This review of Tyler Cowen’s new book, “An Economist Gets Lunch” appeared in USA Today on April 29, 2012.
Every person who wants to stay alive must consume food and drink.
In a sense, that makes everybody an expert on food and drink. But it is the rare consumer of food and drink who swallows with an economist looking on.
Tyler Cowen is an economist obsessed with eating and drinking. Obsessed in a good way, once the idea of thinking about food consumption in a new way takes hold.
An Economist Gets Lunch is a mind-bending book for non-economists. Cowen offers lots of mantras for foodies, the dominant mantra reading like this: “Food is a product of economic supply and demand, so try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.”
In his own life, Cowen uses the mantra to experience excellent food wherever he goes—in the Washington, D.C., area where he is on the faculty at George Mason University; in locales across the United States; and around the globe.
If that sounds somewhat selfish, please know that Cowen is fully aware of the big issues: starvation, daily hunger for many of those not literally starving, obesity, food-related cancers, a lack of food safety, environmental degradation related to food production, corporate farming, greedy agribusiness conglomerates, and more.
He deals with all those issues, especially in the chapters titled “Another Agricultural Revolution, Now” and “Eating Your Way to a Greener Planet.”
Other books may deal more fully and interestingly with the big issues. But Cowen’s book is a thoughtful, offbeat guide to better individual eating for readers with money to prepare food in well-appointed home kitchens, to dine at restaurants near home, and to travel widely away from home while eating experimentally.
Cowen opens with “a journey into the unknown;” the unknown being the nation of Nicaragua and the journey being about finding delicious, affordable meals.
As he travels through Nicaragua, Cowen is consciously upending three tenets of “food snobbery” that have become conventional wisdom:
•The best food is the most expensive.
•Agribusiness, a primary source of cheap food, is evil.
•Chefs, food writers, cultural leaders and political officeholders know best; everyday foodies are not a trusted source of innovation.
Agribusiness, Cowen says, has made good food ingredients available, along with the drawbacks it has spawned. He uses this analogy: “The printing press brought us both good and bad novels, but was a cultural boon nonetheless.”
Good food is often reasonably priced, Cowen says, and the most expensive restaurants are often serving trendy atmosphere rather than focusing on the tastiest meals.
In his own neighborhood, Cowen has found outstanding restaurants where meals are priced under $15.
“These favorite restaurants serve diverse items, ranging from Sichuan dan dan noodles to French Epoisses cheeseburgers to red salmon curry to Ethiopian raw beef with chilies and dry cottage cheese.”
Farther from home, “the best barbecue cooks of Texas are highly skilled applied scientists; you can find chili ecstasy in Albuquerque diners and sometimes even in pharmacies; and the region in Italy with the fewest Michelin-starred restaurants—Sicily—has some of the best, most surprising, and also cheapest food in Europe.”
A common denominator, Cowen asserts: “their on-site owners and chefs are devoted to food they love to prepare.”
For home cooks, Cowen includes well-researched chapters about shopping in ethnic supermarkets and using cookbooks wisely.