How much can a burrito say about immigration patterns? And about crowd-sourcing?
You can decide in the coming months as statistics king Nate Silver, best known for calling every single state correctly in the 2012 presidential election, returns to the burrito.
His site, FiveThirtyEight, has hired a burrito correspondent and launched the "Burrito Bracket," 64 burritos from across the country divided into competitive quadrants much like the NCAA basketball tournament (still painful?). California gets an entire quadrant of its own — 16 burrito-selling shops from throughout the state — with the rest of the nation divided into three regions based on a variety of statistics.
"It started out sort of as a pipe dream," said Anna Barry-Jester, maybe the only person ever to be paid as a burrito correspondent. "We love street food, we love Mexican food. The more we talked about it, the more excited we got. We could bring in really interesting components, use data to talk about food and culture."
Barry-Jester, a multimedia reporter for Univision based in Miami, said her background in data-driven stories on health lent itself to the project. She's been traveling across the U.S. eating burritos and judging which are the best.
Before the eating, though, was the data mining. FiveThirtyEight went to Yelp, which identified almost 67,000 different restaurants, taquerias and food trucks selling burritos. That huge data set was hacked down to a svelte 64 through factors Jester won't identify except to say that "burrito experts" were called in to help inform the results.
Yelp, the crowd-sourced business rating site, was happy to provide FiveThirtyEight with a huge, proprietary data dump.
"What I think is fascinating about it is, yeah, we can share data-driven results that we get, which are the aggregation of our users' voices, which is one way to look at it. But it's almost always going to disagree with your favorite and Nate Silver's favorite," said Travis Brooks, product manager for search and data mining at Yelp, who worked directly with the FiveThirtyEight team.
What is the value of a 4½-star rating of a burrito in Boise, Idaho, where Mexican restaurants are not plentiful, compared to the same rating in Los Angeles? It's an issue Brooks is hoping will gain some clarity in the Burrito Bracket.
Why the burrito and not the taco? First, there's history. In 2007, Silver created a burrito bracket based on his Chicago neighborhood. He never finished the competition. Seven years later, the reimagined project is spread across 50 cities in some 30 states. And it's more ambitious — the team hopes to shed light on immigration, culture and food patterns.
"The burrito as it has spread across the United States has landed more on the American side of the equation than the Mexican side of the equation," said OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, who worked with FiveThirtyEight to help narrow the thousands of Yelp results and is on the selection committee.
"Some of the places that are going to make the list across the nation are classic Chicano institutions," he said. "Other places don't serve it as a regional cuisine but because they know their people want it."
And this is why, Barry-Jester said, they stuck with the burrito, a Mexican American invention, instead of the imported taco.
"One of the beautiful things about burritos is that they move us away from the issues of authenticity," she said. "You could just as easily have a delicious burrito in the middle of Wyoming. Who's to say? Moving away from this idea of authentic Mexican food allows us the freedom to talk about other things and to look at it differently."
What will it mean to be named the best burrito in the U.S.? "I don't know if I can answer that yet. We're coming to this project with questions and no answers," she said.