After digging a little more, it turns out that Jennifer 8 Lee, of Fortune Cookie Chronicles fame, has a web site and the web site has a blog. At first glance, it’s much more fragmented a view than her far ranging book, but there are nuggets to be dug out of her posts. For one, she’s using Google ngrams to trace food trends through word usage, an idea that, when I saw it, struck me through as if an arrow had been driven through me.
Let’s take a quick look at a food fad. The one that first comes to mind is sushi. Did you know that in American English, the word “sushi” is now more common than the word “burger” or the words “apple pie”? Hey, I can show you that in a Google ngram. Switch the idiom of English you’re analyzing a bit, to British English and you’ll see different results. The chop suey fad disappears, for one, as does interest in food circa 2002-2003.
Interested in peppers? Checking out various pepper names shows a spike in interest in the word “tabasco” roughly about 1930. The word “jalapeno” takes off roughly about 1980, “habanero” about 1990. If you check out American and British English, you’ll see very different levels of interest, and a marked decline in interest among the British starting around the year 2000.
Obviously this kind of analysis isn’t restricted to foods. You can look at fabrics and plastics, or the effects electronic devices have on our language. That said, you can still compare “salsa” to “ketchup” and “granola” to the various Chinese foods that Jennifer Lee spoke about in such depth.