An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, by Tyler Cowen (Dutton, 304 pp., $26.95)

Three weeks of driving around Sicily some years ago and two weeks in Rome this April taught my wife and me some things about Italian cuisine: it’s impossible to encounter bad food in Sicily and it’s hard to avoid it in Rome. We were, of course, not there just for the food—but since we’re foodies, this did matter. Dining well in Rome required a strategy: we stuck to the Michelin Guide for anything expensive, used locals for advice, and relied on our own intuition. The elderly gentleman who sold me some ties in Trastevere recommended lunch at a bar around the corner from his shop. Small and spare, it was full of local businesspeople and workers eating pasta and plates of chicory, and we had a wonderful lunch of fettuccine and tomatoes. When on our own, we looked for spots away from tourists, mostly pizza places with just a few other things on a chalk menu. If the pizza wasn’t properly blackened and blistered, we moved on. At the best of these, we had perfect pizza and a perfect octopus salad. Now assuming that food was, say, 20 percent of the reason for our two trips, the lessons we learned about Italian food cost us (airfare, lodging, and gas) many multiples of the price of Tyler Cowen’s nifty new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies.

The operative word in Cowen’s title is “everyday.” I’ve argued that America’s new food culture is egalitarian, not elitist. Even at the higher end, much great food is cheaper than expensive food was in the 1960s; the really expensive good stuff elevates the mid-level price range; and the food purveyed by the waves of immigrants of the past 40 years is as cheap as it is delicious. Cowen’s book isn’t the most original of its kind, but it’s useful (he’s an economist, after all) for people who don’t know about good food and would like to find it without breaking the bank. It also tells a lively and persuasive story about how America came to need a gastronomic revolution and has interesting things to say about the misguided moralism of those hostile to industrial food production.

So how did American food fall to the depths of 1960? In Cowen’s view, it wasn’t the doing of greedy agribusiness in league with the Mad Men. Three great tsunamis wrecked the American palate: Prohibition, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the rise of TV and the empire of children. When I first arrived at Michigan State University back in 1971, I noticed that the faculty club was far from campus—in fact, just outside the city limit. Why? Because East Lansing, where beer pong now reigns on weekends, was dry until 1968 (that’s four years after the Beatles invaded). Even today, we learn from Cowen, about 18 million Americans live in dry communities in states like Kentucky, Arkansas, and Texas. The Eighteenth Amendment put good restaurants out of business or drove them into the grip of gangsters and corrupt officials, and opened the legitimate restaurants that remained to children and their childish tastes. The Great Depression and the Second World War then extended the culinary hangover for another 20 years after Prohibition’s repeal in 1930.

Just a year after Prohibition began, America closed its immigration door, and it remained closed until 1968. This almost 50-year ban built a moat around American food in general and isolated existing immigrant communities from their culinary roots, thus dumbing down their food. (Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s wonderful film, Big Night, illustrates this story well.) In the postwar period, the TV culture arrived. By 1955, two-thirds of American households had a television set. The result of this massive cultural shift was to raise the “TV cost” of preparing and sitting down to a family dinner: the time between the last daytime soap and the prime-time shows was too short for lingering at the table. Add to this the increase of working women, and we got the flood of processed convenience food. The TV dinner and pizza became popular, says Cowen, because you could eat them without taking your eyes off the tube (and just think what this did to the “pizza,” which in its non–New York, American form evolved into a rigid slab of “cheese”).

All this meshed with the rise of the American child. Far less than Europeans and Asians, American parents “parent,” which means, Cowen says, giving in to their kids’ whims and demands. Kids like to eat things that are soft, smooth, and sweet: hence the ubiquitous Big Mac. So it wasn’t the producers (i.e., agribusiness) that ruined American food. Cowen concedes that TV advertising made it possible for them to appeal profitably to mass audiences and thus mass taste. But the producers didn’t create that taste, which was long in the making from the effects of public policy and social forces. Along with producing an abundance that wiped out hunger and malnutrition in the United States and elsewhere (our problem today is obesity, not starvation), the producers catered to an America that knew almost nothing about the wonders of good food.

Today, there’s little doubt that the bleak food scene of 1960 is behind us. I’ll bet there are more cooking contests in America now than beauty pageants, and Iron Chef America probably has as big an audience as do monster-truck competitions. Good cooking abounds in America. That said, good taste and bad will always compete, and bad will often win: we’re a democracy, after all. Cowen provides the tips, and the economic reasons behind them, for navigating a food scene now so complicated that the hopeful but uninformed need some help.

Cowen’s basic principle is that food is a matter of supply and demand. If you want to find good food, you need to know “where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.” Cowen points out that discerning customers are often more important for good food than a top chef. Restaurateurs begin with a business model, choose the clientele they wish to serve, and then cook accordingly. The smart diner can thus practice a form of culinary profiling to determine whether a place will be really good for food or good for something else. So Cowen advises, for instance, to be leery of trendy places with a “scene,” where everyone is laughing and having fun. It’s likely that the customers came for the fun, not first-rate food.

If a celebrity chef comes to town, Cowen’s advice is to wait a few weeks for the kinks to be ironed out and then dine at his establishment within the first six months. The celebrity will be on hand to discipline the kitchen and the staff so as to get good reviews and build the business, but soon he’ll take off and the quality will start to slide. This isn’t an iron rule: the brilliant José Andrés is a conspicuous exception, whom Cowen doesn’t mention. The world of top chefs is divided into two camps: chefs’ chefs and celebrity chefs. An example of the former is Frank Ruta of Washington, D.C.’s Palena. Ruta is one of the city’s and America’s very best cooks, but he works nightly in the kitchen and avoids the limelight. I’ve dined at Palena; it cost an arm and a leg but was worth every penny for the inventive, elegant cuisine and the service (and the quiet).

Examples of the second group are Wolfgang Puck and Richard Sandoval, who have something approaching a chain around the world. On these guys, Cowen is right on the money. Sandoval’s D.C. restaurant (Latin-Asian fusion) opened to good reviews and became a hit. But Sandoval left six months later, and today his place doesn’t make the Washingtonian’s top 100 restaurants. The same happened with Puck’s wildly expensive The Source in D.C.: a flashy debut followed by a Washingtonian rating of mediocre this year. If you go to these restaurants, you’ll still depart without the arm and the leg, but you can do much better elsewhere for the same or less.

Cowen’s most useful insights concern good ethnic food. Not all of his advice is new, but it bears repeating, and the economic fundamentals are interesting and fun to know. Small mom-and-pop ethnic enterprises tend to enjoy what he calls a “cross subsidy”—that is, family members, masters of their cuisine, cook and serve for free. Such establishments are more likely to be found in outer suburbs or on the grungy side of town. That’s because rent, a fixed cost, is cheap in those areas, and that makes the food cheap. Again, that’s been known for a long time. But I’ve never seen it observed that from this principle, one can deduce that, all other things being equal, you’ll dine better in New York on an east-west street than on a north-south avenue.

But good ethnic food isn’t good just because it’s cheap. More important is these eateries’ proximity and accessibility to discerning diners, who needn’t be rich, and in the case of the ethnic spots are usually not well off at all. My wife and I know a couple, the distaff half of which is both Bolivian and a graduate of the Cordon Bleu in Paris. She knows food from top to bottom. We met them for lunch in Luzmila’s, a hole-in-the-wall Bolivian restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia. Luzmila’s is open only for lunch and within minutes of opening is packed with Bolivian immigrant families. Our friend said it was the best Bolivian she knew of in the area, and indeed, the peanut soup and the salteñas were divine. Had we paid through the nose, they’d have been worth it; the cheapness was a plus, but the real value was the food’s pure excellence.

Luzmila’s was one of many Bolivian spots on its street. The Cowen explanation: where many establishments compete for the same customer base, the higher the quality will tend to be. The worst Indian restaurant in a string of many on a strip is likelier to be far better than the only Indian place in a neighborhood or town. If you’re in that one-Indian town, look for something else. But what if the only food in town is Indian, or Chinese? Cowen suggests asking the chef to cook you dishes off his beaten path. Ask for “Thai spicy” or “family style,” or even something not on the menu at all, such as Ma Po Tofu (tofu is easy to keep fresh, and the mediocre ground pork in the dish will be better than the sure-to-be-limp shrimp in the so-called lobster sauce). Chances are you’ll give the cook a chance to make something he’d rather do but almost never can.

Why is Vietnamese food not popular with Americans? Because it depends on condiments and sauces that Americans don’t understand and Vietnamese restaurateurs have not well explained (informed consumers again). What’s gone wrong with Thai food? It has become too popular and thus gone sweet. How to get the best of the Thai that remains? Look for spots without a bar, or ones attached to, of all things, a motel: no bar, low rent, and a family operation. Pakistani restaurants are generally better than Indian ones, though the food is quite similar. Why? Pakistan isn’t high up the list of Americans’ favorite foreign countries, and Islam is likely to be present in the décor and in the absence of alcohol. As a result, Pakistani cooks prepare their food for Pakistanis and not a wider, and blander, clientele.

A whole chapter explains why the Mexican food in El Paso, Texas is so different from that in its sister city (sharing similar demographics and history) across the U.S.-Mexico border, Ciudad Juárez. The chapter illuminates the effects of the more industrialized supply chain in the U.S. and the less developed one south of the border. Mexican meat is grass-fed and dry-aged (not common in the U.S.); fish and vegetables tend to travel short distances from around Mexico, though not so for fish in Juárez. Mexicans use pork lard, while El Paso cooks use vegetable oils; Mexican cheeses are fatty and gooey, but much more so than in the U.S. The overall result: the Mexican Mexican food is bolder, richer, and fresher than the Tex-Mex variety, though there is a growing “convergence” in the manufacture and taste of tortillas. (Less salutary results: you’re much likelier to get sick in Mexico, and Mexicans are even more prone to diabetes than Americans.)

Cowen isn’t an enemy of our supply chain, which is hard on fruits and vegetables (the supermarket tomato isn’t a tomato). Cuisines have to live with what they’ve got, and in the U.S., while we’ve not got “the best ingredients when it comes to foodstuffs . . . we have some of the best raw ingredients when it comes to human talents.” True, but since the 1970s, America supplies have improved a lot. You just have to look for them and be able to pay for them. At several farmers’ markets in D.C., I can get a well-deformed heirloom tomato that is manna from heaven.

Cowen’s book has its wonky side, but even then it’s mostly fun. I say mostly because the chapter “Another Agricultural Revolution, Now,” treats the more dismal food issues from the perspective of his dismal science. Cowen rightly points out that agricultural advances underpinned the industrial revolution, and that the mechanization of farming resulted in large productivity increases. Scientific farming took off in the 1940s, with the use of fertilizers, advanced hybrid breeding, and the application of corporate business models of production: goodbye family farm, hello Monsanto. The result was an enormous increase of cheap food made available to the U.S. and the world. That’s the good news, from Cowen’s point of view. The bad news: of late, rates of food-productivity increases have stagnated, prices have gone up, and in much of the world malnutrition remains rampant. Even in democratic and successful India, Cowen notes, almost half of children under the age of five are malnourished. They suffer now and will endure irreparable physical and intellectual damage in the future.

The root of most of the trouble, says Cowen, is the absence of agribusiness in hungry nations, the result of both bad public policy and bad infrastructure. Indian policy makes land rental and foreign investment in agribusiness nigh impossible, and roughly two-thirds of its wheat crop rots on the bad roads to market. The bad policy isn’t confined to the hungry countries, either. American subsidies of ethanol gobble up 40 percent of U.S. corn production. The environmental benefit is small, because growing and producing the stuff pollutes. The real losers, though, are the hungry in poor countries facing skyrocketing food costs. It makes no better sense to make ethanol out of corn than it did to grow wheat in Saudi Arabia, which used up 300 billion cubic feet of water and produced wheat that cost $500 per ton (compared with a world price of $120).

And then there’s the hysteria about genetically modified organisms, especially in Europe. Corn and your dog did not exist in nature (neither did the corn dog); they resulted from genetic engineering, albeit by pre-DNA methods. Ditto for hybrid corn. The genetic modification that produced these older things used different means from our high-tech genetic engineering, but the principle is the same. Today’s new methods are already in wide use, and people are not being born with two heads. Moreover, genetic modification is surely one crucial element in fighting the malnutrition plaguing poor and less-developed countries. European bans and regulations prevent African farmers exporting crops to Europe from growing modified crops for fear of “contamination.” Starving African kids is a high price to pay for this European foolishness not shared in the U.S. even by the Amish, who are enthusiastic producers of genetically modified food.

Cowen’s other wonky chapter is much more entertaining: “Eating Your Way to a Greener Planet.” It’s full of tart observations about who we think isn’t green but is (Wal-Mart), what we think isn’t green but is (plastic), and who we think is green but isn’t (your local small farmer). We learn why boycotts don’t work against supposedly non-green producers and how to correct our own non-green eating habits. My favorite: if you think foie gras production is cruel to the birds but you love foie gras and can’t give it up, cultivate a taste for the very best. It will be expensive, so unless you’re rich you will eat much less of it. In matters of green taste, it’s still true for Cowen that private vice can be turned to public virtue.

Cowen’s book also offers a swift “encyclopedia” for finding good food wherever you may be (try Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in Tokyo!). The principles are the same: find out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed. At least one place makes this easy: Sicily, where you can eat anything, even Indian. My wife and I learned this lesson by happy accident, and at significant cost. But we’d have gone to Sicily with even more anticipation if we’d had the benefit of Cowen’s clever and useful book.


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