This article originally appeared in The Economist
The dismal science has been getting a makeover. Long associated with the abstruse art of mathematical modeling, economics has become the discipline of choice to explain all sorts of phenomena, from human decision-making to the mysteries of the housing market. Economists such as Steven Levitt have been making their fortunes by grappling with real-world problems in books such as “Freakonomics”. Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University with a widely read economics blog called “Marginal Revolution”, joins the crowd with a book on food, now out in paperback.
“An Economist Gets Lunch” is really about finding the best places to eat—the economics is little more than a side salad. An adventurous gourmand and keen cook, Mr. Cowen doles out generous portions of advice, some of it counterintuitive. He offers tips for finding good food on the cheap, like the “chili ecstasy” in Albuquerque diners or the fish’n’chips of New Zealand. And he suggests the best way to order at fine restaurants: “If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good.” He devotes a whole chapter to the produce at his local Chinese supermarket (there are evidently six varieties of pak choi), and another to the various methods of barbecue cooking, “the greatest slow food of all”. Non-foodies may marvel at Mr. Cowen’s appreciation for detail.
The author’s heart, or rather stomach, is in the right place. He has a winning enthusiasm for sampling exotic cuisines and he is critical of the way that Americans, by deferring to their children, have enabled the blandness of much mass-market foods. Eating with kids involves a lot of burgers, fries and doughnuts. He corrects some misconceptions about what it means to eat “green”, arguing that it is far better to cut back on red meat than to dine entirely on locally sourced food—not least because local farmers often drive long distances to bring small amounts of inefficiently raised produce to market. And he urges tourists to seek out the places where locals eat. Street stalls can provide delicious food, especially in places like Singapore. “Food is a product of supply and demand,” he writes, “so try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative and the demanders are informed.”
Few would argue with Mr. Cowen’s view that while Paris still has some of the finest dining in the world, its cheap food is getting worse. But some will be surprised by his praise for German restaurants, many of which rival the Michelin-starred eateries in neighbouring France but are often cheaper and easier to get into. Yorkshiremen will be taken aback by his description of Bradford as resembling a war zone; it is not an elegant city, but it is hardly Damascus. And Mr Cowen strangely neglects this reviewer’s golden rule for dining out: avoid restaurants that display pictures of the main courses on the menu.
All told, Mr. Cowen makes for an engaging guide to the kitchens of the world. Foodies will enjoy his insights, even if economists come away a little hungry.