Serious Reads: An Economist Gets Lunch, by Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen is an economist, and a well-known one at that. His hefty list of accomplishments might even evoke the word genius: PhD from Harvard, over a dozen books on a variety of economic topics, and an incredible number of fascinating papers in his field. If that weren't work enough, Cowen also writes a food blog. Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide is updated frequently, and covers the dining scene in the D.C. area. He has an eye for a good restaurant and a good deal, and much experience tasting the local fare.
These dining recommendations and insights are Cowen's food specialty, and ostensibly the focus of his new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. Dining and cooking should probably have been this book's sole focus. Chapters like "Barbecue: The Greatest Slow Food of All"; "The Finding Great Food Anywhere Encyclopedia"; and "The Stuff and Values of Cooking at Home" provide a perspective to challenge the "foodie" who believes high quality inherently means high price. Cowen's economics background drives him to find the best deal and figure out exactly why good restaurants succeed. This aspect of the book is amusing, lighthearted, and helpful.
But unfortunately, An Economist Gets Lunch veers off the eaten path by abruptly and ungracefully addressing issues of food production and sustainability. I disagree with Cowen on some of his foundational points—for instance, that "quick food...including agribusiness corporations...is the single most important advance in human history." And that "more people eat well now than ever before...the American poor is more likely to be obese than starving" (certainly weight is no real indicator of healthy food intake or "eating well"). But despite these differences of opinion, I was most surprised at the lack of rigorous research and cohesive direction throughout this book.
Throughout the book, Cowen makes odd claims about various ethnic dining experiences. Since he's a food blogger and avid restaurant goer, I would not have been surprised if he had accumulated a variety of sources, interviews and statistics on the restaurant industry for this book. But it does not appear as though this research was conducted. Without at least passing reference to a credible source or member of the ethnic community being discussed, comments like "Thai [servers] are unfailingly polite...whereas language-poor Vietnamese servers...often come across as indifferent" are jarring. They interrupt an otherwise friendly account of navigating an East Asian menu.
There is also an uncomfortable implicit assumption throughout the book that readers are necessarily of means and able to easily adapt their diets. For instance, Cowen's major field work for the book includes a month spent eating entirely out of his local Chinese market. He notes the prevalence of less-expensive produce at this market, and his diet improves accordingly during that month. But his resulting conclusion—"you can...lower your supermarket bills and eat a healthier diet"—is hardly applicable to all Americans, particularly those without the convenience of frequently re-stocked ethnic markets nearby.
Similarly, Cowen asserts on the next page that "we don't need junk food because better and cheaper food can be found close to home." This argument is made in the context of finding better and less expensive dining options that don't include unhealthy packaged options. But a large segment of the American population that eats unhealthy food may be on highly restricted incomes, or shop for food using EBT that cannot be spent on cheap, delightful ethnic restaurant fare.
Perhaps there were finer points of economic theory in this book that I missed. I would certainly posit that Cowen accepts certain economic conditions—such as the "principles of cheap labor and low wages" at "ethnic supermarkets and restaurants" that he recommends taking advantage of for your next catered dinner—that I would rather see improved than perpetuated. There is a certain sensitivity required for discussing issues of purchasing power, cultural experiences, and dietary recommendations that Cowen lacks in An Economist Gets Lunch. The book provides excellent tips for finding and enjoying ethnic food. But when Cowen stepped out of his comfort zone and into territories better analyzed by an environmental scientist or scholar of food studies, the book lost its focus.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.