For two years in a row, a map proclaiming the favorite Thanksgiving pies of various regions of the United States has delighted, riled and flummoxed millions of Twitter users.
Pecan pie, a known favorite of the southern states where pecan trees actually grow, is attributed to a cluster of Northeastern states. Texas inexplicably gets key lime pie. And the beleaguered Midwest – still weary and shaken from the infamous Minnesota Grape Salad debacle of 2014 – is somehow pegged as the land of Coconut Cream Pie. Minnesotans collectively wailed: Have we not suffered enough?
If it smacks of tomfoolery, it’s because the map is a joke. An intentionally absurd, thoughtfully crafted fake.
Last year, Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist and geographer in Alaska, set out to parody the viral maps he’s seen circulate on social media in recent years: maps of dubious methodology that chart the most popular Halloween candy or Thanksgiving side dishes for each state. Brettschneider creates maps for his work – “actual science,” he clarified – but he also plays around some for his Twitter followers.
“I would make a map of a winter forecast and it would just say “cold” everywhere. I would make a mosquito forecast with a thousand mosquitoes all over a map. I’m known for making absurd maps like that so I thought, I’ll make an absurd Thanksgiving pie map.”
He drew nonsensical regional boundaries and picked the most ridiculous pies he could think of – blackberry, coconut cream – intentionally leaving off the most popular Thanksgiving flavors, pumpkin and apple.
“That was my cue that it was not to be taken seriously,” he said. “Pumpkin and apple weren’t even on there.”
The cue went unheeded.
“I figured a few of my friends would find it amusing,” Brettschneider said. “Then I’m in a meeting the next day at work and my phone starts buzzing. Sen. Ted Cruz had shared the map and he’d called it ‘fake news.’ The Texas Monthly magazine shared it. It went crazy.”
Over the course of a couple of days, the map went viral, accumulating 2 million views and 1.6 million engagements – including more than a few profanity-laden replies. Brettschneider even wrote an article for Forbes about the experience, titled “Lessons From Posting A Fake Map.”
“By the morning, more and more people were ‘triggered’ by the map,” he wrote. "’Who tf eats coconut cream pie!’, ‘No self-respecting southerner would eat that s***.’, and so on. It became clear that people were taking it seriously – and were greatly offended.”
Thanksgiving 2018 came and went and the fervor died down. Over the course of a year, every time one of those stories would come up, people would ping Brettschneider to ask if he was the rogue behind it. Eventually, with Thanksgiving 2019 on the horizon they began to ask, “Are you going to do an update of the pie map?”
He demurred. Then he relented. For the second version, Brettschneider changed the boundaries and swapped out some pies. (Once more, Minnesota was shackled with coconut cream pie.) Because he was known for the absurd Thanksgiving Pie Map of 2018 – and had admitted to making the whole thing up -- he assumed the second one didn’t need a disclaimer.
“I guess I was wrong,” he said.
The updated map, equally as outlandish as its 2018 iteration, was shared on Twitter last Friday. It’s already racked up almost 2 million views and a slew of angry reactions.
“This map is an abomination,” wrote one user.
“Compiled by grade A, top-shelf, dyed in the wool, pure, 100% unadulterated idiots,” wrote another.
“This is clearly indicative of a country in tatters.”
“I want to punch this map.”
Brettschneider is approaching the situation with the poise of a curious scientist.
“Thanksgiving is so culturally identifiable with food and people strongly associate it with food and when they feel like they see something that doesn’t reflect their vision of this tradition, they feel kind of outraged,” he said. “The way people took offense to it in different regions makes for an interesting sociological experiment.”
Not that he set out to troll users, Brettschneider said. He intended to create something so absurd that everyone could share a collective laugh – which they did, to an extent.
“A number of responses were, ‘Hey, this is hilarious, thanks for doing it.’ A number of people also said, ‘I see what you’re doing here but I’m still outraged.’”
Will there be a fresh bit of fakery in 2020? “I think I’m retired from Thanksgiving maps,” Brettschneider said. “I thought it was a one-time deal. It shocked me to the core that it went viral twice.”
And as an “actual real scientist” in a world where misinformation can go viral in an instant, he has to be careful.
“Over the last year, I have had a few people say, ‘Hey you’re the guy who made this fake pie map. How can I trust your science information?’ I’ve been very cognizant of that,” he said. “It’s a legitimate concern. In some respects, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be a purveyor of fake maps, and then also serious information.”
Instead he’ll stick to maps rooted in scientific data, like the popular one he created in 2015: A 13,235-mile route that would take you around the country and maintain a 70-degree normal temperature.
“It would be fun to make a bot that randomly made maps of favorite whatever – candy, foods, power tools – and just generated random selections for each state. I’m not that good of a programmer. Maybe someday.”