Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks

As some of you may recall, I posted awhile back about how FiveThirtyEight was holding a tiered survey to see which cuisine Americans enjoy the most. Well, they've finished the survey and the results are... not really all that surprising (although still interesting!).


Basically, it came down to a fight between American food and Italian food. Italian won - and by a pretty significant margin too (60% to 27%). What's more interesting though is how we got to that place and who the runner-ups were.

After the qualifying rounds, the first contest was a match of 16 different cuisines: Mexican vs. Ethiopian, Japanese vs. Vietnamese, French vs. Argentine, American vs. Belgian, Spanish vs. Brazilian, Italian vs. Greek, Cuban vs. Chinese, and Thai vs. German. Most of these were pretty clear contests, with the biggest margin going to Mexico, which beat Ethiopia by a hefty 72 points. The narrowest contest - surprisingly enough - was between Thai and German, which ran 52% to 33%. Still not super-competitive but considering Thai cuisine's popularity and German's reputed blandness (sorry, Germany!) I'm surprised it was the closest of them all.

The quarterfinals then were held between the eight survivors: Mexican vs. Japanese, French vs. American, Spanish vs. Italian, and Chinese vs. Thai. Two interesting data points came out of this. The first is that, for all the talk of Paris' place as the world capital of fine cuisine, Americans prefer burgers to ratatouille (even America's most experienced eaters, only preferred French cuisine by 4 points). Secondly, Japanese cuisine exhibited what Silver and Hickey call a "learning curve" - inexperienced eaters generally avoided it, but those who had a diverse palate took a much stronger liking to food from the Land of the Rising Sun.


Entering the semifinals, just four contestants remained. Mexican vs. American and Italian vs. Thai. Italy's victory over Thailand perhaps was not all that surprising, but Silver and were most dismayed at Mexico's defeat. What's especially surprising is how deep the divide was between experienced eaters and inexperienced eaters. If the survey had only counted the former, Mexican would have beaten American cuisine by a not insubstantial 25 points. As it was, however, inexperienced eaters preferred American cuisine by more than twice that amount - 55 points - which gave American cuisine the edge it needed to beat Mexican, even with the poll weighted towards experienced eaters.

Which leaves us with the aforementioned contest between Italy and America, where America's dark horse streak was finally laid to rest and Italian food emerged triumphant, as America's preferred world cuisine.


Despite its rather conventional result, the poll was nonetheless a very interesting experiment by FiveThirtyEight and the like of which I hope to see more of in the future. Very often, we weigh the "popularity" of something upon our own biases and subjective experiences, which makes it difficult to really sort out what other people think. That FiveThirtyEight has now expanded its purview past politics and sports, is, I think, something of great value and interest.

Hopefully, FiveThirtyEight will return to the subject of culinary tastes at some point in the future. In particular it would be interesting to see how the poll would end differently were it to include countries outside of the U.S. While a worldwide survey may be impractical, one which includes the G8 (for example) is probably doable and would be interesting to see.

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