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An Economist Gets Lunch

New Rules For Everyday Foodies

Tyler Cowen

Went to Nicaragua with a bit of wisdom - such as pick an older taxi driver, who'll be safer and will have local knowledge, partic of where good to eat. In a country where rich people have servants who cook for them, not many dine out, so little incentive to develop fine dining restaurants. But lots of little farms close to city meant fresh chicken and cheese. Breakfast can be best street meal of the day, though in a hotel it is usually the worst.

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Americans see little French food apart from wine, cheese and cured ham, partly because they are not good at transporting most of their produce. From America, Europeans see McDonald's and frozen pizza. They don't see the barbeques or the fresh vegetables. When they go to US, they wander around the central cities with no idea how to get to the ethnic restaurants in the suburbs.

In America, shd avoid meals which need a lot of fresh ingredients to taste good, because outside of the very most expensive restaurants, they simply can't get stuff there in peak condition. Instead, go for meals put together using good-enough ingredients cooked in an interesting way.

Cross-subsidies: hospital cafeterias don't bother about producing great food because they have a captive market - no incentive to serve up anything but 'good enough'. In contrast, recently Las Vegas casinos started providing top quality Chinese meals to cater for the rich Chinese gamblers arriving. Airlines used to have a reason to provide good meals, because when ticket prices were regulated, that was a way to differentiate. Now, many people prefer to forgo the food, or accept crap for a cheaper ticket. Since there is now a gap in the market, airport food is improving - Wolfgang Puck's Pizzas.

Movie theatres most extreme example - the film studios get most of the ticket revenue (which makes sense because they took most of the risk) so theatres have to make money from popcorn.

Most top restaurants are in high rent areas, but most of the restaurants in high rent areas are not very good. TGI Fridays and Hard Rock Cafes survive by churning volume, not by providing quality. Quirky ethnic restaurants can only afford the rent in streets off the main drag. So if yr in LA eat Mexican food in East LA and Asian food in Koreatown. Better food in East Hollywood than in West Hollywood, where the stars live.

The larger the number of restaurants serving the same ethnic cuisine in an area, the better the food is likely to be, because they are competing against each other and can't relax.

Suggests best way to improve American food and make it much cheaper would be to deregulate the food trucks and street vendors. Obviously enforce basic hygiene rules, but big advantage that let people experiment cheaply. A fixed restaurant has to attract as many patrons as possible, so invariably predictable, mainstream food.

One of lessons of life is recognizing that you don't know everything. Instead of trying to know all about food, learn how to find the people who know and care about food in their local area.

How do you get the best meal on the menu? Ask the wait staff. If they say "Everything is good" or "That depends on what you like", it means they haven't been taught by a quality boss or chef. And that's a bad sign for the whole restaurant.

In an expensive restaurant, ask yourself "Which dish sounds least appetising" and order that. Simple logic: in a flash restaurant a menu item will only be there if it's good. If it sounds bad, it's probably especially good.

It is possible to have regular fresh food, of very high quality, if you are willing to put in a lot of time and effort. But most of us do not find this worthwhile on a daily basis. We would rather have it quick and easy. In poorer societies which don't have modern technology, transport and markets, you often find especially delicious food. But as soon as they get a bit wealthier, they too prefer greater convenience. So the freshest and most delicious foods are eaten by two groups of people - the poor, who have no choice, and the rich, who spend lots of money trying to re-create the food systems that the poor have been working with for centuries.


THE dismal science has been getting a makeover. Long associated with the abstruse art of mathematical modelling, 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.

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