Forget politics. If you really want to pick a fight with someone, ask them which is better: New York-style pizza or Chicago-style pizza? Or look at the reaction to “Brooklyn Barbecue.” We all have our opinions on which region does a particular kind of food best and beware anyone who tells us another region does it better.
So it’s interesting to see some food map and search data from Google that lays out boundary lines for regional food, and some it is not what you’d expect. Let’s take a look at some fun food maps (and an explanation of why each food map should be taken with a grain of pink sea salt).
First up, this fascinating look at Google searches for tacos versus searches for Chinese food. See the full search data here and add your own food search term if you want to see how it stacks up in comparison.
To dig in a bit deeper, The Pudding asked the Google News Lab to put together some visualizations of data to show food trends across the country. Instead of using specific search data, they used location data for restaurant visitors. From Google: “Based on aggregated, anonymized, and differentially private data from users who have opted in to Google Location History, we ranked cities and counties by their most popular cuisine.”
In other words, this data comes from people who have switched on a location finder, meaning that when a user searches for something, gets directions, posts a photo, or tags someone else, Google knows where they are. We’ll get to that caveat more below, but first, here’s the comparison map of the top restaurant cuisine across the country.
Generally speaking, not a whole lot of surprises in this map. Barbecue is popular in the South, seafood is king along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and Mexican tops in Texas, California, and the Southwest. And given the number of pizza joints and Mexican restaurants across the country, of course those turn out to be the two most popular restaurant cuisines nationwide.
Let’s take a look at what Google calls the Cuisine Capitals of the U.S. Fair warning, some of the cities on the list may surprise you.
I don’t think we need to argue much on Memphis being the barbecue restaurant “cuisine capital,” right? After all, this isn’t about the best barbecue, only the number of restaurant visits and plenty of people visit Memphis for the barbecue.
These maps are interesting, especially since you might not consider some of the cities listed as being centers of a particular type of cuisine. For example, Cleveland may rock, but it’s not a place you normally think of as being a barbecue capital, certainly not over any city in Texas.
And when you look at the map of barbecue restaurant visits across the country, indeed, most of them happen below a clear line.
A couple of things to note. This data focuses on restaurant cuisine, not what people are cooking at home. So what it means is that Cleveland being #7 on the barbecue list simply means that people in Ohio are smart enough to eat out at barbecue restaurants.
Given that the data is coming from restaurant visits, the results from locations with fewer restaurants are naturally going to skew in the direction of whatever type of cuisine those restaurants serve, not what kind of food is generally popular in that area. (For example, when they break it down by neighborhood, the data shows that American cuisine is the most popular in the East Potomac Park neighborhood of Washington, DC, which is misleading, because there’s only one restaurant in East Potomac Park and it’s part of a golf club.)
The data also depends on people having their location turned on for Google to track and for them to be in a part of the country where there’s adequate cell phone service for that data to be picked up. In the map, you see large swaths of mission data, like in the Texas panhandle. It’s not clear if the lack of data is due to there being no cell service or people turning off location trackers on their phones.
In spite of those caveats, it’s easy to understand why seafood restaurants are popular along the Gulf Coast and the coast of Florida and the Carolinas.
And it’s easy to understand why Mexican restaurants are popular in the Southwest and Texas, and interesting to see the growing popularity across other parts of the South as in Arkansas.
One of the fun things about these maps is finding seemingly random locations for a certain cuisine. If you’re planning a food-based road trip, why not go see why North Dakota has a hot spot for Mexican food or what barbecue in Maine is like? Maybe you’ll find an expat Texan in one of those locations, spreading the good word.