Despite a contentious election year that divided the nation, there were parts of 2016 that actually brought Americans together, for better or for worse. Some might remember where they were during these moments, but how many also remember what they ate? If they did, they might unlock some hidden emotions and cultural beliefs that a social media post, text, or photo couldn’t capture.
As more research shows, food, rituals and human expression have a tighter relationship than many might realize. To see what this means in American culture, look no further than the meals people ate during 2016’s largest cultural and political events. Throughout the year, food delivery companies like DoorDash, GrubHub, and Postmates saw trends in certain food orders on days hosting the Super Bowl, Olympic ceremonies, and the Presidential election. It turns out that what we ate during these special moments might have also been subtle salutes to the ancient fabrics of American history, values, and norms.
THE SUPER BOWL
Take the Super Bowl. People ate an estimated 1.3 billion chicken wings during the 2016 game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. DoorDash chicken orders, compared to typical Sundays, doubled. GrubHub orders for wings were up 97 percent compared to the rest of the year. The year before that, GrubHub orders for wings more than doubled during the Super Bowl.
Culturally speaking, the popularity of wings, pizza, and greasy, fried finger food is a testament to the association of sports with masculinity, said Lucy Long, a folklorist and director of the Center for Food and Culture, which advocates for food culture education. The food we eat during athletic events is often an unwitting reflection of the masculine ideals we attach to sports. "Lots of meat, deep fried: You don't get real subtle types of things," Long said. "You don't think of having salads for the Super Bowl." But that kind of symbolism isn’t always explicit or consciously embraced, Long added. "We're like, ‘I need to have food that's festive, that's good for a party, and that the people I'm inviting will like,’" she said. "We don't go on to think about how that might bring in other kinds of meanings and other associations."
On Super Bowl Sunday, orders for chicken wings went up 97%; pizza deliveries on one service were up 37%.
The story of wings’ relationship with sports, for example, started in sports bars in the 1980s, according the National Wing Council, which tracks and predicts wing sales. With the cheapest part of the chicken, sports bars could sell saucy cuts at low prices, along with beer to wash the spicy stuff down. Thus the messy, greasy chicken wing became closely associated with sports, drinking culture, and fandom.
Football fans can also thank capitalism. Sometimes so-called "traditions," like wings at Super Bowl, are created and pushed by corporations. "Marketing has a huge thing to do with it," Long said. "People in marketing are also looking for ways to make people feel connected to a product."
There are also functional reasons why wings remained a hit Super Bowl parties in 2016. Wing platters are designed to be shared and eaten in group settings. Unlike pizza, the second most popular Super Bowl snack, wings can survive the night and keep their luster throughout the long game. That doesn’t mean pizza is disqualified: Pizza was the second-most popular delivery order during the Super Bowl. DoorDash—whose data usually includes smaller pizza chains, and several national chains like California Pizza Kitchen and Papa John's—saw a 37 percent increase in pizza orders on Super Bowl Sunday, compared to typical Sundays.
Special events and the food that accompany them can also act as symbolic gateways to experiencing other cultures. By August, the United States joined the rest of the world to watch the broadcasts of the 31st Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Spectators around the country got Olympic and Rio fever as buzz around the event and its Latin American host city grew. During the opening ceremony broadcast, DoorDash orders for Brazilian food increased by 54 percent, compared to a typical Friday night. At Postmates, orders increased by 16 percent during the opening ceremony and by nine percent during the closing finale.
That doesn’t mean people were purposefully choosing to celebrate the games with an authentic Brazilian meal. The actual reason could be more nuanced. "People are hearing about Brazil because of the Olympics. It makes them a little more curious about Brazil as a culture," Long said. It’s the subtle power of suggestion.
A HISTORIC WORLD SERIES
Another example of the connections people make between social events and delivery food would be food orders during Major League Baseball’s final World Series game between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. The Game 7 match was an important one for fans: Cubs faithful had been waiting for a World Series win since 1908, Indians fans since 1948. An estimated 40 million people watched the game that night. Unsurprisingly, orders on DoorDash for one of baseball’s most popular concession foods — hot dogs — doubled in Chicago that day, while orders increased nationally by 12 percent. On GrubHub, hot dog orders in Chicago were up 36 percent the night of the game, compared to typical orders during the rest of the year.
In line with the American tradition of eating wings and pizza while watching sports, DoorDash pizza orders increased by 67 percent in Chicago, compared to a typical Wednesday night, while chicken wing orders grew by 47 percent.
As the year came to an end, the underestimated Donald Trump shocked the nation when he became the first President-elect of the United States lacking a formal political background, beating Hillary Clinton in electoral votes. Trump’s campaign and rise to victory was a controversial one that made this year’s election perhaps one of the most fascinating in recent history. The things people ordered on Election Day made this clear. Alcohol orders on both DoorDash and Postmates almost doubled that evening, compared to typical evenings. At DoorDash, orders from wine bars were up 50 percent.
Meanwhile, there were spikes in demand for comfort foods. Orders for cupcakes increased 79 percent on DoorDash. And while burrito bowls and french fries are, generally-speaking, consistently the most-ordered items on Postmates during large events, on Election Day cheeseburgers became the second most popular item. The day after the election, cheesesteak orders on DoorDash doubled, and Postmates reported a significant peak in alcohol orders during lunch hours.
Whether people were using alcohol, comfort food, and sugar to cope, celebrate, or both is hard to tell. People can eat the same festive dishes during the same events, but attach different meanings to them, Long said. "It's a very American kind of idea," she said. "You have one thing happening that we're all participating in, with lots of different meanings."
Whatever the motivations behind the orders, they point out the way people use food to express themselves, usually without realizing it, Long said. And there are times when the connection between meals, emotions and the biggest moments of the year isn’t difficult to see at all. The day after the election, for example, "Canadian cuisine" on DoorDash increased by 59 percent.