Cauliflower – How does a food become a trend? Ask cauliflower.
How cauliflower took over your pizza, your kitchen, and the world
First came the cauliflower steaks, thick vegetal slabs, roasted and served like cruciferous T-bones. Then there was Buffalo cauliflower, breaded and fried and generally chicken-shaped.
“Cauliflower moves to the center of the plate,” declared New York magazine in 2013, crowning it “Vegetable Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Piece of Meat.”
Then came the cauli grains — riced cauliflower, cauliflower pizza crust, cauliflower gnocchi — and eventually cauli memes. “If cauliflower can somehow become pizza…” the website Food52 said inspirationally on Instagram, “you, my friend, can do anything.”
It has been a spectacular rise for a vegetable that was previously best known in the US for being ignored on plates of crudités. If you weren’t paying attention, cauliflower seemed to rise out of nowhere — you weren’t eating it, and then you were. But to the people who track these things, both chefs and trend forecasters, the rise of cauliflower is a perfect illustration of how food trends evolve.
Suzy Badaracco, president of the trend forecasting company Culinary Tides, says she first started noticing cauliflower showing up around 2008, which means we are entering our second decade of cauliflower. You might think we would be done by now. We are not done.
The many storylines of cauliflower
What you have to understand about trends, Badaracco explains, is that they are not born in a vacuum. They have parents. “A trend is just like a child — same thing,” she says.
In the case of cauliflower, it was born of several things: the recession, a related move toward more vegetable-centric eating, and the rise of low-carb diets like Paleo and keto and whatever “wheat belly” is.
“You start seeing grilled cauliflower steaks in restaurants and so forth, because it kind of fit everything,” Badaracco says.
“For a food trend to grow,” agrees Kara Nielsen, the vice president of trends and marketing at CCD Innovation, which helps large food manufacturers develop new products, “you need to be pushed by multiple drivers.” Like Badaracco, she saw cauliflower emerge through fine dining. By 2008, Jeremy Fox was doing “cauliflower in a cast-iron pot” at the all-vegetarian Ubuntu in Napa, California.
There was a dish from Daniel Patterson at the now-defunct Plum, in Oakland, California, an olive oil-braised cauliflower with bulgur and almonds, circa 2010. In New York, at Dirt Candy, vegetarian legend Amanda Cohen was doing cauliflower and waffles. That was in 2009, she recalls, the early days of the cauli craze, before the vegetable had been transmogrified into every other food group. “People were like, ‘Wow, cauliflower! Never thought you could do that with it!’”
The early appeal of cauliflower, she says, besides flavor — and she believes deeply in cauliflower’s unsung natural gifts — was its obvious meatiness. “We were coming out of an era of bacon and meat as king,” she says. “And part of meat culture is steak: big flavors, big meats, big knives. And in terms of vegetables, there’s only so many you can do that with. You can’t really do it with a carrot.”
David Sax, the author of The Tastemakers (and a Vox contributor), ties the rise of cauliflower to the spectacular popularity of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks (Ottolenghi: The Cookbook came out in 2008, Jerusalem in 2012). “It’s not like [cauliflower] was something that previously didn’t exist in the grocery store or on restaurant menus,” he says.
A lot of people, from a lot of places, have been cooking extensively with cauliflower for years. In the early aughts, the French chef Bernard Loiseau was so obsessed with perfecting the caramelization of cauliflower that according to his biographers, it might have killed him. It was, Sax says, another cauliflower-adjacent trend that kicked off our decade of cauliflower. The rise of “new Israeli” cuisine, he says, “suddenly gave cauliflower a new sort of story.”
And for a food to really take off — to become not just a fad but a full-fledged trend — it needs multiple storylines. A boom in Middle Eastern food is one story. Gluten-free is a story. Paleo is a story. Vegetarianism is a story. The idea that we should trick kids into eating vegetables by mushing them up and hiding them in mac and cheese is a story. Cauliflower, ubiquitous and low-carb and 100 percent vegetable, fits into all of them. It is narratively flexible.
“If you think of trends as being like people,” suggests Badaracco, “they have allies and adversaries.”
For example, whole grains might find an ally in the demonization of white bread and our collective move toward complex carbohydrates. But whole grains have adversaries too: specifically, a rash of anti-carb diets. (Anti-carb diets, of course, are a trend too, which Nielsen connects to “a bigger rejection of the mass food industry.”)
The weird thing about cauliflower, though, is that while it has allies, it doesn’t really have adversaries. “Its only adversary is actually itself,” Badaracco says. The biggest strike against cauliflower: Some people don’t like it. (Also, she points out, it doesn’t work so well in desserts. “You’re probably not going to see cauliflower milkshakes.”)
But you don’t even have to like cauliflower to like cauliflower. You just have to not hate it. While Cohen, the chef, stands by its natural deliciousness — and isn’t that why we should eat foods, because they taste good? — almost everyone else I talked to zeroed in on its extreme versatility.
“It tastes like nothing,” Badaracco says, bluntly. You can’t do broccoli Buffalo wings or kale pizza crust because your Buffalo wings would taste like broccoli and your pizza would taste like kale. “Every other vegetable has a pretty strong personality, flavorwise,” she notes.
“But cauliflower is never the leading lady,” Badaracco continues. “It’s always the best friend. Cauliflower is like the little wallflower at the dance that nobody looks at and nobody wants and the only time you’re using it is because you’ve got nothing else on the shelf.”
And that’s what makes it perfect.
“It’s a chameleon,” Sax says, somewhat more kindly. “It fits in with everything.”
A tale of macarons and cupcakes
There are foods that never quite rise to full-fledged mass-market trendiness because they’re too rare or too seasonal or too hard to make. You can’t just start cultivating Brazilian açai berries everywhere, Sax points out.
But cauliflower isn’t a terribly sensitive vegetable: It’s easy to grow and thrives almost everywhere, so it’s cheap and accessible, both geographically and existentially. A lot of people, from a lot of cultures, eat cauliflower. It may have been overlooked, but it’s not unfamiliar.
Accessibility is essential. So is the possibility of variation. In the US, for example, pastel French macarons are a thing, which is to say that you can find them in many bakery windows (also Starbucks) and they have been widely covered by media. But even at their height, they have never reached the fevered pitch of cupcakes, which became such a cultural phenomenon that their inevitable crash was reported in the Wall Street Journal as a business story.
Cauliflower is the cupcake in this scenario. Cauliflower, like cupcakes, is extremely approachable. Anyone can make some version of cupcakes. “My 5-year-old daughter made cupcakes for her brother’s birthday this year,” Sax says. “She’s not going to make fucking macarons.” And like cupcakes, cauliflower is “a blank slate.”
There is room for near-infinite variations: A BLT cupcake is still a cupcake, and General Tso’s cauliflower is still cauliflower. “The key for something becoming not just a fad but a trend is that it can iterate,” Sax observes.
50 shades of cauliflower
Cauliflower can iterate. The “ascension of cauliflower” may have begun with cauliflower as an alternative to meat, but it really took off when cauliflower came for the grains. And for that, Badaracco credits technology.
You can, of course, make your own cauliflower “rice” with a food processor. According to one Australian food magazine, chef Ben Ford (son of Harrison) invented the cauliflower version of the stuff in 1998. Cohen traces it back further, to the raw food movement. It’s not like cauliflower grains are brand new.
Foods change forms all the time. It is not radical to grind a legume into a flour. (Chickpea flour, for example, has been a staple in South Asian cooking for centuries.) But as Americans became increasingly obsessed with protein — protein shakes! protein bars! — the food industry became increasingly interested in finding new ways to turn beans and legumes into other things.
“Once that gateway opened, it allowed all the other vegetables to follow,” Badaracco says. “Corn’s been in chips for decades and decades and decades, so why not cauliflower?” People were trying to figure out what other foods you could transform into other foods. In trend talk, this is called a “morph” — what happens when one trend gives birth to another.
The cauliflower trend should really be dead by now. We were all very excited about kale for a while, and then it became part of our lives and everyone calmed down. But cauliflower is not dead, and in fact still seems to be growing.
“If it had just stayed white cauliflower, it would not have lasted this long,” Badaracco says. “It needed to reinvent itself like Madonna.” And it has. Other varietals of cauliflower have come forward, thanks to our collective passion for the vegetable, and now you can get purple cauliflowers and orange cauliflowers and a broccoli-cauliflower hybrid.
As Badaracco sees it, though, some of the reasons for cauliflower’s continued reign have nothing to do with the particular merits of the vegetable. As with so much else, it comes down to politics, she says.
Since the election in 2016, consumers have been in what she describes as “an emotional stall.” In a recession, people turn to simple comfort foods. In a recovery, eaters get adventurous. In a stall, though, consumers are economically fine, but they feel vulnerable. They behave more like they’re in a recession, even though they have money.
“We’re in this weird hybrid zone of comfort-based foods, but they’re being given an edge,” Badaracco says. Consumers aren’t up for too much experimentation, but they want a little something, some level of novelty. And endless iterations of cauliflower fits the bill.
You know you’ve made it when you’re sold by Kraft — and Oprah
According to Nielsen, the food marketing analyst, a trend evolves through five stages on its way to the mainstream. Stage one is something you see “in an independent restaurant,” a cool thing a cool chef is doing. A trend hits stage two when you read about it in food media; maybe you can get it at specialty stores.
A lot of trends die there, Nielsen says, before they ever make it to stage three — Whole Foods, fast-casual restaurants, the Food Network. By stage four, it’s trickled down to more restaurants, gotten coverage in media outlets not devoted to food. When a food hits stage five, it’s officially mainstream: You can buy it at Safeway. It’s not a perfect model, Nielsen says, but even as the food landscape changes, it still basically works.
By Nielsen’s model, we’re somewhere in stage four. You can get cauliflower crust at California Pizza Kitchen now, and Korean-fried cauliflower at the Cheesecake Factory, but you cannot yet stride into any pizza joint or any wings place and reasonably demand the cauliflower version. The early adopters, people who got into cauliflower in stage one, are maybe tired of it by now. But in the mass market, it’s still gaining momentum.
I spoke with Jordan Greenberg, the vice president and general manager of Green Giant, the canned and frozen vegetable brand. On the phone from company headquarters in Parsippany, New Jersey, he walked me through the brand’s current cauliflower-inflected offerings: Obviously, there are various flavors of riced cauliflower (like rice, but cauliflower). Roasted cauliflower. Mashed cauliflower (like potatoes, but cauliflower). Cauliflower tots (also like potatoes, but cauliflower).
When we spoke, Green Giant had just shipped its first line of cauliflower pizza crusts, which are 80 percent cauliflower. A few weeks earlier, Oprah, in collaboration with Kraft, had launched hers.
“When we first introduced [riced vegetables], in Q4 of 2016, we were harvesting 5 acres a week,” Greenberg says. “Now, we’re up to harvesting over 35 acres a week.” If you are curious about exactly how much flower that is, he will tell you: more than 100,000 heads every day.
But novelty doesn’t last forever; all trends eventually fade.
“It may stick around for a while, but it may be replaced by another fun vegetarian food,” Greenberg says. (Cohen predicts lettuce: “I know it sounds boring, but there are so many different lettuces!”)
“The endpoint of a trend that really takes off is that it becomes a staple,” Sax says. If nobody is buzzing about tomatoes, it’s not because tomatoes aren’t delicious; it’s because obviously tomatoes are good. It’s boring. Did you also know that beaches at sunset are romantic?
Eventually, someday, we won’t be talking about cauliflower, either because we forget about it or because it’s become — wait for it — so ingrained in our lives.