What We Really Want to Eat?

Shortly after New York Times produced an elegant pictorial map of Thanksgiving recipes in each state, to emphasize the varied bounties of our national cuisine, the Upshot opted to rethink how to map the meal.  Rather than concentrating on whetting taste buds, they consulted the new masters of the web to depict the current foodscape–a subject of increasing cartographical scrutiny.  By inviting Google researchers to mine data for a map of most-searched Thanksgiving recipes, to trace local variations in what sorts of foods are on folks’ minds.  As much as being the staples, or the family traditions, these Googled recipes seem the real crowd-pleasers, the seasonal favorites less indulged during the year.  The map tracks the latest permutation of a festival that probably began with native Americans’ collective dances and rituals to secure successful future harvest embraced by puritan pilgrims and later adopted as a national holiday; as much as map making constitutes a nation, world maps of searched recipes meals oddly renders a national holiday of thanks.

The word-search map of “most-looked for and most distinct types” distributes Thanksgiving foods by word searches specific to states.  As much as an actual lay of the land, the word-map provides an inside-out version of the pictorial map of favorite holiday dishes, as Googlers identified the most-searched for recipe by state in what was deemed a “democratic” counterpart of what is currently cooked for Thanksgiving tables across the fifty states and Puerto Rico.  While not constituting much of an an invasion of privacy, the results present a striking picture of the national palate.  It does suggest, in ways unlike the pictorial map of home-made regional recipes, both a tendency to uniformity and a growing distance between farm and table–if not the disappearance of farms–in what was long billed as the harvest holiday.  What, exactly, is being harvested is not that easily able to be described, although it suggests the changes wreaked by supermarket-bought foods–or just supermarket chains–in our nation’s edible geography, if not in our sense of gemütlichkeit.

The nonprofit conservation organization known as the National Wild Turkey Federation has mapped the wide ranges of wild turkeys across the nation, revealing the wide access to turkey across much of the most settled regions of the continent.




When the New York Times mapped the “most searched for, most distinct types” of food across the country in time for Thanksgiving, it did suggest that some of the more esoteric store-bought alternative recipes that might make it to American tables varied widely in the distance of states from an actually turkey market.  The results included many local favorites, but were not that encouraging on the front of healthy winter foods, or able to offer much of a foodscape than a mapping of the foods on folks’ minds, if not those that are made in bulk, and offer a strange harvest of edibles which the families gather round dining tables to eat:

Thanksgiving Menu Map

New York Times


The non-geographically-specific nature of this map of the cornucopia of foodstuffs that folks seek to confect for Thanksgiving is perhaps it’s most striking quality–if not the limited number of food groups it includes.  Despite the diversity of food-names, several striking bands suggesting continuity of culinary preferences emerge in the map of most-googled items searched with thanksgiving dinners across in the country that suggest a manner of carving up what’s on offer on tables–a run of squash in the northeast; a clustering of cakes in the deep south; wild rice in the northern midwest of Wisconsin and Minnesota; a variety of candy-enhanced fruit salads that seems specific to the Northwest–and in contrast to the more southern taste for sweet baked desert or the Missouri taste for green rice casserole.  Of course, Mirliton Casserole is a nice indulgence of shrimp for the Gulf Coast and Louisiana, albeit at the tail-end of the inland shrimp harvest (although frozen does fine).

We move into shopping for sugary salads for much of the landlocked western and central plains, however:


Cookie SaladNew York Times


It’s not surprising the folks in Montana are thinking about fruit salad, but the broad popularity of “frog eye salad” in neighboring Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming suggests something other than an abundance of amphibians, but a taste for sugary fruits that seems decidedly regional in their appeal–the concoction of pineapple, eggs, coconut and mandarin oranges with marshmallows is akin to the nearby desserts of the midwestern Candyland of Cookie Salad and Snicker Salad, but represents a distinct variation on a theme, reflecting folks loading up on sucrose and glucose for the cold weather of winter.  “Dirt pudding” isn’t only the result of desperation or a shortage of cash in Ohio, but an Oreo cookie and vanilla pudding concoction often decorated with gummy worms, suggesting mental distance from actual farms.  The Northeast fad for Pumpkin Whoopie Pie is a variation on holiday-themed deserts, based on the sort of autumn foods, like persimmon, if a twist from what one might expect to be on the traditional Thanksgiving table.


Cnady Land


There is a striking American obsession with dessert has interesting inflection in its focus on cake throughout the south–4-Layer Delight in Arkansas; Key Lime Cake in Georgia; Pineapple Casserole in South Carolina; Chess Bars in Tennessee; cinnamon and vanilla Sopapilla Cheesecake in Oklahoma; Hawaiian Salad in Illinois and Persimmon Pudding, a local treat in Indiana, where it grows wild in abundance, even if it’s originally native to the southeastern states–which one might tie to the alarming recent trends the CDC has offered on obesity in the United States, but seems a cheap shot for the holidays.




If these are the foods that most Americans are busy preparing to put on their holiday tables, are the other recipes being handed down or bought as prepared foods?  To be sure, wild rice Brownberry Stuffing of wild rice and mushrooms has a nice Wisconsin ring, and pairs with Minnesotans interest in Wild Rice Casserole, even if it met with local skepticism.  But while folks in Portland are opting to search for vegan mushroom gravy for their tofurkeys or mashed potatoes, and in Seattle can afford the smoked Salmon dip, they are the outliers.  We might group with them residents of New Mexico looking at leftovers with “turkey enchiladas” or the Virginians who love their collard greens, but these seem last-minute searches not so central to the Thanksgiving menu.

By far the most Americans seem looking to indulge in high levels of corn syrup and calories to live it up with friends, but rather than focussing on obesity trends in America, one might focus on the proximity of the table to farm.  (Pretzel Salad isn’t exactly farm-to-table.)  To be sure, perhaps a Google Search is not much evidence for what’s consumed on the table.  Maybe googled recipes are made by those without their own family cookbooks in the kitchen, or just comparing alternate desserts for the holidays.  Perhaps, indeed, after watching Citizenfour for the Holidays, most folks realize the NSA is likely to be reading their searches, and intentionally circumscribe searches, even for what they’re ready to eat.  Or, a bit more likely, it suggests the limits of what information NSA folks can get from Google searches.  But is it possible that folks aren’t looking online for times for the basting of their turkeys, or do they just prefer to get such information from a human voice that can be questioned about specific details of culinary preparations, but trust the web for a special branch of last-minute additions to already prepared menus?

The map of Google searches, if not suggesting a reaction to Michael Pollan’s suggestion we eat more greens, may well reflect just how far away we’ve grown from farms and farmed harvests.  That isn’t much new news in itself.  In 2011, the USDA’s agricultural census (agcensus.usda.gov) offered a basis for a compelling Esri “story map” or spatial narrative of just how far food travels to tables for most Thanksgiving meals.   The nice bubble map includes the provenance of the turkeys from big agribusiness in the Midwestern states or the central eastern states, with a considerable cluster from the farms in California’s Central Valley, even those birds blessed by Bill Niman–but are very predictably focused on regions where there is already a pre-existing plenty of soybeans and corn to feed turkeys–which is why they are few and far between from Montana to Texas, or Kansas to Utah.  That turkeys seem raised overwhelmingly in very a restricted region on the map seems a casualty of American agribusiness, if raised by the millions–and served up 46 million birds to create the illusion of plenty on dining room tables–to signify holiday cheer.  (This despite their relatively wide small-size farming in much of the midwest.)

When we place a turkey on the table, lest we forget most are shipped up to half way across the United States, we might review the story map below:


Turkeys 2011Smithsonian/ESRI maps


The bulk of the population of turkeys that feed the nation seem in 2011 are agglomerated, by the tens of millions, in farms in North Carolina and Virginia, which, with those in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, West Virginia, Indiana and Arkansa, feed the nation.  The predominance of turkeys raised in North Carolina, origin of much turkey served in the south and central states, is striking; maybe Minnesota feeds the midwest.


Midwest and NC TurkeysSmithsonian/ESRI maps


Moving along the sourcing of the Thanksgiving menu, the similar concentration of the solidly southern sweet potato, the vegetable most destined beside the turkey, must be noted, before we move on to the green beans:


Sweet potatoes


(Back in 2009, the newspaper of record used the top search terms in Allrecipes.com as an index to map what folks across the country cooked by GIS, to arrive at a geographical clustering of sweet potato casserole of unsurprising similarity:  despite the more national purview of pumpkin pie.)

For the record, and to map the full Esri story, or allow that story to speak, green beans were widely cultivated in 2011, providing a taste of the local for the table as well as a visually pleasing dash of light green–save in those places where fruit salads of undefined provenance were particularly popular Google searches:


greeen beans


But the real persistence of localism in the arrivals on the table seems rooted not in the origins of the meat or the yams, but in the persistence of localism of the cultivation of cranberries–that indelibly red fruit element that complements turkey.  Fresh cranberries seem to signify something like a custodian of local culinary tradition in many of the very same regions where folks searched for the least confected foods:  dependent on environmental particularity, their survival as a crop in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Washington and Oregon is tied to old agriculture, which may well be tied to the searching for staples as vegan stuffing, wild rice casserole, wild rice stuffing, mashed butternut squash that bode the survival of the winter vegetable.  Will this change with global warming, and the increased aridity of most of the New World fields?




The persistent localism of farmed cranberries is a sort of index of the survival of agrarian geography–


Wisconsin cranberries


PErsistence of localism in cranberries-MA


–and, in one slightly optimistic if also unwarranted reading, of a persistent taste for the locally grown.

The specific conditions for the cultivation of crops of cranberry, which demand bogs and abundant wetlands, and a period of winter, leaves it both the talismanic reminder of seasonal crops with which we’re left in late November, the reminder of the agricultural calendar of the stuff on the table–together with the persimmons of southern Indiana and perhaps the collard greens of Virginia.  Furthest from the agrarian time cycle, it seems, Google searches tend to the far more readily at hand/least processed to the most confected.

Perhaps the annual transport of sweet potatoes and some 46 million turkeys every Thanksgiving entails also make one realize the illusory culinary diversity the Times mapped:  perhaps we wish that fewer folks would continue improvising desert rather than shipping trussed birds cross-country, or keep accompanying the carving of the bird that is bulked up with water, stuffing, and potatoes with a suitably over-the-top dessert.

The maps remove us from a tactile relation to the edible harvest feast we might well pause to mourn.


Salvatore LascariSalvatore Lascari (1884-1967), Thanksgiving, n.d. Smithsonian American Art Museum


Filed under mapping agribusiness, mapping foods, mapping local foods, mapping meat, mapping thanksgiving, mapping turkey farms, national foodscapes

3 responses to “What We Really Want to Eat?

  1. Evelyn Lincoln

    I will never visit a state where they eat frog eye salad!

  2. stellabromley

    I am looking for a citation for the Thanksgiving by Salvatore Lascar (1884-1967) image. Where did you find this one?

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