Brooks recounts taking a friend with a high-school degree to an Italian sandwich shop, only to turn tail when he realized the shop’s “upper-middle-class … cultural signifiers” made her uncomfortable. Instead, Brooks says, he and his friend “ate Mexican.”
The obvious implication is that tacos exist in a totally different cultural caste than those Italian subs. It is common, accessible and, most importantly, cheap -- a cuisine even Brooks’ flustered friend could love.
The association between cheapness and “ethnic food” is not Brooks’s invention, of course. In fact, it has some basis in data: The average cost of a meal at a Zagat-rated Italian restaurant in New York is more than $16 higher than at a Mexican one, according to a much-covered analysis by Krishnendu Ray, a New York University sociologist.
But the real issue here -- and one that goes to the heart of Brooks’s column -- is why Mexican food is cheaper than Italian. In his 2016 book “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” Ray argues that the price gap can be directly attributed to the social status of these different ethnic populations.
To come to that conclusion, Ray draws in large part on his analysis of nearly 30 years of data from Zagat, the popular restaurant guide. He found that a handful of cuisines -- namely, French, American, Italian and “continental,” or Western European -- have consistently been more expensive than their competitors.
When cuisines do experience major price shifts, Ray also found, it often has something to do with the economic and social status of their immigrants. The average price of a Japanese meal jumped 97 percent between 1985 and 2013, for instance. That has been attributed, in part, to the growth of Japan’s business class, many of whom made frequent visits to the U.S.
There are exceptions to this “ethnic” = “cheap” rule, of course. (Brooks could have taken his friend to New York’s Toloache, where tacos run $16 a pop.) But Ray’s data demonstrates that the pattern -- or as he calls it, the “global hierarchy of taste” -- still holds for most restaurants, even if there are outliers.
That’s had real consequences for restaurateurs and chefs of color. As my colleague Ana Swanson chronicled in this great piece last fall, a huge number of Chinese immigrant-owned restaurants have begun serving sushi because they realize Americans will pay more for it. In a stunning essay for NPR, published earlier this year, the L.A. restaurateur Diep Tran railed against a culture that’s prompted some customers to tell her that, “for Vietnamese food,” her restaurant is too expensive.
“Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap,” Tran wrote. She goes on to write that it’s been difficult for her restaurant “to break out of the trope that equates communities of color with cheap food and cheap labor.”
Similar tropes have been broken before. As Ray recounts in his book, Italian food was eschewed by “the taste-making elite” of the early- and mid-20th century, who viewed the influx of poor Italian immigrants with something like disgust. As those immigrants’ children began moving into the middle and upper classes, Italian food moved with them -- into gourmet sandwich shops.
As the sports radio host Julie DiCaro wrote on Twitter: “My Sicilian grandparents would be thrilled to learn that in 2017 soppressata and capicola are the rarified info of the elite!”
Maybe that will one day be said of chorizo, bolillos and Oaxaca cheese.