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A new report from New York University’s chair of nutrition and food studies Krishnendu Ray found that what we are willing to pay for certain cuisines is an indicator of just how we think about race, class, and ethnicity.
Ray analyzed data from Zagat and finds that Americans have been willing to shell out more for French food than just about any other cuisine since at least 1984. It also shows we expect to pay less for Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine.
What the research shows is that the price we are willing to pay for different foods is tied directly to people’s ideas about class and social status. Ray offers two examples that might make you wonder just how shallow we, and our taste buds, really are:
In the 1930s and 1940s, he observes, Americans shunned away from the Italian cuisine brought to our shores by mostly poor Italian immigrants. The Italian population climbed the social and economic ladder and it affected the way we looked at Italian food. “And of course," he says, “now we cannot stop talking about how great Italian food is.”
Japanese cuisine experienced the change in the 1990s, when the price of a meal in a Japanese restaurant went up (in 2014 it ranked second, right behind French food, up from sixth place in 1986). Ray said this coincided with an American perception about wealth in Japan, which has led to Japanese chefs more frequently appearing on “top chef” lists.
What’s going on today? He says our fascination with quinoa, avocados, mangos and Bolivian cherimoya is result of Americans growing more leery of industrialized, processed food systems, “so anything poor, exotic people do far away could be a good thing.” So expect prices to go up!