Book Chat: An Economist Gets Lunch

By Hannah Lee

It’s about time that an economist weighs in on the foodie scene and the locavore movement.  Despite the negative advance press about Tyler Cowen’s new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, I kept an open mind.  I was rewarded by a delightful read and I learned lots of fascinating strategies for finding good, affordable food, especially when one is away from home.

More after the jump.
Tyler CowenA professor at George Mason University, Cowen is a foodie who keeps his passion in check with a studied knowledge of market forces.  Since food is a product of economic supply and demand, his three principles to guide him in his food choices are to “figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.”

It was on a trip to Nicaragua, a place not known to offer good food, that Cowen first developed his tactics for finding decent meals. Upon arriving in the country past lunchtime, he engaged a “relatively old” taxi driver — chosen for safety (he’s survived his own driving?), good local stories, and information — and offered him both lunch and payment to find “something really special to eat, something very Nicaraguan.”  So, where would the driver take him, but the best that he would himself want to eat and on his client’s expense?  The lunch of quesillos cost him $12, including the bonus payment.  (He knew to be wary of agua corriente (running water), so he ordered bottled drinks and he was amazed to learn that his leftover drinks were poured into plastic bags, placed on ice, and held for re-sale.)  The only bad meal he had was seafood, but that led to another tip, “when donkey carts are common and women carry baskets on their heads, eat your fish right by the ocean or lake,” because the transportation is slow and refrigeration is rudimentary.

Cowen challenges the snobbery of food writers, commentators, and foodies and their mistaken adherence to three rules: the best food is expensive; large agribusiness is bad; and consumers are not a trusted source of innovation. Despite being a foodie and an environmentalist, I was impressed by the data he uses to support his debunking of these guidelines.  His chapter on the agricultural revolution convinced me that technological progress and agricultural commercialization have brought major and lasting improvements to much of the world.  (I was reminded that the first agricultural revolution was when the Aztecs learned to release the goodness of corn with the addition of mineral lime.)  Finally, his chapter on a greener planet may irk those who’ve made a conscious decision to leave a smaller carbon footprint.  Cowen writes that shopping locally may not be the best choice because transportation costs are only 11% of the total energy cost of food.  My take-home lesson was that foods delivered by cargo ship have the lowest environmental impact (as “floating things are much easier to move”) while air freight has the highest.  Another lesson for readers is to reduce our meat intake.  A Carnegie Mellon study has found that cutting back on red meat one day a week does more for the environment than eating all locally sources foods for all of our meals.

In a chapter on why American food got so bad, he implicated the Prohibition, children, and television.  Furthermore, during World War II, Americans actually ate more meat, but it was of poor quality, including canned meat (Spam, with its high fat and salt content).  Europe, which suffered actual food shortages, did not turn to convenience food (they had no factories to produce them), so what food they had tasted better.  The only bright spot in our history was the arrival of immigrants who vastly improved and diversified our food culture.

The chapter on the American supermarket and Cowen’s month-long experiment to shop only in an Asian market dovetailed with my experience shopping in such markets where the selection of greens is varied and cheap (offered as loss leaders to bring in the customers), the seafood is fresh and smelly which disgusts Americans, and the staff is neither friendly nor fluent in English.  His advice to not block our creativity is to eschew the convenience of the conventional supermarket.

The book has chapters on barbecue, the ultimate “slow food”; why hospitals, cinemas, and city centers have such bad food, and how to find the best meals cheaply.  The chapter on Asian food is a contrast to standard travel guides, in that Cowen does not list best restaurants, but how to find the best food.  The five countries that he deems as having the worst Chinese food are: Italy, Germany, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Chile (for different reasons).  Our family’s worst meal in a Chinese establishment occurred in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, where the Chinese folk are descendants of immigrants of the 19th century, thus out of touch with their cultural touchstones.  He details the traits of the different Asian cuisines and how they fare in America.  The chapter ends with his prescription for how to get a decent Chinese meal at any place.

Here’s a recommendation from Cowen that you would never find in a guidebook:

“In a lot of restaurants, it is a propitious omen if the diners are screaming at each other and appear to be fighting and pursuing blood feuds.  It’s a sign they are regular customers and that they feel at home in the restaurant.  It’s a sign they go there a lot.  Few people show up at a strange restaurant and behave that way, but they might do so in a place where they know the proprietor and staff.  A lot of Chinese restaurants are full of screaming Chinese patrons — don’t ask me if it’s fighting.  I have no idea– but it is a sign I want to be there too.”

 Cowen does not know that three Chinese speaking together do sound like they’re screaming.

The chapter on Mexican food is a case study for the impact of law and wealth on the quality and variety of food.  Cowen compared the sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Ju├írez, which were one until after the Mexican-American War of 1848, for their respective meat, cheese (made by Mennonites in Mexico!), lard, tortilla, and tomatoes.  Hands down, the Mexican food is tastier, but the American food is more varied, consistent, and fresh.  He noted that Mexicans regard vegetarians as odd or absurd.  Dietary restriction, other than for Lent, is a notion not well appreciated.

The best chapter for world travelers is the one on how to find great food anywhere and how and why the food in countries are different.  In France (and only in France), Cowen recommends using a Michelin guidebook to identify the cheapest restaurants, i.e., no stars and one or two forks.  Two-forked places are “comfortable,” but the starred places are awarded for culinary innovation and the chef’s prestige.  He writes, “I don’t need the extra innovation and probably I am trying to avoid the innovation.  I seek the perfect pot-au-feu.”  He further describes the best methods for finding good food in Tokyo, Singapore, India, London, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Istanbul.  I’ll try to apply his strategies on our summer vacation in Scotland.