Dalibor Rohac

Going ethnic

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An Economist Gets Lunch

Tyler Cowen

Dutton, pp. 304, £

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.