If fondue isn't a national dish,
|I'm fond of fondue.
... what is it?
Well, it IS a national dish, but as I mentioned last week, fondue was popularized as a Swiss national food by the Swiss Cheese Union (Schweizerische Käseunion) beginning in the 1930s as a way of using up the local excess of cheese. The Swiss Cheese Union created pseudo-regional recipes as part of the "spiritual defence of Switzerland" before World War II to help out the cheese makers and the dairy industry. (For more details, see this wonderful article about the cheese cartel that made fondue an international hit. Or, it you want to listen, this Planet Money podcast about the Swiss Cheese Union.)
This is all fascinating backstory to this week's Challenge. What ELSE has been marketed as an authentic food? I put the Challenge like this:
1. What other national foods have become popular as the result of intense marketing? (I'm especially interested in foods that are presented as being "of the people," but are, in fact, commercial successes driven by clever advertising?) Can you find one or two?
I thought this might be a great question for the LLMs, and so I tried multiple attempts to get ChatGPT, Claude, and Bard to give me an answer.
I'll spare you all of the prompts I created, but basically, I got very little. With prompts like "what well-known national foods are actually the product of marketing campaigns?" I learned about marketing successes (e.g., Campbell's soups; Chiquita bananas; McDonalds hamburgers), but little about foods that are associated with particular countries (as fondue is with Switzerland).
Bard: Of the suggestions Bard made: Poutine (Canada); Big Mac (US); and Hambúrguer Artesanal (Brazil). Those are okay, I guess, but the marketing push behind each is a bit lackadaisical... nothing like the Swiss Cheese Union.
ChatGPT: Slightly better: American fast food as a category (US); Fettuccine Alfredo (Italy); Sushi (Japan)... these are all popular foods, but none that were driven by clever advertising or marketing.
One of the things that became clear to me was that I was a little ambiguous about what my SRS goal actually should be. Was I looking for well-known national foods (like poutine or Big Macs), or was I looking for national foods that reached success because of an advertising/marketing campaign?
As I often say here in SRS, you've got to be clear about what your research goal actually is so you'll know success when you see it.
Naturally, it's okay to learn-as-you-go, but at some point you have to figure out what success will mean.
I decided that I really wanted a well-known national food that became prominent internationally because of an intense marketing or advertising campaign.
What did work? Several friends wrote to me to suggest foods that they learned were market campaign-driven: SPAM, chicken tikka masala, Vegemite, and even peanut butter were all suggested as advertising-driven successes of national foods.
Reading up on these I found that:
SPAM was given a big boost by the maker, Hormel, as the result of SPAM's ubiquity during World War II. Advertising was a big component of pushing SPAM onto the global stage. (Massive distribution during World War II didn't hurt either, making SPAM incredibly popular in Oceania.)
Chicken tikka masala, while immensely popular, doesn't seem to have been driven by advertising. It's clearly a very British product that has become popular by word-of-mouth and news stories, even though it seems very Indian.
Vegemite, the intensely-flavored Australian yeast extract spread, WAS intensely marketed at the product's initial production (in the 1920s) and led to vegemite becoming a distinctly Australian food.
While peanut butter is often thought of as American, its invention is credited to three people with early patents on the production of modern peanut butter. (1) Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, obtained the first patent for a method of producing peanut butter from roasted peanuts using heated surfaces in 1884. (2) A businessman from St. Louis, George Bayle, produced and sold peanut butter in the form of a snack food in 1894. And (3) John Harvey Kellogg (yes, THAT Kellogg) was issued a patent for a "Process of Producing Alimentary Products" in 1898 with peanuts, although he boiled the nuts rather than roasting them. There's been a fair bit of marketing, but again, nothing quite as intense as the Swiss push on fondue.
But how can we find all of these--and more!--by searching?
My first regular Google search was:
[ national dish food marketing campaign ]
which led me to a fascinating book, "National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home" by Anya von Bremzen. This is basically a compendium of the backstories of various foods, showing how sometimes national foods have a messy beginning. For instance, she points out that Andalusian gazpacho were not just simple Spanish regional foods, but dishes historically cooked across the country. She points out that La Sección Femenina, the women’s branch of Spain’s fascist movement, identified some foods (like gazpacho) with specific regions, as part of its work to create “a sanitized, politically acceptable form of cultural diversity.”
I also found the Wikipedia page on National Dishes (have to admit that I wasn't expecting this page to exist--there must be a lot of foodies among Wikipedians). Scanning that list shows a lot of national dishes, some of which I recognized as very popular.
I spot checked a bunch of them: Wiener schnitzel (Austria), empanadas (Bolivia), Peking duck (China), pot-au-feu (France) and about ten others. The nearly all of the national dishes I checked became national dishes over the course of great spans of time, without any particular interference or promotion. They really are of the land and the people.
However, two Japanese foods that are known world-wide qualify as marketing/advertising driven:
Ramen is a massive international success that was driven in the US by the introduction of instant ramen noodles (beloved by college students), and by Chef David Chang's introduction of ramen at Momofuku in New York City in 2004, driven by a clever influencer campaign. (Incidentally, Momofuku Ando was the name of the inventor of the instant ramen noodle.)
Likewise, but to a lesser extent, sushi seems to have become an international success by marketing, although that effort was a bit hodge-podge with many small pushes from multiple players rather than one large company.
I found those through friends (thanks, friends!) and by manual work from the National Dishes Wikipedia page.
But then I had the thought, what if I limited my previous search to just Wikipedia? Like this:
[ site:Wikipedia.org national dish food marketing campaign ]
What would I find?
Answer: Several additional dishes and a bunch that you can look up on your own. MY favorites from this search...
Ploughman's Lunch (Britain, marketing campaign by the Cheese Bureau and the Milk Marketing Board, shades of the Schweizerische Käseunion!)
Coca-Cola (USA, the Coke company has run one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history for over 100 years)
1. LLMs sometimes just don't deliver. I spent at least two hours trying to convince Bard and ChatGPT to give me something useful. And yes, I tried all of the clever prompt engineering tricks I could think of, but nothing seemed to work. Ah well... they're not the universal solution to all known problems.
2. Friends! I was happily impressed by the number of friends who had suggestions. Don't ever underestimate the value of a good social network. I got text messages from some friends who'd seen the post, some comments on my other networks (e.g, LinkedIn or Facebook), and a couple of direct emails. Ah, friends. Good to have them as an extension to my brain.
3. Wikipedia lists. I should know by now that there is a list for almost everything. National foods is not an exception to this rule. Remember to look for "list of" something when you're searching for a category.
4. Use site: over a large resource. For instance, my use of my previous search query, when restricted to Wikipedia actually helped me find a few new suggestions. Don't forget the power of limiting your search!
As we close out the year, I'm going to take a couple of weeks off and start anew in 2024. I'll be moving back from Switzerland to California in the next few days and restart my life there. It's been wonderful to explore Zürich and the Swiss countryside from a different perspective, that of someone who is new to the place--a new country to discover, what more could you ask for as a Christmas present. That's what I got, and I hope you enjoyed learning a bit about the place as much as I did.
See you in January, 2024. Have a wonderful holiday season and New Year!