From fresh lobsters in Maine to barbeque disputes in the South, the range of culinary diversity in the United States offers a glimpse into this country’s many personalities.The six cities below represent regions of the country that are disparate for many reasons, including food. San Francisco and Detroit are nearly identical in population size, though they lie on opposite sides of the income scale, with per capita incomes of $46,000 and $15,000, respectively. Waco, Texas, and Mobile, Ala., round out the lower end of the income spectrum, with per capitas at $17,000 and $22,000, and Boulder’s $35,000 per capita leans towards the upper end. As Boulder continues to gain culinary recognition, residents may wonder: How do we compare to the nation at large?
It is often said that San Francisco is one of the world’s leaders in cutting-edge cuisine. The city contains more than 800,000 people, and its proximity to the coast, mountains and some of the best school systems make it a desirable destination.
“It’s very competitive,” restaurant owner Tim McDonnell says of San Francisco’s cuisine scene. “You have to keep the food quality up in terms of trends.” The city’s populace is highly educated; according to the U.S. Census, 45 percent of its residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to about 25 percent in the U.S. California also has a year-round growing season, making it an ideal destination for foodies. With a per capita income of $46,000, there is money to spend on fresh, creative cuisine that often comes at a higher cost.
“There’s a value on [organic and local food] that is probably broader here than in other parts of the country,” says San Francisco food publicist Eleanor Bertino. “People here are willing to spend more on food.” Bertino says Northern California’s political progressiveness helps dictate new food trends, one of the reasons the organic movement took off throughout the region.
“Originally it was a hippie idea that wormy apples were more natural,” she says. “But as [farmers] got more professional, they started growing beautiful things.” Organic farming was in demand among restaurants like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, the Berkeley eatery that spearheaded the locavore movement, and the Bay Area saw these two trends come together to form the ultimate foodie culture.
“In L.A., everybody’s skinny, they think food is the enemy,” Bertino says. “But here there is a huge health consciousness, lots of athletics. There’s also a pleasure principle, people really do love good food around here.”
McDonnell, who owns several restaurants throughout the Bay Area, says the city’s high population of young people also influences the fast-moving food trends. “There’s a good clientele ages 25 to 45,”
McDonnell says. “They’ve got some money and they like to try new places. A lot of the restaurants here are just jammed at nighttime.”
Soon after the Capital Grille opened in San Francisco, it shut down due to the Bay Area’s high restaurant competition. Yet in the Detroit metropolitan area, the Capital Grille is the finest restaurant available, according to Penelope Francis, a former Bay Area resident who has lived outside Detroit for nearly three years. Francis says that most people there consume fast food and other highly processed foods.
“The junk food is unbelievable,” she says. “I’ll be in line at Kroger, and everybody in line around me is overweight, yet they’re eating Pop-Tarts and soda.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Detroit is the only metropolitan area in the United States that had a food expenditure share significantly above the national average in 2007-08.
Where the typical U.S. household spent 12.6 percent of its total annual budget on food, Detroit households paid 14.3 percent of their annual budgets to eat. The higher expenditure is unusual, considering Detroit’s low per capita income (about $15,000) and high unemployment (15.5 percent in the metropolitan area). The BLS also reports that, compared to the national average, Detroit households spent less on public transportation and more on vehicle purchases.
Francis suspects that health is a low priority in the Detroit area because of the lack of education.
“It’s poor eating habits [in Detroit proper] because the majority of the population is poor and uneducated,” she says. “The more educated you are, the more aware you are of the benefits of healthy eating and exercise.” According to the U.S. Census, 11 percent of Detroit citizens hold a bachelor’s degree. The city is highly populated with factory workers, and nearly 30 percent of residents live under the poverty line.
Francis credits the climate and landscape as well for the tendency toward a sedentary lifestyle.
“In the Bay Area there’s always something to do outside,” she says. “Here, most activities are indoors.”
But she has noticed tremors of a movement toward healthier foods.
“A new restaurant just opened up that’s organic,” she says. “It’s starting, but it has a ways to go.”
As some cities progress toward an eco-conscious food scene, other towns show little interest in organic foods.
“As far as a real movement toward organics, not really,” Waco resident Kalie Karnes says of the eating habits in her town. “People really like the standard [way of eating].”
What’s the standard in Waco?
Karnes, a student at Baylor University who has lived in Waco for nearly four years, says locals tend toward typical Southern fare such as fried chicken and barbeque and don’t pay much mind to healthfulness. “It doesn’t seem like they care much about trying to eat healthier or more organically,” she says.
According to the U.S. Census, Waco is 60.8 percent white, 22.6 percent African-American and 23.6 percent Hispanic. Karnes says the Hispanic population significantly influences the city’s eating style.
“There are a lot of small Mexican grocery stores and Mexican restaurants,” she says. “Tex-Mex is really popular.”
While Waco has its fair share of chain restaurants, Karnes says there are lots of “mom-and-pop” places that have been around for a long time, allowing customers to know just what to expect in their meals.
A similar theme permeates the food scene in the coastal city of Mobile.
“We like to eat what we know is good,” says David Holloway, food editor at the Mobile Press-Register. The city, which is home to 191,000 people, has a per capita income of about $20,000, according to the U.S. Census. Holloway says experimentation isn’t an overriding eating principle among Mobile residents, and that comfort food reigns most popular, particularly throughout the economic downturn.
“Comfort food reconnects you with your roots and makes you feel better about your situation,” Holloway says. “It’s anything like fried chicken and biscuits or, in this part of the country, fried shrimp.” Since the city lies on the edge of Mobile Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, seafood has dominated the cuisine scene for decades.
While Holloway says the national movement toward organics hasn’t quite caught on, he says buying local seafood is something Mobile residents value.
“We’re in a region where our own brand of cuisine tends to dominate our local palate,” he says. “That’s what we grew up eating. We like to eat what we know.”
Since the Boulder Farmers’ Market started in April, downtown is considerably more populated on Saturdays.
Foodies flock in from around the area, eager to get fresh foods grown locally.
“[Boulder has] a lifestyle culture that is dedicated to being healthy, fit and active,” says Karen Barela, chief operating officer at Boulder’s Culinary School of the Rockies. “It has to do with the highly educated population and the abundance of the middle class.”
Boulder contains about 95,000 people, 67 percent of whom hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census. As evidenced in other cities, there may be a correlation between higher education and a healthy lifestyle. With a per capita income of about $35,000, Boulder represents the middle class, which Barela says is the primary supporter of the organic, local movement.
“The local farming community is alive and thriving, and the middle class is able to support that in a way that I don’t think would be able to function in other cities,” she says. “At the moment [local foods] are more expensive, and for many people it’s harder to make those choices on a day-to-day basis.”
In the past 10 years, a significant food-related change has taken place in local restaurants. Many eateries boast chalkboards or daily menus detailing the origins of each dish, allowing Boulder’s foodies to connect with farms both at the market and at the table.
“At the farmers’ market you can speak directly to the person who grew the spinach,” Barela says. “That’s one of the special things we have here in Boulder.”
A strong connection among customers, chefs and farmers has driven the farm-to-table movement because of the local demand for it. Barela also cites the city’s entire lifestyle approach to healthfulness, including changes like carrying a mug to a coffee shop rather than using their paper cups.
“Those kinds of changes now seem really engrained in us here,” she says. “It’ll be interesting to watch the next generation’s level of choices come to fruition.”