Use the 'Fried Calamari Index' To Track Food Trends

When I was a kid, I never heard any these words: Pesto, fried calamari, quinoa, pork belly, kale. It wasn't so much that growing up in the thicket of Chicagoland suburbia lent itself to a middle class diet consisting of only mac and cheese and deep dish pizza. (Although, that certainly didn't help.) It was simply that those foods didn't yet cross the threshold from little-known fad to full-blown trend yet. So, when do foods actually make the transition?

Unlike other historical events that can be pinpointed to as inciting incidents for events that follow -- say, the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand or the first moon landing -- it's nearly impossible to look back and judge when a food has turned into a fad. Or, is it?

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Last week, the New York Times did something amazing with their archives. By using their NYT Chronicle tool -- which allows users to see how often key words show up through the newspaper's 163-year history, and which is a worthwhile way to waste enormous amounts of time -- we can see precisely when certain foods get the most mentions. For example, fried calamari:

The term "fried calamari" did not appear in the pages of The New York Times until 1975... and didn't show up frequently until the 1980s. [It] began its rise to mass popularity in 1980. The term peaked in 1996, mentioned in 56 articles, and has come down significantly since then.

In all, the amount of time it took for fried calamari to shift from obscurity to mainstream was 16 years. The Times used this measurement to create their "Fried Calamari Index" to compare food trends to one another. For example, a generation ago, fads took 1.6 Standard Calamari Units to go from unknown to popular. Now, it takes roughly 0.65 S.C.U.'s for foods to make the same transition. Meaning, trends move from obscurity to popular consciousness nearly three times as quickly now as they did a generation ago.

The tool is a joy to use. Other foods that were all but nonexistent back in the 1960s/70s but have now been normalized include:

  • Hummus, which peaked in 2010 and 2011 before a dramatic fall-off;
  • Pesto had its day in the sun back in 1996 after a steep rise in the mid 90s, which may or may not coincidently coincide with it being name-checked in an episode of "Seinfeld";
  • Quiche didn't show up on the radar until the 1960s, before peaking in the early '80s, and then falling back down to casual mentions;
  • Kale may seem like the big mover and shaker in the world of veggies today, but in actuality, the present popularity has yet to exceed the number of mentions it received back in 1893;
  • Cornish game hen is not nor has ever been an actual food trend.

Like I said: It's a whole lot of fun to play with. Of course, there are a few caveats to using it.

For instance, to go back to fried calamari for a second, the fact that mentions of it have fallen dramatically since 1996 doesn't mean it has decreased in popularity. It could be that there simply isn't anything to write about it anymore. Maybe it's so mainstream that food writers have placed it in the same bin as foods like burgers and fries. So, the downward slope of a food's popularity from trend back to obscurity is not necessarily accurate.

But as far as trends that rise out of the dust and into the mainstream? Those are easy to see. Seriously, I cannot more highly recommend playing with this contraption. Just make sure to first finish everything else you need to get done for the day.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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