Sushi in the United States, 1945-1970

Supply, Demand, and Changing Public Tastes

Jonas House


While certain flavours may be innately attractive or aversive, taste for food in a more general sense is substantially shaped by societal factors. Although often exhibiting conservative tendencies, prevailing public tastes in particular regions are mutable. Studying how relatively dramatic shifts in public tastes are enacted illuminates the manifold factors that contribute towards the positioning of foods – and in particular, novel products or cuisines – as not only edible, but also desirable.
A good exemplar of the social and cultural derivation of changing tastes is the comparatively significant shift represented by the public acceptance of sushi in North American and European (‘Western’) cultures. Sushi became established as an enjoyed cuisine in metropolitan areas of the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, from where its popularity blossomed and it began to diffuse more widely. Although by no means universally consumed, this Japanese cuisine went from relative obscurity in the West to become something of a global phenomenon during the latter half of the twentieth century.
Many accounts of sushi’s development in the United States tend to foreground the role of a limited number of key individuals or ‘gateway dishes’ in engendering a substantial shift in US public tastes. However, such accounts do not fully acknowledge the extent to which the positioning of novel foods as edible and desirable is borne out of the interplay of a complex web of contingent, gradual and long-term factors, on both the supply- and demand- side. In the case of sushi, these included social, political, legal, technological, economic, and material elements. My research also indicates that the discursive context for the US acceptance of sushi was, in particular, considerably more propitious than is generally acknowledged.
Following these ideas, this paper makes two key arguments regarding changes in public tastes. Firstly, that supply- and demand-side factors are mutually implicated in the positioning of particular foods as edible: it is not simply the case that people ‘change their minds’ about food and decide to start eating it. Here a connection is drawn between the example of sushi and with historical food scholarship on earlier shifts in public tastes, which suggest a similar process. Such analyses, it is suggested, should inform research on current efforts to introduce novel foods to Western cultures, which often underemphasises how public tastes are achieved at the confluence of supply and demand. The paper’s second key argument is that imputing influence to the ‘heroic entrepreneur’ or ‘gateway dish’ may oversimplify long-term, complicated, path-dependent processes. Drawing on the concept of ‘figure and ground,’ I suggest that while it may be tempting to ascribe causality in changing public tastes to visible ‘figures’ of entrepreneurs or dishes, the ‘ground’ on which they rest – the complex web of conditions in which such figures are situated – is equally influential.