine that lets your put pancakes and eggs on sticks in the convenience of their own homes; I tried to contact the makers of this thing almost a year ago and they never go back to me so eff the Roky! Eff it with an egg on a stick!

8. It's something that working class or lower-income families have been eating for years.

You know, it's Columbusing, but with food.

I'm not a huge fan of this. This is SPAM on a $135-per-person tasting menu. This is Whole Foods hyping collard greens as the "next kale." This is food gentrification, and people love it.

9. It's like, really really good for you.

This is one of the traits that can stand practically all on its own (though it veers into 8 every once in a while); it's rarely unsettling or on a stick. The really really good for you is sometimes actually very good for you (like carrot juice as part of a balanced diet) but sometimes less so (like carrot juice as a meal replacement).

Which of these factors do you think are most important in the "trendiness" of a food? Do you think three are enough for a food to take off? Is it annoying you that this list only goes to 9 instead of 10? It actually doesn't; number 6 has two parts.

Tweet me some weird foods. @clairelizzie