Sunday, October 28, 2012

An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen

Source of Book: Borrowed from the library

I didn’t really intend to read another food related book so soon after The American Way of Eating, but my wife already had this checked out, and liked it. I figured I might as well read it while we still had it.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University, writes for a number of publications, professional and general, and has two blogs: one about economics, and one about food.

Cowen’s concept in this book is a little unclear. The subtitle is “New Rules for Everyday Foodies,” but the book doesn’t really contain rules as much as his concepts of what makes good food and how to find it, combined with some of his ideas on the economics of food. This does not mean that the book is mediocre, exactly. On the contrary, it is interesting, informative, accurate for the most part, and is improved by its lack of a solid “point.” One of my complaints about many modern non-fiction books is the need that the publishers feel to make the book have a moral, or a solution to the problems presented, or some singular focus. Often, the best thing a book can do is present a compelling story or issue, give some information regarding the problem that is probably not familiar to the reader, and let the reader draw a conclusion.

In a book like this, where the aim of the reader is to discover something about food and economics, the last thing needed is a list of hard and fast “rules” that probably will not work for the reader in every situation. Instead, this book is full of stories and thoughts on how the writer found good food around the world, which makes for an interesting read by itself, and gave me some ideas for future travel.

I will confess that I am a foodie. I have cooked ever since I was around seven or eight, and still needed a chair to see the top of the stove. By ten or so, I was cooking an occasional meal with just a little supervision, and started cooking for my family a few times a month in my teens. I informed my wife when we were contemplating marriage that we would have to share the kitchen, and that I expected to cook regularly. As it turns out, we are both happy with an even split of the cooking - and we certainly eat well as a result. Cooking and eating are both important to my life, and I find that food draws people together.

The combination of my love for food and my inherent cheapness - I *cough* mean frugality - I have generally aimed to find food with value when I eat out. There is the occasional splurge, but I try to find out-of-the-way places with interesting and unusual food.

The author of this book has largely the same idea, and has made it his aim in this book to show how to find inexpensive but highly delicious food.

The basic rule that he sets out is this:

Food is a product of economic supply and demand, so try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.

The rest of his suggestions follow from this idea. If there is only one Chinese restaurant in town, and few Chinese patrons, the food is likely terrible, for example. This one is certainly true. Conversely, good seafood is typically found next to the ocean, where there is plenty of competition, and more locals than tourists.

Some of his specific suggestions were spot on. I live near enough to the Los Angeles area (where I grew up) to be able to eat in the “Thai Town” section of east Hollywood. The author recommends this area, and he is certainly right. I have never had Thai food that good anywhere - except the times I have had home made food from friends.

Also following from the basic rule is that social status in a restaurant brings a price, both monetary and culinary. Once a restaurant has a reputation of a place to meet others and hob-nob, it has less incentive to keep the food good. The patrons have a different goal than good, inexpensive food.

Along with this argument is the idea of “price subsidies.” In the “old days,” airline fares were fixed by law, so competition was on service only. Thus, the high fixed ticket prices subsidized the cost of good food. Likewise, Starbucks (and similar businesses) can be a good source of high-quality coffee, subsidized by the more expensive sugary drinks.

In addition to the sections of the book devoted to the tips for the pursuit of good food, there are also interesting sections on other areas in which economics and gastronomy intersect.

Cowen seeks to disprove the three great myths of food snobbery. First, that the best food is also the most expensive. This is related to the idea that only “slow food” is best. Second, that large agribusiness is irredeemably bad. Third, that consumers not a trusted source of innovation, but must be controlled and nudged by various “experts,” particularly those in political office. This review doesn’t have the space for Cowen’s arguments, but they are worth a read.

Some of these arguments, naturally, get a little political. Depending on one’s views, his ideas will be more or less persuasive. In any event, they are thought provoking, and are based in economic theory, so they are not particularly partisan arguments.

Two examples are particularly interesting to me. First is his argument in favor of genetically modified foods. Again, I do not have time to reiterate his arguments, but I found them to be a breath of fresh air after all of the overheated rhetoric and scare tactics. A quick example here is interesting. Most of the hype is about Mosanto’s products that are resistant to the use of herbicides, allowing them to be sprayed wholesale without being killed. This would, presumably, result in more herbicide in the plant itself. Of course, such products could not be labeled as organic anyway, so they would be easy to avoid for that reason. The author’s point, however, is that the more common reason to modify a crop is so that it needs less herbicide or pesticide use. This would be of particular benefit to poor nations unable to afford the extensive infrastructure necessary to support widespread spraying. Again, one may or may not agree with his position, but he does lay out the economics of the issue in a non-alarmist manner.

The second example involves the use of carbon taxes - a big issue right now of course - to make it easier to estimate the environmental impact of food choices. Personally, I am unconvinced that carbon usage is a big evil to be eliminated, but I do appreciate his point that this is the best economic way to reduce carbon emissions. Essentially, right now, it is pretty much impossible to determine what the energy cost of any given food or packaging is. One can see the total cost to the supplier, but not what lies behind it. Indeed, with the extended food supply chains we have, no one person has all the information at hand. By taxing energy (or carbon emissions) one adds to the cost of that element of the total cost, making it matter to the consumer more than it does now. (This is based on the well proven idea that there are two costs to everything: the direct cost, which is clear from the price; and the indirect costs, like pollution, which are not borne by the consumer, but by society at large. By charging for the indirect costs through either taxes or regulation, the consumer is made to pay an amount closer to the sum of both costs.) Again, it depends on whether you agree with the basic premise.

I want to make a gratuitous mention of the source of the Mexican cheese industry, which is used as an example of which food is better eaten in Mexico than in El Paso. It was a group of Mennonite immigrants that got the whole thing started. Since I have Mennonite ancestry on both sides of my family, I found this interesting.

As a final point, I want to mention the author’s theory as to the reasons that so much of American food is lousy, and how it got that way. The author thinks that the confluence of four factors changed American food in the 1940s and thereafter.

First was Prohibition. I have written elsewhere that I believe the two greatest scourges of the American nation were slavery and Prohibition. I believe that they were, together, the source of much of our current obesity epidemic. This book gives me even more reasons to reinforce my opinion. In essence, the author argues that most of the truly good restaurants in the larger cities were dependent on wine and beer sales for their profit margin. (This holds true today as well.) Also, much fine cuisine just goes better with alcohol. Prohibition drove the good establishments out of business, and those that defied the law had to focus on provision of booze and hiding from the law, rather good food.

The second factor was the industrialization caused by World War Two. The United States is pretty good at creating industrial processes, and the war cause a need to develop such for food preservation.

The third factor was the early Twentieth Century crackdown on immigration. Total numbers of immigrants fell dramatically with the new quotas, and therefore, our biggest source of food innovation dried up. The exception, of course, was immigrants from Mexico and further south, which have always crossed, legally or illegally, in great numbers. This explains why decent Mexican influenced food is available throughout the Southwest, but good food from most other places is only now making a comeback.

The final factor is our tendency to cater to our children’s preferences for bad food. I am happy to say that there are at least a few of us who expect our kids to eat what we eat. However, the damage was done, and there is no end of chicken strips and mac ‘n’ cheese wherever one goes in this nation.

I think in light of the thoroughly ghastly food that took hold in the 1950s, the author has a point here.

Summary: an interesting, thoughtful read, with enough food ideas to cause drooling, and enough economics to inspire a evaluation of one’s perspective.

1 comment:

  1. Ooo. Another one to mark down to read. (I did purchase that one on fonts for a Christmas surprise. It's hidden away.)

    THIS title sounds like it's up my alley!