White people with western European ancestry comprise slightly more than half the U.S. population. At least they do for now.
By 2045, they will be a minority, but they will be, in a sense, our country’s biggest ethnic group.
But that group is and always will be splintered when it comes to food.
The French have their cuisine, the English have theirs, the Polish have theirs, the Swedes have theirs.
Every ethnic cuisine has its stars that are loved by all. Who doesn’t like French onion soup? And every ethnic cuisine has a morsel or two that the rest of the world finds curious or even disgusting.
Take hakarl, for instance. Hakarl is a specialty of Iceland, an island nation inhabited almost entirely by white people descended from western Europeans.
The hakarl recipe goes like this: Take one 24-foot long Greenland shark, cut off its head, bury it in the sand, cover it with more sand, throw on some heavy stones and gravel and let the fish ferment — rot — for about three months.
Dig it up, cut it into strips, let it air dry for a couple of months, then, ignoring the gag-inducing odor of ammonia and dead fish, eat it.
So you might think from this one example that Icelanders are a dark and demented people, but social researchers who quantify things like happiness say that Icelanders are the fourth happiest people in the world.
And, incidentally, they have one of the world’s highest birth rates, which may not have as much to do with eating hakarl as it does with the consumption of brennivin, a traditional accompaniment to hakarl. Brennivin is made from mashed potatoes and is a cousin to vodka.
The point of this tale of hakarl is that your food choices are influenced not only by your taste buds, the color of your skin and where your ancestors were from, but where and with whom you grew up.
If you’re a white person, your last name is Murphy and you grew up in Memphis, you might favor collared greens and fried catfish. If you’re a Black person, your last name is Murphy and you grew up in Boston, you might favor baked beans and lobster. It all depends.
But Black or white, Memphis or Boston, you’re probably not going into your local Piggly Wiggly to buy a bunch of nightshade because you know it’ll kill you, and you’re going to pass on the fenugreek because you never heard of it.
However, if you trace your roots to Asia and the Indian subcontinent, you might want to add a few nightshade greens to your dinner salad. You might also want to pick up some fenugreek leaves for that dish of methi palak saag paneer you’re going to whip up for dinner. Purslane goes well, too, with the saag paneer.
Changing Population, Changing Demand
If you grow vegetables for a living, you might want to think about things like fenugreek and edible nightshade, according to Ramu Govindasamy, who has been studying ethnic/specialty crops for the past 15 years.
Govindasamy is a marketing professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Rutgers. He also is a marketing specialist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
Govindasamy reported on his market research during the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in February.
His report showed population trends for four ethnic groups in the Atlantic coast states stretching from Maine to Florida. The groups were Chinese, Indians, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.
Between the years 2000 and 2010, total population growth in those states was 9.4%. Each of the four ethnic groups was up multiples of that figure. Mexicans were up by 92%, Indians by 66%, Chinese by 40% and Puerto Ricans by 32%.
In 2010, Rutgers hired an independent research firm to survey representative consumers from four ethnicities in each of the 16 coastal states plus the District of Columbia. A total of 1,117 consumers were interviewed. About an equal number — averaging 280 — were contacted from each group.
The survey revealed that each group had its own specialty foods, and they all were willing to pay well to get the foods they grew up with. And 75% said they were willing to pay the price for organically grown greens and herbs.
Asked how much they spent on ethnic greens and herbs each month, Indians spent $115 per month on specialty foods and $182 on all produce. Chinese respondents spent $89 on their specialties and $210 total on produce. The figures for Mexican buyers were $84 and $146, and for Puerto Ricans $81 and $171.
Adding all of that together — which is probably not 100% statistically accurate — you get $709 spent per family per month on all produce, and $369 on specialty greens and herbs, or about 52% spent on the foods the respondents grew up with.
Respondents were asked if they would be interested in trying new varieties of herbs and greens, and 62% said yes.
Slightly more said they wanted their purchases labeled with the country of origin, a whopping 80% said they would not buy GMO specialties, and 95% said they would prefer locally grown greens and herbs.
So, Mr. and Ms. Grower, that’s your market, right there. Grow it, and your neighbors will buy it.
Most Sought-After Crops
There were lots of charts in Govindasamy’s PowerPoint, having to do with education, income, jobs, ages, etc., for each ethnic group.
What was probably of more interest to the 99 fingers-in-the-dirt farmers watching his webinar were the crops the ethnic groups in his study were buying. Govindasamy listed about a dozen crops for each group.
Mexican consumers paid $6.65 a pound for vine vegetables like peas and eggplants. They were partial to amaranth at $5.94 a pound, lemon verbena at $5.93 a bunch, and purslane at $5.56 a bunch.
The Indian group preferred their greens and herbs mostly in bunches, starting with Indian sorrel at $6.65 a bunch. Respondents reported paying $4.09 for a bunch of Indian sorrel spinach, $3.59 for nightshade and $3.56 for purslane.
Chinese cooks liked lycium leaf at $5.40 a pound, sugar pea tops for $4 a pound, garland chrysanthemums at $3.33 a pound, and Shanghai bok choy for $3.19 a pound.
Puerto Rican buyers liked lambquarters at $11.53 a pound, dandelion greens for $3.30 a bunch, wild garlic for $3.17 a bunch and purslane for $3.93 a bunch.
Govindasamy’s research pulled back the curtain on a lot of crops growers might never have heard of, like lycium leaf, or that they might never have thought of as crops, like nightshade, or that are so common most people don’t see their market potential, like wild garlic, dandelion greens and purslane.
The Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention is an annual, usually in-person event, but was conducted this year by webinar. It consisted of 43 two-hour sessions.
Govindasamy’s presentation was just one-third of a Monday afternoon session that also included marketing and production information about Chinese vegetables and another segment on cultivating hemp seedlings for salad greens.