An endless sea of cauliflower.alantobey/Getty Images
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.