One of the most influential economists of the decade-and the New York Times bestselling author of The Great Stagnation-boldly argues that just about everything you've heard about food is wrong. Food snobbery is killing entrepreneurship and innovation, says economist, preeminent social commentator, and maverick dining guide blogger Tyler Cowen. Americans are becoming angry that our agricultural practices have led to global warming-but while food snobs are right that local food tastes better, they're wrong that it is better for the environment, and they are wrong that cheap food is bad food. The food world needs to know that you don't have to spend more to eat healthy, green, exciting meals. At last, some good news from an economist!Tyler Cowen discusses everything from slow food to fast food, from agriculture to gourmet culture, from modernist cuisine to how to pick the best street vendor. He shows why airplane food is bad but airport food is good; why restaurants full of happy, attractive people serve mediocre meals; and why American food has improved as Americans drink more wine. And most important of all, he shows how to get good, cheap eats just about anywhere.Just as The Great Stagnation was Cowen's response to all the fashionable thinking about the economic crisis, An Economist Gets Lunch is his response to all the fashionable thinking about food. Provocative, incisive, and as enjoyable as a juicy, grass-fed burger, it will influence what you'll choose to eat today and how we're going to feed the world tomorrow.
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April 12, 2012
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Excerpt from An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen
On the Eve of the Revolution
American food is in crisis, and rarely has more disruption loomed before us. People are rebelling against current food-production methods involving long-distance shipping, fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms. Many people have returned to eating locally grown food from small farms, and there is a fear that our agricultural practices lead to mass-produced food products that are bad for our health and worsen climate change. But is this fear well founded? Is local food a good thing?
On the other side of the ledger, we are spending more and more on fancy restaurants. At a time when many economic sectors are struggling, the choices for fine meals are expanding in most American cities. But are we spending our money in the best way possible, or are we overlooking cheaper and possibly superior alternatives?
In a world with some pretty big problems, is it even appropriate to think of food in aesthetic terms as much as we do? The backlash drove a recently published article in the Atlantic Monthly to suggest that foodies are evil for aestheticizing the experience of eating. But what could be morally wrong with eating good, even beautiful food?
The food crisis is not confined to cultured readers of urbane magazines. As the fallout from our larger economic crisis continues, more than forty-four million Americans are receiving food stamps. High unemployment has persisted far longer than politicians expected. Starvation is no longer a major American problem, but obesity is--especially among lower earners. The prevalence of diabetes continues to rise.
The news isn't all bad. The American restaurant scene has been transformed over the last few decades since Calvin Trillin wrote (hilariously) about pretentious dining establishments, which he collectively referred to as "La Maison de la Casa Haus." Bolivian, Laotian, and North Korean dishes are staples of my dining out. I know how "Husband and Wife Lung Slices" taste (not bad). Where government regulations allow, food trucks are proving more popular than a lot of sit-down restaurants--and it's not just a desire to get away from those lung slices.
But most seriously, as our global population grows to nine billion and beyond and agricultural productivity slows, another Green Revolution propelled by agricultural innovations will become increasingly imperative. Food prices have been rising, contributing to political unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, and help on this front seems far away. Countries are stockpiling foodstuffs; and when prices spike, governments shut down food exports with the ostensible goal of feeding their populations. The global trade network isn't as robust as we have wanted to believe.
Since Upton Sinclair self-published The Jungle, his expose of the meat packing industry in Chicago in 1906, Americans have been repeatedly alerted to disturbing realities of their food quality and economy. However, this is an especially critical moment.
When it comes to food, the whole world needs some big changes. These changes will happen only gradually, but this book is about how you can start eating better food now for your own good and for everyone else's. We need a special kind of revolution.
Let's start with a personal story about finding good food no matter how exotic or ordinary, about finding food that simply tastes good. Constructing a better eating experience and understanding where the quality of that experience comes from, is, strangely enough, the first and most important step toward feeding those nine billion people.
A Journey into the Unknown
I was on my way to Nicaragua. No one had seemed enthusiastic about Nicaraguan food and the guidebooks were not overflowing with praise. I decided I would figure things out on arrival. Let's be clear: Every meal really matters to me.
A bit of bread and cheese accompanied me on the flight to Managua. That was to hold me over, since my flight was not arriving until the late lunch hour of 1:30 p. m. It was cheddar cheese from Safeway, extra sharp, and three-day-old sourdough bread from Whole Foods. The point of the snack was to avoid showing up famished; getting too hungry leads to all sorts of problems, including eating before you have found the best available place. You could also think of it as a kind of reverential abstinence before a culinary adventure.
Anyway, I got off the plane and searched for a taxi. Inside the airport terminal I negotiated the price to Leon, a city about two hours north of the Managua airport. Outside I picked a relatively old taxi driver. An old driver is a good way to get personal safety, good local stories, information--and, well, a good way to find a place to eat, maybe the best way. The fare was set, but once we were under way I negotiated a separate price for the first step of my odyssey.
"I'd like to stop for something really special to eat, something very Nicaraguan. I'll offer you ten dollars for your time and I'll also invite you there for lunch." I probably didn't need to pay so much, but I was excited.
He accepted my offer and told me we would stop at a quesillo near Leon. A food cart? A bar? A brothel? I didn't know. He warned me that it was near the end of our trip. I was hungry but, thanks to the bread and cheese, could be patient. I reflected as the miles bumped by that quesillo probably refers to queso, the Spanish-language word for cheese.
We were about half an hour from Leon when I saw an official-looking road sign saying there are quesillos ahead. A few minutes later I saw about five on each side of the road. They were all open- air restaurants, and all had customers. The indications were positive.
The cabbie said he knew a special quesillo in the small town of La Paz, so we stopped there, in the second cluster of quesillos. I was told only one cooked dish is served and it was called . . . you'll never guess: a quesillo. The choice is between "without onions" and "complete." I ordered mine "complete," without asking what that meant.
It turns out that a quesillo is pretty simple. The dish is cool, liquid white cream, rolled in a thick warm tortilla with gooey cheese, with onions inside and a splash of vinegar. The tortilla and the cheese are made on the premises each day. The onions give it a sweetness and soft grit to the texture, while the vinegar adds its goodness. Simple. Awesome.
Total price for lunch: $12, including the extra payment to the cabbie
We continued the drive to Leon together in his rather ramshackle vehicle, chatting about the colonial architecture and all the places to visit in Nicaragua. As we crossed the countryside, I marveled at the beautiful volcanoes and the lakes, but I also noticed the local agriculture. Immediately outside of Leon I saw a few small farms--very small farms-- that raised and sold chickens. Duly noted.
Once we arrived, I quickly became fond of Leon. It's one of the most charming Latin American towns I've seen; a kind of magical dream that you think cannot exist outside a magic realism novel, except it does. Run-down enough to evoke the past, the buildings are still attractive and everyone seems to have deep roots in the place, with a town square that comes alive at dusk with families, teenagers courting and flirting, merchants selling balloons, and older people sitting on benches.
At first I thought I would try the town's best restaurant, but I wasn't encouraged by what I heard. Both my hotel and my guidebooks claim that the best place is a restaurant called El Mediterraneo, which, as the name indicates, serves Mediterranean food. It might be good, but is that what I flew down here for? Besides, I liked the atmosphere of the town square.
I walked around and I noted about five vendors selling the same thing: fried chicken with French fries--El Salvador style, as it was called. Five looked like a lot of vendors in this square. It was a sign of a healthy competitive market as any economist might tell you. I figured the chicken was from those local farms, so I ordered some from the freshest-looking stand. If it wasn't any good I could just leave it and go to El Mediterraneo. But it was delicious--as good as the fried chicken you get in those hot-spot Manhattan restaurants experimenting with the concept, for instance Jean-Georges's place on Perry Street, where I recently had inferior fried chicken for more than ten times the price.