In the World of Food Trends, Nothing Stays Popular Forever

Vodka-mayonnaise cocktails, anyone?

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Vodka-based cocktail with mayonnaise on its rim (Michael Caronna/Reuters)

This week The New York Times most-read box kept populating with graphical analyses of food trends.

Food comes and goes, and sometimes stays the same, and sometimes changes subtly for years until it becomes this whole other thing. Why? Neil Irwin of theTimes' The Upshot blog sets up the dilemma with an explanation of how food trends work:

[Foods] start out being served in forward-thinking, innovative restaurants in New York and other capitals of gastronomy. Over time, they become more and more mainstream, becoming a cliché on big-city menus, showing up in high-end restaurants in smaller cities, and eventually finding their way to neighborhood bistros in the hinterlands and chain restaurants across the country.

In the first example, "Fried calamari made a voyage that dozens of foods have made over the years," Irwin wrote. "Now, of course, every strip-mall pizza place and suburban Applebee’s serves fried calamari."

If you are forward-thinking individual living in a capital of gastronomy and you're still eating calamari, check yourself. Also, fresh guacamole is out. Irwin saw it being made table-side at a Chili's, the product of a "voyage from a (once) trendy New York place to Chili’s."

"Goat cheese was nowhere in the public discussion as recently as the 1970s," Irwin wrote in a separate but parallel Times post, "and now appears on the menu of seemingly every half-decent sandwich joint and neighborhood bistro in America."  

So, the challenge posed: "Can we quantify when these food trends emerged, and how quickly they made the transition from urban elites to mass acceptance?"

Yes, and the Times made these charts, among others.


Popularity of Various Foods, 1980-2013
Number of New York Times articles that mention said foods, 1980-2013 (The New York Times)

The entirety of all of the data for these trends is based on mentions in The New York Times. All of it. Transparently, yes. Note the caveat:

"If anything, given the paper’s New York-centric restaurant coverage, we might expect it to be a bit ahead of the curve relative to a broader sample of newspapers from across the country."

Which made me wonder, what other trends did The New York Times start? Using the same database of articles, I did a few analyses of my own.


Popularity of Pants

Percentage of New York Times articles that mention "pants," 1851-2013

It's interesting to see how pants really took off around 1970, lulled in the early 1980s, and really came into their own in 2010. 

Of course, the media landscape is dynamic and sinister, and the Times was thinner at various points in the past. Fewer articles necessarily means fewer mentions of any given thing. So what if you look at the graph as a percentage of articles that make mention of pants?


Popularity of Pants

Percentage of New York Times articles that mention "pants," 1851-2013

Pants still seem to have clearly fallen out of favor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I conjecture in this case that New Yorkers took to wearing pants in the 1860s, and then the trend descended to the flyover states, every ma and pa wearing them. So the City renounced them. Until pants fell out of favor in the backwaters, and were reclaimed by the City in the 1970s.

Or maybe it only works for food.


Popularity of Fondue

Percentage of New York Times articles that mention "fondue," 1851-2014

Popularity of Ketchup

Number of New York Times articles that mention "Ketchup," 1851-2013

Popularity of Gluten

Number of New York Times articles that mention "gluten," 1851-2013

Gluten is, you know, a natural plant protein that has been around since the beginning of plants. It is now the driver of billions of dollars in misplaced diet-minding and concern, and a vague notion that gluten-free means healthy. Thank you, New York Times.

And of course there's a broader point to be made about America here as a cultural melting pot. Irwin's analysis:

There is a broader point to be made about America as a cultural melting pot. After all, hamburgers and hot dogs are both Americanized versions of German dishes, and they have now been supplanted by foods with origins in Italy and Mexico. But rather than consider these themes further, we are now getting hungry and have a few ideas for solving that problem.

That's where the article ends.

It really is great that there is searchable database of the entire history of The New York Times. As you can see, I've spent a fair amount of time playing with it this weekend. You can click through to the actual archival articles, too. (In case you're curious about the mention of fondue in 1860, see "The Irish Problem.") All of this gratuitous knowledge is possible because of the Internet.


Popularity of the Internet

Percentage of New York Times articles that mention "Internet," 1851-2013

Oh, no. Can nothing stay popular forever?

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

  • James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.
     
     
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