Edible Economics: Making Food Choices Through an Economic Lens

An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies

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Every Meal Counts

Like other necessities of life, food is subject to the subtle and sometimes inscrutable workings of market forces. Yet food, while a necessity, is also much more: Our experience of it is both sensual and highly symbolic, a rich crossroads of history, culture, family and memory.

And even as, in much of the developed world, the daily struggle for food has faded into the background, with overconsumption rather than underconsumption the more pressing concern, food remains a contentious issue. Writers like Michael Pollan have raised questions about the influence of large agribusiness, and the call to support local, organic, sustainable food production has become the rallying cry for both a "locavore" food movement and a broader cultural stance critiquing our very way of life.

Tyler Cowen's new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, brings a set of simple economic principles to the everyday choices made by people who care about food. It presents a clear-eyed picture of how to go about finding good food value (both in terms of quality and price), one that dispels simple comparisons between local, artisanal traditions and the mass production methods of contemporary consumer society. The book is at its best when, in keeping with its title, it sticks with a highly personal, anecdotal approach.

Every Meal Counts

Cowen is a foodie, albeit a very particular kind of foodie. While he doesn't mind spending money on good food, he eschews various forms of food snobbery, especially those that equate cost with quality and automatically assume the superiority of food made from local ingredients. He feels there is no excuse for a bad meal, and believes that the best food values are usually found off the well-beaten path. Excessive routine and excessive regulation are both culinary culprits in his view. Essentially, he stakes out a position as a populist foodie with conservative leanings.

An anecdote in the opening chapter about the author's search for a few good meals in Nicaragua sets the tone for the best of what is to follow -- a kind of personal journey through food, informed equally by economics and informed hunches. While Nicaragua is not known for having great food, the author pays attention to local patterns, gets advice from cab drivers and finds his way to a handful of cheap but satisfying meals. From this experience he distills his central "rules" for common-sense foodies:

1. Every meal counts. Good, affordable food can be found anywhere; it's just a matter of deciphering local "codes" and "signals."

2. Good food is often cheap food. This is not to be confused with junk food.

3. Be innovative as a consumer. Cowen believes that a fundamental shift in eating habits starts with individual consumers, not with political or food elites, and that such a shift can make the world a better place. The author asserts that readers can best innovate as consumers by applying basic principles of supply and demand to their daily food choices: "Try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed."

In Defense of Agribusiness ... Sort of

One of the author's central ideological tenets is that large agribusiness is not the villain it has been portrayed to be by authors such as Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation). Such critics tend to blame agribusiness for the prevalence of highly processed and packaged food in the American diet -- everything from Velveeta and Hostess Twinkies to McDonald's and TV dinners. Cowen contends that contemporary agribusiness is a neutral platform not necessarily biased toward inferior products. Just as we don't blame the modern printing press for the existence of bad novels, we shouldn't blame agribusiness for the low points of the American culinary scene.

Cowen does acknowledge that American cuisine went through an extended period of mediocrity and blandness, but presents an alternative history of how this came to be. The first culprit was Prohibition -- the 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages. There has long been a synergy in the restaurant business between food and drink, and the sudden disruption of that equation had a disastrous effect on many of the nation's best restaurants. Chefs trained in classical French cuisine could no longer even use wine in their sauces. One commentator characterized Prohibition as a "gastronomic holocaust." Though the period of formal Prohibition lasted only a decade, individual counties and states had been going dry since the 1880s, and many states were slow to restore pre-Prohibition access to alcohol: Texas, for example, didn't allow the sale of alcohol in restaurants until 1971. Thus, Prohibition has cast a longer shadow over the American food scene than many realize.

Other historical factors include World War II -- which placed a premium on convenient, pre-packaged food, often of low quality -- and severe restrictions on immigration imposed in the early 1920s and not fully relaxed until 1965. Demographic shifts in the 1950s, like the rise in suburban commuting and in dual-income households, only further reinforced the trend toward a "least common denominator" cuisine in which quickness and convenience trumped quality. Finally, the author notes cultural considerations such as the prevalence of TV and the child-centered nature of American family life. In traditional European culture, children are expected to adapt to adult tastes; the more permissive American approach to childrearing in a sense encouraged the opposite.

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