X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Books

Going ethnic

31 March 2012

11:00 AM

31 March 2012

11:00 AM

An Economist Gets Lunch Tyler Cowen

Dutton, pp.304, $26.95

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, has been keenly interested in food for years. Besides being a blogger, scholar and the youngest chess champion in the history of New Jersey, he is also the author of an online dining guide to the Washington DC area and an opinionated foodie.

This is a delightful book that will broaden horizons to people uninitiated to the economic way of thinking. Cowen’s fans will enjoy it too — although some of the arguments will be second nature to followers of his blog, MarginalRevolution.com.

It answers the question of why American food got so bad over the course of the 20th century. Hint: the commercialisation of food was not to blame. The book also provides tips, informed by economics, to improve one’s culinary life. Finally, Cowen attempts to set the record straight on contentious issues such as locavorism. This combination makes for an enjoyable and eclectic read.

Historical accidents, Cowen argues, were to blame for the decline of good food in the United States. Firstly, the Prohibition era put a temporary end to the business strategy of bundling the sale of food and alcohol. Most restaurants went bankrupt as they were unable to cover their costs from sales of food alone. With the Prohibition over, the restaurant industry faced the Great Depression — hardly an auspicious time for innovative ferment in the kitchen.


Then came the baby boom. Accommodating children’s tastes, together with the rise of television, the availability of convenience food, and an increase in the numbers of working wives, was lethal for domestic cooking and the appreciation of good food.

Does this explain the poor cuisine in the West at large? Britain has had its fair share of bad food, but Cowen’s story seems less relevant here. According to the economist Paul Krugman, rapid urbanisation was the culprit in Britain. It forced people to eat food that could be stored — meat pies, mushy peas and root vegetables. ‘By the time it became possible for urban Britons to eat decently, they no longer knew the difference,’ he says.

Nor does Cowen’s book explain why our food has become better again, at least compared with the TV dinners of the 1970s. Cowen is no food snob — he reports that he ‘barely enjoyed’ his experience at Noma in Copenhagen. Talking about Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck on his blog, he thinks increasingly that ‘meals like this are B.S. ’

But haven’t food snobbism and celebrity chefs played a role in improving tastes on both sides of the Atlantic? Even if one saw haute cuisine as a status competition, it could still be socially beneficial. After all, obesity rates are the lowest among wealthy professionals, who are the most likely to compete for status in this way.

The book’s key piece of practical advice is that our lives can be much improved by a stronger focus on ethnic food. America’s — and arguably also Britain’s — comparative advantage does not lie in fine produce or meat, or in their terroirs. Rather, it lies in the diverse stock of immigrant human capital.

As a rule of thumb, it is a mistake to seek cuisines that are ‘fresh-ingredients intensive’ (Japanese, Italian or French). Instead, you’ll do better to focus on food requiring a lot of labour and savoir faire, and ingredients and spices that travel well. In the States, that means Sichuan, Pakistani or Korean food.

Cowen is at his best when he provides a sane perspective on policy issues. Even in 2012, malnutrition, not obesity, is the world’s main food problem. The only way it can be solved is through globalised trade in food and agricultural innovation. Wherever locavorism was applied on a large scale, as in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, it led to environmental damage and huge economic costs.

The bottom line? If you are interested in how you can make your dining experience better, and if you want to talk some economic sense into your leftie friends over a dinner table, read this book.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close