An Economist Gets Lunch
New Rules for Everyday Foodies
One of the most influential economists of the decade-and the New York Times bestselling author of The Great Stagnation-boldly argues that just about everything you've heard about food is wrong.
Food snobbery is killing entrepreneurship and innovation, says economist, preeminent social commentator, and maverick dining guide blogger Tyler Cowen. Americans are becoming angry that our agricultural practices have led to global warming-but while food snobs are right that local food tastes better, they're wrong that it is better for the environment, and they are wrong that cheap food is bad food. The food world needs to know that you don't have to spend more to eat healthy, green, exciting meals. At last, some good news from an economist!
Tyler Cowen discusses everything from slow food to fast food, from agriculture to gourmet culture, from modernist cuisine to how to pick the best street vendor. He shows why airplane food is bad but airport food is good; why restaurants full of happy, attractive people serve mediocre meals; and why American food has improved as Americans drink more wine. And most important of all, he shows how to get good, cheap eats just about anywhere.
Just as The Great Stagnation was Cowen's response to all the fashionable thinking about the economic crisis, An Economist Gets Lunch is his response to all the fashionable thinking about food. Provocative, incisive, and as enjoyable as a juicy, grass-fed burger, it will influence what you'll choose to eat today and how we're going to feed the world tomorrow.
American food is in crisis, and rarely has more disruption loomed before us. People are rebelling against current food-production methods involving long-distance shipping, fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms. Many people have returned to eating locally grown food from small farms, and there is a fear that our agricultural practices lead to mass-produced food products that are bad for our health and worsen climate change. But is this fear well founded? Is local food a good thing?
On the other side of the ledger, we are spending more and more on fancy restaurants. At a time when many economic sectors are struggling, the choices for fine meals are expanding in most American cities. But are we spending our money in the best way possible, or are we overlooking cheaper and possibly superior alternatives?
In a world with some pretty big problems, is it even appropriate to think of food in aesthetic terms as much as we do? The backlash drove a recently published article in the Atlantic Monthly to suggest that foodies are evil for aestheticizing the experience of eating. But what could be morally wrong with eating good, even beautiful food?
The food crisis is not confined to cultured readers of urbane magazines. As the fallout from our larger economic crisis continues, more than forty-four million Americans are receiving food stamps. High unemployment has persisted far longer than politicians expected. Starvation is no longer a major American problem, but obesity is—especially among lower earners. The prevalence of diabetes continues to rise.
The news isn’t all bad. The American restaurant scene has been transformed over the last few decades since Calvin Trillin wrote (hilariously) about pretentious dining establishments, which he collectively referred to as “La Maison de la Casa Haus.” Bolivian, Laotian, and North Korean dishes are staples of my dining out. I know how “Husband and Wife Lung Slices” taste (not bad). Where government regulations allow, food trucks are proving more popular than a lot of sit-down restaurants—and it’s not just a desire to get away from those lung slices.
But most seriously, as our global population grows to nine billion and beyond and agricultural productivity slows, another Green Revolution propelled by agricultural innovations will become increasingly imperative. Food prices have been rising, contributing to political unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, and help on this front seems far away. Countries are stockpiling foodstuffs; and when prices spike, governments shut down food exports with the ostensible goal of feeding their populations. The global trade network isn’t as robust as we have wanted to believe.
Since Upton Sinclair self-published The Jungle, his exposé of the meat packing industry in Chicago in 1906, Americans have been repeatedly alerted to disturbing realities of their food quality and economy. However, this is an especially critical moment.
When it comes to food, the whole world needs some big changes. These changes will happen only gradually, but this book is about how you can start eating better food now for your own good and for everyone else’s. We need a special kind of revolution.
Let’s start with a personal story about finding good food no matter how exotic or ordinary, about finding food that simply tastes good. Constructing a better eating experience and understanding where the quality of that experience comes from, is, strangely enough, the first and most important step toward feeding those nine billion people.
A Journey into the Unknown
I was on my way to Nicaragua. No one had seemed enthusiastic about Nicaraguan food and the guidebooks were not overflowing with praise. I decided I would figure things out on arrival. Let’s be clear: Every meal really matters to me.
A bit of bread and cheese accompanied me on the flight to Managua. That was to hold me over, since my flight was not arriving until the late lunch hour of 1:30 p. m. It was cheddar cheese from Safeway, extra sharp, and three-day-old sourdough bread from Whole Foods. The point of the snack was to avoid showing up famished; getting too hungry leads to all sorts of problems, including eating before you have found the best available place. You could also think of it as a kind of reverential abstinence before a culinary adventure.
Anyway, I got off the plane and searched for a taxi. Inside the airport terminal I negotiated the price to León, a city about two hours north of the Managua airport. Outside I picked a relatively old taxi driver. An old driver is a good way to get personal safety, good local stories, information—and, well, a good way to find a place to eat, maybe the best way. The fare was set, but once we were under way I negotiated a separate price for the first step of my odyssey.
“I’d like to stop for something really special to eat, something very Nicaraguan. I’ll offer you ten dollars for your time and I’ll also invite you there for lunch.” I probably didn’t need to pay so much, but I was excited.
He accepted my offer and told me we would stop at a quesillo near León. A food cart? A bar? A brothel? I didn’t know. He warned me that it was near the end of our trip. I was hungry but, thanks to the bread and cheese, could be patient. I reflected as the miles bumped by that quesillo probably refers to queso, the Spanish-language word for cheese.
We were about half an hour from León when I saw an official-looking road sign saying there are quesillos ahead. A few minutes later I saw about five on each side of the road. They were all open- air restaurants, and all had customers. The indications were positive.
The cabbie said he knew a special quesillo in the small town of La Paz, so we stopped there, in the second cluster of quesillos. I was told only one cooked dish is served and it was called . . . you’ll never guess: a quesillo. The choice is between “without onions” and “complete.” I ordered mine “complete,” without asking what that meant.
It turns out that a quesillo is pretty simple. The dish is cool, liquid white cream, rolled in a thick warm tortilla with gooey cheese, with onions inside and a splash of vinegar. The tortilla and the cheese are made on the premises each day. The onions give it a sweetness and soft grit to the texture, while the vinegar adds its goodness. Simple. Awesome.
We continued the drive to León together in his rather ramshackle vehicle, chatting about the colonial architecture and all the places to visit in Nicaragua. As we crossed the countryside, I marveled at the beautiful volcanoes and the lakes, but I also noticed the local agriculture. Immediately outside of León I saw a few small farms—very small farms— that raised and sold chickens. Duly noted.
Once we arrived, I quickly became fond of León. It’s one of the most charming Latin American towns I’ve seen; a kind of magical dream that you think cannot exist outside a magic realism novel, except it does. Run-down enough to evoke the past, the buildings are still attractive and everyone seems to have deep roots in the place, with a town square that comes alive at dusk with families, teenagers courting and flirting, merchants selling balloons, and older people sitting on benches.
At first I thought I would try the town’s best restaurant, but I wasn’t encouraged by what I heard. Both my hotel and my guidebooks claim that the best place is a restaurant called El Mediterráneo, which, as the name indicates, serves Mediterranean food. It might be good, but is that what I flew down here for? Besides, I liked the atmosphere of the town square.
I walked around and I noted about five vendors selling the same thing: fried chicken with French fries—El Salvador style, as it was called. Five looked like a lot of vendors in this square. It was a sign of a healthy competitive market as any economist might tell you. I figured the chicken was from those local farms, so I ordered some from the freshest-looking stand. If it wasn’t any good I could just leave it and go to El Mediterráneo. But it was delicious—as good as the fried chicken you get in those hot-spot Manhattan restaurants experimenting with the concept, for instance Jean-Georges’s place on Perry Street, where I recently had inferior fried chicken for more than ten times the price.
The woman selling the chicken sprinkled some delicious crumbly, sweet- salty white cheese on top of it all, a Central American standard. I’m still entertaining the hypothesis that Nicaragua has the best fresh white cheese in the world, El Salvador included.
As of the time I ate the chicken (and cheese), I’d only been in the country for six or seven hours, but I’d begun formulating my hypothesis about how the food supply chain works: The wealthy people have servants cook for them, so a lot of the upper-end dining establishments are only so-so. There’s not much of a formal dining culture, at least not in restaurants. There is an alternative and quite fantastic food world, manifest in fresh corn products, perfect white cheese in various forms, and baked goods, which I began to observe all over León. That food culture is where locals go for their favorite meals; I just had to find my way into it.
After six or seven hours in Nicaragua, I don’t think my hypothesis deserves a formal academic paper. But I’m going to use it—until it’s proven false.
Before going to bed, I bought a chocolate ice cream cone, knowing that Nicaragua is a major producer of cacao. Bull’s-eye.
I was determined to avoid my hotel’s breakfast buffet. Breakfast can be the best street- food meal of the day, though in hotels it is usually the worst. I headed over to the Mercado Central, which is also a food market. Not having a clue what to order, I walked into the food section of the market and saw everyone ordering the same thing: a mountain of yucca surrounded by fresh cabbage, rice and beans to the side, and on top of the yucca about five pieces of pork, fried in what appeared to be a red achiote sauce.
The yucca was soft, moist, and luscious, unlike the fried pieces of rock you often get in U.S. Latino restaurants. The pork was a little chewy but flavorful and the achiote sauce gave it a tanginess. I munched on the cabbage and worried slightly about getting sick.
Getting a drink was a little tougher. They offered me “juice of orange,” but when it came it was essentially water with a bit of artificial orange flavoring in it. I repeatedly asked about the freshness and safety of the water but always got the same answer. The server confidently said it was “agua corriente,” namely “running water.” I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad news and didn’t take the drink. I got a Coca- Cola— not my ideal breakfast beverage, but it was the cane sugar version rather than the standard U.S. corn-syrup one.
My “drinks,” by the way, cost fifty cents— total— for two. How can this be? Well, they took my remaining Coca-Cola (most of it) and poured it into an empty plastic bag—for resale—then stuck the bag in a tray of ice. Yes, I was putting the bottle directly to my lips. My lean entrepreneur food vendors also took the rejected orange drink and did the same, thus indicating they eventually would receive more than my fifty cents.
Rule number 2,367B for food- and-drink safety: Don’t drink anything that comes in a hand-tied plastic bag.
On my way out of the food market I bought a baked good, halfway between a cookie and bread, with something slightly sweet on top. I’m not so good at figuring out the contents of baked goods, in part because I don’t bake, but these items were justifiably popular with the residents of León. A lot of other people were buying them too. The price is included in the three-dollar sum above.
I had eaten three delicious meals and the expense had been minimal. But maybe the highlight of the trip was during another cab ride, when I offered the driver some extra money to take me to a tamale stand.
He had a hard time finding one, as most of the tamale sellers close by the afternoon, when the product is no longer fresh. After about ten minutes of driving around neighborhoods, we came across a woman transporting a basket of tamales on her head. We stopped and I bought a corn tamale from her, and also bought a tamale for the driver.
The two tamales cost 20 córdobas, or about one dollar. I had no bill smaller than 50 córdobas and the woman had no change. We were in the middle of a residential neighborhood with no one in sight and no store nearby. I insisted that she keep the change and that I was pleased to have my sweet corn tamale. She refused. I asked again. She refused again. So I had to wait ten minutes in the cab while she went off to find change for the bill. At least I had a home-cooked tamale to eat—and it was probably my best meal in Nicaragua.
I can’t say I proved the hypothesis about the corn and the cream being the keys to the cuisine, but at the end of my four-day trip I had a lot of confirming evidence. Only one of my meals in town, this time seafood, was less than excellent and led to a new hypothesis. It needs further field testing, but here goes:
When donkey carts are common and women carry baskets on their heads, eat your fish right by the ocean or lake.
Another way of putting it is that if transportation is slow, and refrigeration is a recent innovation, fish and indeed any seafood you find as little as ten miles from the water won’t taste so good.
As it stands, food writers, commentators, and foodies are misled by three doctrines, useless in Nicaragua, useless at home, and misleading almost everywhere else:
1 The best food is more expensive. (Assume time is money, and it follows that slow food is better.)
2 Our largest source of cheap food— large agribusiness—is irredeemably bad.
3 Consumers are not a trusted source of innovation; rather, they are to be constrained, nudged, taxed, and subjected to the will of others—chefs, food writers, cultural leaders, and, especially, political officeholders.
Taken together these views constitute our generation’s food snobbery. These prejudices are apparent in gourmet food magazines such as Bon Appétit and the now defunct Gourmet, in anti- agribusiness documentaries such as Food, Inc. and Super Size Me, and in restrictions on food carts, street food, nonpasteurized cheeses, and the numerous government interventions that stand between us and better, cheaper food. Author Michael Pollan, who has made some valid arguments about food in the modern world, tells us to leave food on our plate in his most recent Food Rules. I say, find or make good food—and eat it.
For all the lofty rhetoric about “locavores” and “slow food,” this food snobbery is pessimistic, paternalistic, and most of all it is anti-innovation. Neither the consumer nor the businessperson is trusted to innovate; there is a false nostalgia for primitive agriculture, based on limited transportation and the arduous conversion of raw materials into comestible commodities. Rarely is it admitted, much less emphasized, that cheap, quick food—including its embodiment through our sometimes obnoxious agribusiness corporations—is the single most important advance in human history. It is the foundation of modern civilization and the reason why most of us are alive. Before there was an Industrial Revolution, which eventually brought the conveniences of modern life, there was an Agricultural Revolution, which created a large enough social surplus to make further economic development possible. It enabled us to pull people off the farm and employ them as scientists, engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs.
Earlier food worlds were no paradise. If we go back to the middle of the nineteenth century, American consumers were suspicious of the concepts of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and milk, unless it came from their farm or a neighbor’s. In practice “extremely fresh” and “spoiled” were close concepts, as even today any amateur cheese or sausage maker will attest. Back then, people did not know where “fresh” food came from or how long it had been sitting exposed to the heat and elements. There was no expiration date on the package and perhaps no package. Foods alternated between periods of extreme glut and extreme scarcity, depending on the seasons and the locale. High transport costs kept most fresh foodstuffs from most parts of the world. Most foods were local but no one was especially proud of that fact. Costs of refining and processing were almost nonexistent—sugar being one notable exception—if only because there were so few ways of usefully transforming food for broader marketing and sale, given the technologies and the economic constraints of that time.
Many foods were preserved, often using centuries-old techniques. Vegetables were pickled in salt brine and vinegar, not always the most flavorful combination. Fruits were dried, using the sun if possible. Meats and fishes were salted and smoked or stuffed into tightly sealed jars. Food poisoning was common. Making and taking care of the food involved a lot of hard work. There were some fine meals, and a lot of people felt “close to the land”—too close—but overall this was not a culinary world to envy.
By the 1920s all this had changed, at least in the United States. Canals, railroads, and later trucks lowered transportation costs—including food transportation costs—to a fraction of their former level. In this new world, riches were made from foodstuffs that lasted long enough to bear transport. Entrepreneurs therefore invested in technologies of shipping, storage, and preservation—and so began the modern world of rich and plentiful food ingredients. Americans received far more access to food than was ever the case before in the history of the world. No longer was supply limited to the pickled, the preserved, and what was grown on the family farm. Relative to wages, food was suddenly much cheaper and supply was more reliable.
Some mediocre frozen and canned foods became possible too, but don’t damn commercialization for that reason. The printing press brought us both good and bad novels, but was a cultural boon nonetheless.
Appreciating agribusiness doesn’t mean you have to deny the problem of fertilizer runoff, endorse government subsidies to corn syrup, or dine at McDonald’s. Modern, cheap agriculture can be thought of as a platform upon which subsequent food innovation will occur. The platform needs reform, but for the most part it has fed humankind very well. If we do not understand the useful components of this platform, we will fail in finding the best and cheapest meals, and furthermore we will endanger the platform itself. Were it to collapse, famines would become ordinary.
In the meantime, we need to learn how people—right now—are using the platform for better and more humane ends. The food in Nicaragua really was wonderful and it is a testament to the creative powers of the individual, even the very poor individual. The United States however does not and cannot organize its food network in the same ways. France and Japan are different yet. So to eat well, to be environmentally friendly, or to make the right food decisions about our laws or our diets, we need a comprehensive understanding of how food markets work. We need a better understanding of how to take all the information before us and turn it into something useful.
Why Every Meal Counts
Nicaragua is an unusual environment, but my experiences there illustrate the compelling messages I hope this book will make clear.
1. Every meal counts
A bad or mediocre meal is more than just an unpleasant taste, it is an unnecessary negation of life’s pleasures. It is a wasted chance to refine our tastes, learn about the world, and share a rewarding experience. Virtually every locale—whether it’s Nicaragua, the local suburban strip malls, or an apparently inscrutable Asian-American supermarket—offers some good meals at a cheap price, if only we can decipher their codes and discover the signals for distinguishing good from bad. In discussing how and why every meal counts, certain questions are crucial. How do I choose restaurants? How do I shop for groceries? Do cookbooks really help?
2. Good food is often cheap food
Who has the patience, the time, and the money to take most meals in fancy restaurants? Hardly anyone. But I do want to make my life richer in discovery, especially when it comes to the very human, very basic, and very primeval pleasures of food. I also want to do so as cheaply as possible, precisely because food is not the only good thing in life.
Junk food is cheap, and to a lot of people it tastes good, but junk food doesn’t much improve or refine our taste. It gets boring very quickly, and it isn’t good for our health or for the environment. Junk food is an attack on the idea of the world as an information-rich treasure, full of surprises and hidden gems and pathways for new learning. Junk food is a dead end.
Furthermore, we don’t need junk food because better and cheaper food can be found close to home. In my immediate area—Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.—my half dozen or so favorite restaurants all offer first-rate meals for fifteen dollars or less, though sometimes of course I decide to spend more. I’ve been writing restaurant reviews for twenty years, and at the end of the day I prefer their best fifteen-dollar offerings to a typical two-hundred-dollar meal at Michel Richard’s fancy Citronelle in Georgetown. These favorite restaurants serve diverse items, ranging from Sichuan dan dan noodles to French Époisses cheeseburgers to red salmon curry to Ethiopian raw beef with chilies and dry cottage cheese. But they all have one thing in common: Their on-site owners and chefs are devoted to food they love to prepare.
It is possible to find this same dedication around the world. The best barbecue cooks of Texas are highly skilled applied scientists; you can find chili ecstasy in Albuquerque diners and sometimes even in pharmacies; and the region in Italy with the fewest Michelin-starred restaurants—Sicily—has some of the best, most surprising, and also cheapest food in Europe. There is a strong commitment to quality seafood at New Zealand fish ’n’ chips shops, even if they charge you less than ten dollars for the takeaway experience of carrying out the wrap. In none of these cases do the restaurants expect that their customers are operating with expense accounts. More and more, Paris has a lot of the worst and most expensive food in France.
3. Be innovative as a consumer
Once you have some understanding of the economics that underlie what and how we eat, the power of each of us as individual consumers to improve upon the national and international economy becomes clear.
Typical incomes in America, and in many of the other wealthy countries of the world, have stagnated since about 1973. Could the way we eat help us, at least partially, transcend this sorry state?
We think of innovations as coming from entrepreneurs; and we think of innovations in terms of major life changes, such as electricity, flush toilets, and automobiles—and these do represent very real improvements. Maybe today some of us are still expecting a jet pack, a flying car, or workable robots to ease our household chores, but we’ll probably be waiting for a while. Even with the marvelous Internet, the modern world hasn’t offered the same quantity of life-changing alternations that were experienced by my grandmother, who was born in 1905. So in an era where technological progress has slowed from its 1870–1970 peak, we need to look to a broader concept of innovation. Being a better and wiser consumer is one way we can bring more progress into our lives and so fight back against “the great stagnation” I have written about elsewhere.
This is a book about food and eating, but it’s not just a book about food and eating. Broader issues are at stake. Our attitudes toward food have a lot to do with our attitudes toward life and also toward ourselves. In the eighteenth century, James Boswell defined man as “a cooking animal”—so a foodie is a person interested in playing up one of the essential features of his or her humanity.
Do you remember those stories, from antiquity, of the Romans who vomited so that they might start again on a new feast? That represented a pretty special attitude toward food and enjoyment, although not one you’ll find represented in this book.
Some commentators have viewed food as a means of social and political control. Charles Fourier, the nineteenth century French Utopian socialist, saw gastronomy as a pure science, and one that required elite culinary judges and juries to bring about the requisite “harmony.” Fourier thought that sex and food should be the dual bases of control for the new social order, which he called “gastrosophy.” Good behavior would be rewarded, by the guardians, with lots of food and sex and in that manner socialism would create incentives for economic cooperation and production. Fourier saw the Aristotelian virtue of moderation as an abomination. He predicted the future would bring five meals a day plus two snacks, all with delicious food. Men will be seven feet tall, digestion will be easy, and life expectancy will reach 144 years.
That’s another food vision you won’t find here. I like the optimism but I worry about the use of food as a mechanism for control. In fact this book is one way to take some control away from political elites or food elites. Most of all, my vision is about encouraging the individual diner and empowering him or her with some skills of pattern recognition and innovation.
I believe that people can do a lot better in life by cutting through some socially engineered illusions. Most of all, figure out when a food presentation or sale is about the taste of the food or when the food presentation is about something else, like acquiring higher social status or feeling good about yourself. For a few years running Noma, in Copenhagen, has been judged the world’s best restaurant, but my meal there bored me (fortunately I was not paying). You can avoid a lot of so-so expensive restaurants by making sure you’re paying for good taste rather than for social illusion. (Of course, you can invert some of my recommendations and read this as a manual of how, at the expense of better food, to buy higher social status.) I’ve focused on food, but there’s nothing special about food markets in this regard; in many areas of life understanding is a powerful tool for getting what you really want.
I also view wise eating as a way to limit inequality. In the United States, it’s often the case that wealthy people eat better than does the middle class or upper middle class. It doesn’t have to be this way and I’m explaining how, even on a modest income, you can eat and enjoy some of the tastiest food in the world.
Ultimately, I hope these pages will show that becoming a better consumer of food can literally revolutionize the world.
An Economic Approach to Good Food
As a professional economist, I see food as the result of capitalist supply and demand. Whether it’s the restaurant or the supermarket or the kitchen-supply shop, it’s hard to think of a sector that is more commercialized and more replete with entrepreneurship and innovation. It is all monetized. If we care about food, we have to care about economic reasoning. The novel idea of this book is that knowing some dry scientific economics helps make every meal count in a deeply human way and it helps you realize—counterintuitively—that a lot of the best food is cheap rather than expensive.
Throughout, to find better eating, I will use this economic principle:
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.
Most food writings are not much concerned with economics, but the early history of my discipline is for the most part a theory of food production and distribution. Early economies were built upon agriculture and of course they still are in the world’s poorer countries. Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, was the father of modern economics and some of his best pedagogic examples had to do with the grain trade. Frédéric Bastiat, a leading nineteenth century French economist who remains in print to this day, focused on explaining how it is that Paris gets fed, even though no central planner sees to this fact. I’m bringing my own profession back to its historic roots.
Before we can understand how people are beginning to put things right, we need to understand how matters went wrong in the first place.Praise for Tyler Cowen and The Great Stagnation:
"Tyler Cowen may very well turn out to be this decade's Thomas Friedman."
-Kelley Evans, WSJ.com
"Cowen's book...will have a profound impact on the way people think about the last thirty years."
-Ryan Avent, Economist.com
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