Does how we feel about a certain ethnic group determine how much people are willing to pay for that group’s cuisine? If you ask Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University, the answer is yes.
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“Basically, I see this inverse relationship between migration of poor people from any region in the world and our respect for their culture and cuisine,” he said. “If you take price as a surrogate for prestige…there are some cuisines we are willing to pay for and some we are not willing to pay for, and that is related partly, I think, to how we evaluate those national cultures and their people.”
Ray points out that, while Chinese and Mexican are quite popular, it’s difficult for the restaurants that serve those foods to charge more than $20 for them. The same is true of Vietnamese and Indian offerings.
But that’s not true for certain other ethnic foods. Over the last half a century, the most expensive American restaurants served French, then New American and Continental, and now Japanese food, the price of which climbed sharply in the late 1980s and 1990s.
However, that wasn’t always the case, especially not back in the early 1900s.
“We were full of disdain for Japanese food, so much so that school teachers were putting pressure on Japanese children to improve their diet and eat American,” Ray said. “These Japanese parents were full of regret about how bad their food practices were and how they needed to Americanize them. Flip that 100 years later, and we think Japanese food is terrific and all of us ought to be eating Japanese food.”
Ray believes the slowing of Japanese immigration to the United States, as well as Japan’s evolution into an economic powerhouse, helped feed this upward re-evaluation of Japanese culture and cuisine.
Italian food received similar treatment when Italians immigrated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to Ray. Their food practices were initially met with disdain, but are now a beloved part of the American diet.
“We have seen this before. When poor immigrants come in from a particular region, we are basically unwilling to accord that prestige and pay for it, unlike Italian [food] today when basically all immigration [from Italy] has stopped,” Ray said.
These days, Indian food is still on the inexpensive side, but that could change soon, since not all immigrants from India are poor; half are college educated and enter directly into the professional class when they arrive in the United States.
And, now that China’s economy is booming, Americans might start seeing a few more upscale Chinese restaurants sprinkled in among the 40,000 eateries where many of us regularly pop in for a quick, cheap meal.
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