This review of Tyler Cowen’s new book, “An Economist Gets Lunch” appeared in Canadian Business Times on April 27, 2012.
Cowen’s latest work of pop economics is a bracing riposte to the locavore likes of Michael Pollan and others who blame commercialization and agribusiness for the miserable state of North American cuisine. While he doesn’t deny that American food has journeyed a “long arch through some big black spots,” Cowen argues it is too simplistic to vilify the industrialization of agriculture. Instead, he blames factors ranging from Prohibition, which forced the closure of some of the best restaurants, to the rise of the two-income household, which popularized the frozen dinner. These forces created “a century-long perfect storm of bad news for good food,” but blaming the agricultural infrastructure is misguided. “The printing press brought us both good and bad novels,” he writes. “but it was a cultural boon nonetheless.” His thesis is well taken, but some of his best insights come when he applies an economist’s methodology to everyday quandaries like choosing a restaurant. He argues that low-rent venues allow restaurateurs to innovate, making them better bets than hot restaurants in pricey locales. Thinking of dining at an ethnic restaurant near a dollar store with an abandoned car out front? “If so, crack a smile, walk through the door, and order,” he says. “Welcome to the glorious world of good food.”