Sunday, May 6, 2012

Wanna let an economist near your lunch?

Tyler Cowen's An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies (2012) is an odd book.  It's as if Cowen wanted to write a book and knew it would be about food but that's about as far as any planning went.  So it jumps from personal anecdotes to advice to analysis with little direction resulting in what amounts to a set of sometimes almost-essays and othertimes wandering blog posts.  It's mostly entertaining reading but hard to recommend spending money for.

The title indicates it might be a Freakonomics-styled excursion into food but apart from one chapter dismantling the idea of locally sourced food (which prima facie isn't a solution to anything) there's not much in the way of analysis here (not that Freakonomics had too much substance to it either).  Actually it's a bit odd that there is so little in the way of economic thinking beyond the most basic.  Most of us could figure out that shorter supply chains means fresher food - the real trick of course is in all the details and possibilities that such a statement contains but Cowen doesn't really get into that.

Here's an example, admittedly not chosen at random.  "If you are going to visit such restaurants, go in the first four to six months of their operation, though not the first two weeks when they are still working out the kinks in their kitchen routine."  Now what he's talking about is higher-end "fine dining" restaurants and certainly this makes sense.  However many things that make sense aren't true and in this case there are so many variables that the sentence becomes barely useful.  Cowen offers nothing factual to back this up.  He seems to have just come up with the basic concept.  After all, why two weeks?  Why six months?  How many restaurants have a serious decline in quality after that period?  After all a substantial part of their reputation and appeal is still the quality of the meals no matter how adulterated they may be or how undiscriminating the diners actually become.  So are they really not worth "visiting"?  As so often numbers are used to make a general statement seem more concrete.

But there's also a whole chapter on why Mexican food is better in Mexico than the US and basically it's just that they have a shorter food chain and Americans like bland food.  Not sure we needed a whole chapter for what is really little more than that sentence.

This does bring up one of the more peculiar aspects of the book.  The subtitle claims there's something for "everyday foodies" but not much here really fits that description.  An entire chapter about "How to Get a Good Meal Anywhere" isn't about the local greasy spoon or a chain grocery store but instead street food in Singapore, the confusion of the Japanese mass transit system (to Americans anyway), Turkish food in Germany and so forth.  None of that is everyday and none of it is useful (though admittedly I find it interesting though on about the same level as reading about medieval indulgences or Etruscan art).  Or a chapter on barbeque that borders on so purist that I may question whether I've ever eaten real barbeque.  For instance, he claims that the really best places often sell out early in they day due to the demands of making the barbeque but I grew up around genuine pit barbeque places and have never heard of this.  Maybe it's true elsewhere and Southerners just know how to run their businesses better.

Which is one of the book's least attractive qualities - Cowen's barely disguised foodie snobism.  He claims at one point that having eaten the best steak (which he doesn't identify any more than it was in southern Brazil) he can't have any other that really compares, not even highly regarded steakhouses in NYC.  Which is just ridiculous.  I've seen Touch of Evil and Rules of the Game - does that mean no other films are good?  That's pretty much what he's saying.  Once you've had the "best" then anything else is barely worthwhile.  Which seems a sad way to go through life - ignoring other pleasures on some arbitrary yardstick.  That's also why he tends to dismiss anything not of the "best" ingredients or freshest or most authentic or what have you.  Or even to consider that the Brazilian and NYC steaks might be only vaguely comparable.  That after all is what drives most foodies - insider appeal and connoisseurship.  If the food is easy to find or commonly praised then what good is being a foodie?  They're not necessarily wrong about specific places or foods but it's not a holy calling and it's not always as revelatory as it sounds.