The Fourth of July is America's favorite holiday to get together, grill barbecue, and celebrate what it means to be American. It's also probably our best opportunity to debate whose barbecue is the best. With its regional varieties, the rubs-vs.-sauce debates and the fiercely guarded recipe secrets, arguing about barbecue is almost an American pastime. Few foods better demonstrate the diversity of our country.
Growing up in Los Angeles as the child of Korean immigrants, I found that food could be used as a yardstick to test how "American" — how "normal" — someone was. I remember my non-Korean friends at school barely being able to conceal their disgust when they caught a whiff of my kimchi. Sometimes my mom packed my school lunch with kimbap or fried dumplings, and I could understand that this wasn't normal. But I never quite understood why a saran-wrapped hot dog with ketchup packets from McDonald's still didn't make the cut.
Michael Pollan once wrote that America's conflicted relationship with food has to do with not having a strong culinary tradition, a result of a "new nation drawn from many different immigrant populations, each with its own culture of food." But amid constant debates about what American food is, barbecue stands out as a food that we can all agree America has made its own.
While taking a class on data representation, I began to wonder if barbecue — this indisputably American food — could offer us another way of representing familiar places within America and the diverse mix of people residing here. The connections between neighborhoods, ethnicities and food are quite strong. So I wondered, What if we could relate data about geography and ethnicity through taste?
I decided I was going to represent the five distinct boroughs of New York City. For my data, I went to the U.S. census for the most comprehensive data on population demographics. The first thing I learned is that there is no comprehensive ethnicity data. There are three tables with related information — one for ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino), one for race (Asian and Pacific Islander, Native American, black, white, and various subcategories), and one for ancestry, from the American Community Survey. In order to get as full a picture as I could of the cultural diversity within a borough, I compiled population figures from each of the three tables.
Next, I studied barbecue rub recipes, making a list of ingredients to draw from. I researched ethnic recipes and spice mixes, noting what ingredients were being used most frequently. I consulted the Yummly API, analyzing thousands of recipes to see which ingredients matched which ethnic parameters.
I then created recipes for each borough, assigning ingredients to each group of people, keeping proportions, flavor profiles and reasonable correlations in mind. The population figures of each group determined the volume of each ingredient and when combined, produced five different spice rubs, one for each borough of New York City.
Finally, once all the boroughs were mixed, I set up a tasting station open to the general public. The spices were bloomed in oil, bread was available for dipping, and I let each participant decide if they wanted to do a blind tasting or not. I labeled each jar of spices with simple bar graphics to show what ingredient represented which group, hoping that at minimum, participants could use their sense of taste and the printed ingredients to orient themselves. For example, garlic powder represented the Italian population. If you knew that, you could taste Manhattan (close to 6 percent) and Staten Island (nearly 30 percent), and immediately get a sense for the makeup of each borough.
When people began to taste the recipes, something remarkable happened. Instead of simply using their sense of taste to make correlations, participants swore that different spice mixes tasted just like their experience of a certain borough. One man from the Bronx tasted the Bronx mix and exclaimed in shock, "That is the Bronx! That is the Bronx, right there! You got it!"
Since I didn't require a blind tasting, some of the reactions were based on correct guesses while others were based on what they already knew. But what struck me was that there could even be consistent consensus on what a borough should taste like. Staten Island, with its majority Italian population (i.e. 30 percent garlic powder) was a big hit and the easiest for people to guess. Even if they had flubbed through some of the other rubs and guessed incorrectly, when it came to Staten Island, there was no mistaking it. "Oh, that's gotta be Staten Island!" was a common response.
For others, the interaction of spices in the mouth set the stage for analyzing ethnic behavior. One Chinese-American women tasted Queens and described it like so: "At first, it tasted very Italian, like oregano and basil, and after a while, this Chinese shacha sauce just like takes over your mouth." (I'd like to point out that not only were Italians not represented by oregano or basil, I definitely did not put shacha sauce — Chinese barbecue sauce, in the mix; the Chinese were represented with ginger powder.) She added that it's just like the Chinese to come at you from the back and take over even if it's the Italians starting out in front.
Some mixes were singled out just by smell. One woman sniffed a spice mix and said, "Ugh, this smells like hipster. Like patchouli. I don't like it. This has to be Brooklyn." She was right.
When asked for a favorite, many were loyalists, preferring their borough above all others. But some were surprised to find that another, unlikely suspect was a clear favorite in blind tastings. For more than a few Manhattanites, Bronx was their mix of choice. When I revealed that they were eating the Bronx, I got reactions like, "Really. The Bronx?!" followed by either concern and dismay or a newfound interest in exploring the borough and cultures there.
Not everyone loved the rubs, of course. A few people were angry and offended as soon as they understood that the barbecue rubs represented census data and people groups. "You know," they would say, "some people would find this very offensive." "Are you saying that this group is this ingredient?" "Isn't this racist?" "How do you know this is the right ingredient?"
Of course, there is no right ingredient, just like there is no right color for Dominicans on a bar chart. I found the angry reactions interesting: Why might ingredients provoke more vitriol than colors on a bar chart?
I consulted sociologist and census expert Ann Morning. She pointed out that although we often perceive census designations as "objective," its system of racial and ethnic categorization includes hundreds of years of subjective decisions made by individuals for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons. One could argue that ingredients are neither more or less subjective a way of representing people than labels.
Race is a complex topic, and food, as one colleague noted, has a lot of baggage. Eating is our most interactive activity, involving all five senses, and smell is closely linked with our memories. Pairing spices with race, ethnicity and ancestry data allowed people to experience that data more viscerally than a chart or a map could accomplish. It tapped into gut reactions, and best of all, it tasted good. It was amazing to see people of all backgrounds — friends, families, strangers— talking about race, identity and place with ease and pleasure.
We'll continue to argue over where the best barbecue comes from. We'll probably always argue about what "American-ness" is or isn't. Perhaps the best versions of those conversations will use flavors just as much as words.
Hanna Kang-Brown is a writer, interaction designer and recent graduate of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. She works with data, conversational spaces and emerging technology. Follow her at twitter.com/hannasoyk.