This past week has been tough for media. As mass layoffs (at BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Vice, and newspaper companies Gannett and McClatchy) illustrate, publications across the country are dealing with the tension between producing meaningful reporting and publishing the content readers eagerly click on, as profits largely go to tech companies rather than journalists. But we won’t get into that here—you clicked this post to learn about spinach dip.
On Friday, recipes website TheKitchn.com posted a story titled, “Here Are the Most Popular Super Bowl Snacks in Every State, According to Google” featuring a counterintuitive dish for each state in the union. The methodology entailed looking at Google Trends to see what food items were receiving a lot of searches in each state, and then pasting those things onto a map. In Texas, the leader was … spinach dip.
Spinach dip is fine. We don’t dislike spinach dip. If there is spinach dip, and some sort of crunchy edible implement to scoop it up with, we will probably enjoy it. But nothing about spinach dip is reflective of Texas tastes, Super Bowl parties, or what people are actually eating in our great state.
The people at TheKitchn probably know that. At the very least, they’ve been to parties before, and they understand how food works, and they presumably know that people in Montana don’t believe a good time means sitting down with a bunch of their buddies to watch the Patriots attempt to make history while slurping down—wait for it—lentil soup.
But media is a tough business, and these maps tend to do well. They ignite controversy (we’re talking about it!) and get those precious hate-clicks as people discuss the head-scratcher of how people in Indiana apparently can’t get enough of fried rice during the Super Bowl. (Speaking with the authority of a native Hoosier, every regional delicacy in Indiana is some sort of carbohydrate-plus-mayonnaise “salad.”) It’s a nationwide source of traffic, as everyone across the country can find themselves represented. Over at California Monthly, if such a publication existed, they could gripe about the notion that they’re all such boring health nuts that they’re chowing down on baked chicken breasts while they vaguely remember that the Rams are based in Los Angeles now.
Given how tough things are in media, going after cheap outrage traffic by appealing to home state allegiance makes sense. The dream of digital media has long been that publishers could do both serious investigation and light fare—BuzzFeed could run two hundred posts about trying to figure out if a dress was blue or white and break major national security scoops—and that the lower-hanging fruit of fun, easy-to-share, less-serious content would help sustain long-term, important reporting. That may still prove to be true, but after the past few weeks, it’s fair to wonder if we’re headed toward a diet that’s entirely fluff (and no, we’re not talking about fluffy chocolate peanut butter cake, Super Bowl watchers in Delaware).
The push for hate-clicks isn’t new. (Nor are the inaccurate regional preference maps.) But when you read the claim that the number one snack at Super Bowl parties in Massachusetts is gluten-free pretzels and not, I dunno, Dunkin’ Donuts or a bowl of chowder or portraits of Tom Brady lovingly baked into the tops of cream pies—the rapid disappearance of media jobs becomes more stark. Do the people who write these lists actually believe these things? By Super Bowl LIV, will there be journalists out there to tell readers the truth about local politics, the tech companies that rule our lives, or the taco salads that people in Kentucky allegedly crave?
That’s a question for another day. For today, just know that maps purportedly displaying regional food preferences are not based on meaningful data. In the meantime, enjoy the traditional Texas Super Bowl snack of spinach dip, honor your Oregonian friends by baking them some banana bread, treat Iowans to the delicious Irish stew they eat back home, and stock up on granola bars for your pals from Mississippi. It is, after all, the Super Bowl.