If you asked an average American to do a word association exercise with “taco,” you’d probably hear “truck” or “bell” (a 13-year-long online experiment actually shows some evidence this is the case). These associations, it turns out, rub Anthony Bourdain the wrong way. When asked what he would like to see as a future food trend during his recent Reddit AMA, the never-shy Bourdain responded:
“I would like people really to pay more for top-quality Mexican food. I think it’s the most undervalued, underappreciated world cuisine with tremendous, tremendous potential. These are in many cases really complex wonderful sauces; particularly from Oaxaca, for instance that date back from before Europe. I’m very excited about the possibilities for that cuisine, and I think we should pay more attention to it, learn more about it, and value it more. This is frankly a racist assumption that Mexican food or Indian food should be cheap. That’s not right.”
Research backs him up, at least in respect to how we value different cuisines. In his book The Ethnic Restaurateur, NYU associate professor of food studies Krishnendu Ray explores what Americans pay the most for and what they pay the least for. At the bottom: Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Thai. At the top: Japanese. In New York, the average price of a meal for one at a Zagat-rated Japanese restaurant is 70 percent higher than at its Mexican counterparts.
Ray thinks Americans value food based on their perceptions of the cultures that produce it. That means not only the economic success and quality of life in different countries, but also how Americans view individuals from those countries. Quoting Ray’s appearance on The Sporkful podcast, the Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker said, “Most of the Japanese we are familiar with are business folks, are executives. But right now, most Americans associate Chinese food with relatively impoverished Chinese immigrants.” How do some Americans feel about Mexican people right now? Take a look at the crowds drawn to Donald Trump’s rallies.
This won’t change overnight, but the earnest proselytizing from Bourdain, which almost always involves elevating those actually cooking food in Mexico or India or Ghana or Senegal (two other favorites he cited) is helping these cuisines reach a larger audience in the United States.
Hopefully over time Americans will stop thinking “fourth meal” when they think “Mexican food” and start thinking things like “cochinita pibil.” And if you don’t know what that is yet, go find some, because it’s worth whatever they want to charge for it.