I read Tyler Cowen’s new book An Economist Gets Lunch a few months ago and, as a total non-foodie, I enjoyed broadening my perspective on a variety of issues related to food and dining around the world. Sometimes Tyler draws on economic theory to explain cuisine and offer dining tips; sometimes he just draws on his own bottomless well of travel experiences to teach you how to find, say, the perfect tortilla. In either case, I found myself highlighting many sentences on my Kindle, all of which are reproduced below as direct quotes (emphases my own).
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.
Foreigners have had a skewed picture. The further away a foreign country, the less likely they will see the fresh foods of the United States. The less likely they will see the barbecue or taste the fresh corn of the Midwest or sample the vegetables that are commonplace throughout much of the year in Alabama. The foreigners will, however, be familiar with our canned, prepackaged, and frozen items, namely everything we are good at shipping. Americans see less of the prepackaged foods of Europe, if only because Europe has less expertise in transporting food for long distances. Our European food memories are of wine, cured ham, and fresh strawberries; the Europeans get from us McDonald’s and frozen pizza. So while some of their criticisms of American food culture are correct, those criticisms also are not balanced.
The puritanical American attitudes toward alcohol, as codified in the law, are a major reason why our food and our dining stayed backward for so long.
One commentator of the time referred to a “gastronomic holocaust.” A British visitor noted “the wholesale assassination of the charm and pleasure of dining… practically every restaurant is a sepulcher.” The Saturday Evening Post argued that American gastronomy had been destroyed.
In addition to the loss of profits on drinks, no public restaurant could use a sauce with wine. French restaurants were almost completely abandoned, as this was before nouvelle cuisine and related movements made wine-based sauces less central to fine cooking. Most French chefs in the United States were walking the streets, looking for work, or they took a steamship back home.
Even after the negative shocks of war and national Prohibition were over, American dining still was not left free to grow and improve. Many state and county liquor laws continued for decades after these events. Texas allowed the sale of alcohol in restaurants only in 1971. A restaurant boom followed. Many counties still have dry laws. While the exact numbers fluctuate, of the 120 counties of Kentucky, 55 are dry and 35 more have partial restrictions on alcohol. Of the 254 counties in Texas, 74 are completely dry; more than half of the counties in Arkansas are dry. It is estimated that about eighteen million Americans live in dry areas. This overregulation has shackled innovation and also reflects broader and anti-alcohol attitudes. The United States did not really focus on wine, or wine as a complement to good food
Recent immigrants aside, Americans spoil and cater to their children more than do other countries. We buy them more toys, read more books about how to bring them up, and give them larger allowances to spend. Dr. Spock’s best-selling 1946 book told parents to cater to the needs of their children flexibly. Europeans often express their amazement at the child-centered nature of U.S. culture, how much we are always running to please the little tykes, and how little respect we give our elderly.
One of the most important strategies in dining is asking the waiter or waitress what to get. It is important to phrase the question properly. Think about the waiter’s incentives. Waiters often have an incentive to push a high-margin item or to market a standard dish, which the kitchen has prepared in large numbers that evening. This is true not only at expensive restaurants but is true especially at some kinds of expensive restaurants, in particular those that serve lots of tourists or non-regular or somewhat ill-informed customers. So don’t just ask the waiter “What should I get?” The waiter will likely direct you to the most high-margin item on the menu, and even more likely to want to get rid of you quickly so as to move on to his next task. The waiter probably thinks you are no smarter, in culinary terms, than the average face he hasn’t seen before. He will tend to remember his most stupid customers and this will lead him to associate you with them. As a default, walk into a restaurant expecting the waiter or waitress to have an insulting assessment of you, no matter how polite he or she may seem on the surface. They are used to idiots and they are used to people who don’t tip as well as they ought to, and for all they know you are one of them. I go at them pointedly. Even scurrilous waiters want a tip and they will relent in pushing their weak dishes if you stand up for yourself and signal your commitment to making every meal count. One way to proceed is to ask the waiter “What is best?”
The larger the number of restaurants serving the same ethnic cuisine in a given area, the more likely the food they serve is good. Why? Restaurants that are competing against each other can’t rest on their laurels. They are appealing to an informed customer base; and they can participate in a well-developed supply chain for key ingredients. In other words, a town that has only a single Indian restaurant probably does not have a very good Indian restaurant.
If you’re reading online reviews, don’t be too put off by negative reviews per se; any place that takes chances will have its detractors. Instead, focus on the positive reviews. How long are they? How smart and committed do they sound? If so, give it a try.
Most barbecue restaurants in North Carolina open early, but now more out of tradition than economics. The food is cooked in advance and then either frozen or placed in a heater. Sometimes the food sits for as long as a week;
If you don’t use sauces, sides, and condiments, as they were intended, your Vietnamese meal is almost certainly going to be far worse than it otherwise would be. The food will be either too dry or discordant.
If you are ordering bread in an Indian restaurant, your best chance at freshness is to order the bread least likely to be ordered by others, because it will require special preparation. Be pleased if you end up waiting.
Sadly, malnutrition (not obesity) remains the biggest global food problem by far. If it’s not starvation, severe hunger remains common in some parts of the world. It is suggested that there are more than one billion malnourished people in the world and almost one billion undernourished people.
India has perhaps more hungry people than any country in the world today, and it has been a democracy since the late 1940s.
The problem is worse because the United States is increasing its demands for foodstuffs through the use of biofuels, most of all corn-based ethanol. To put ethanol in gasoline, the government has to mandate that the private sector buys up a lot of corn and turns it into gasoline. This is a popular program in Iowa, and thus it is popular with many politicians, but it is reviled by both economists and environmentalists. It costs a lot more money than does traditional gasoline, once the cost of the subsidy is included. Sadly, it doesn’t even make the environment a cleaner place. The energy expended in growing and processing the corn is an environmental cost too, just as traditional gasoline would be; for instance the nitrogen-based fertilizers used for the corn are major polluters. Ethanol subsidies are a lose-lose policy on almost every front, except for the corn farmers and some politicians, especially those who care about the Iowa political caucuses.
The biggest losers of course are the people in poor countries who now face higher prices for food. For millions of them, it is literally a matter of life and death and yet we proceed with ethanol for no good reason. It is a sign of our political dysfunctionality. During the second half of 2010, the price of corn in the United States rose 73 percent and much of that increase is attributed to biofuels; about 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop now goes into biofuels.
Arguably government policies toward agriculture are the worst and most ill-conceived set of government policies in the entire world.
That’s one reason (we’ll see more reasons in the next chapter) why locavores have such a misguided philosophy. It overlooks that some parts of the world are running out of water and that trade of food—often long-distance trade—is the best or indeed the only real answer to that problem. Very often, trading across a distance solves more environmental problems than it creates.
GMOs already have had a big impact. In 1995, GMOs (in the modern sense of that term) were brought to market, and by 2010 over fifteen million farmers in twenty-nine countries were using them, though the vast majority of these crops are grown in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. They currently account for about 94 percent of the soy crops and 88 percent of the corn crops in the United States. That’s mostly because they are easier to grow, more robust, and capable of producing more food more cheaply. The truth is that 300 million Americans, and millions of visitors to this country, have been eating these crops since the mid-1990s, without serious evidence of any ill effects or serious negative effects on the environment.
It’s true that giving poor people more money would help them buy food—but, whether we like it or not, the rest of the world isn’t that charitable and won’t be anytime soon. In the meantime, lower food prices help poor people get more to eat. GMOs increase the supply of food, thereby lowering food prices and feeding the poor, just as the Green Revolution did. It’s a sad kind of economic illiteracy—all too common in GMO critiques—that does not grasp this simple mechanism.
If we move beyond the bromides and look to formal laboratory studies, there are some startling (but perhaps not surprising) results. For instance, given a choice, a lot of people prefer to actually be wasteful than to do something that feels wasteful. In experimental settings, people hate the feeling of “I could have gotten this for less” and they will engage in wasteful behavior, such as inefficient methods of search, to keep that feeling at bay. This is part of our general tendency to incur costs to avoid a feeling of regret or inadequacy—and this is a testament to our powers of rationalization.
A consumer psychology study conducted by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong found that consuming “green products” does not make us better people. If anything, buying green products seems to encourage individuals to be less moral. In a series of experiments, the groups of individuals who were licensed to buy products in a “green store” had higher rates of cheating and lying during subsequent game-playing in the course of the experiment. That is, once they had assuaged their consciences with some green behavior, they became more rapacious and more self-seeking in other contexts.
Locavores—those who eat local foods, either mostly or exclusively—are also pursuing a feel-good attitude rather than effectiveness. In a lot of cases you shouldn’t worry much about where your food comes from. The shipping of food is only a small part of its total energy cost, no more than 14 percent by one U.S. government estimate. According to Rich Pirog, who developed food-miles analysis, transportation is only 11 percent of the total energy cost of food.