Why Good Cheap Food Is Easier Than You Think
Life + Money

Why Good Cheap Food Is Easier Than You Think


Like other necessities of life, food is subject to the subtle and sometimes inscrutable workings of market forces. Food remains a contentious issue in much of the developed world, as overconsumption rather than underconsumption has become the more pressing concern. The call to support local, organic, sustainable food production is now the rallying cry for both a "locavore" food movement and a broader cultural stance critiquing our very way of life.

Tyler Cowen's new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, brings a set of simple economic principles to the everyday choices made by people who care about food. It presents a clear-eyed picture of how to go about finding good food value (both in terms of quality and price), and dispels simple comparisons between local, artisanal traditions and the mass production methods of contemporary consumer society.

Cowen is a foodie, albeit a very particular kind of foodie. While he doesn't mind spending money on good food, he eschews various forms of food snobbery, especially those that equate cost with quality and automatically assume the superiority of food made from local ingredients. He feels there is no excuse for a bad meal, and believes that the best food values are usually found off the well-beaten path. Excessive routine and excessive regulation are both culinary culprits in his view. Essentially, he stakes out a position as a populist foodie with conservative leanings.

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When traveling in Nicaragua, the author sets the tone for the best of what is to follow -- a kind of personal journey through food, informed equally by economics and informed hunches. While Nicaragua is not known for having great food, the author pays attention to local patterns, gets advice from cab drivers and finds his way to a handful of cheap but satisfying meals. From this experience he distills his central "rules" for common-sense foodies:

1. Every meal counts. Good, affordable food can be found anywhere; it's just a matter of deciphering local "codes" and "signals."
2. Good food is often cheap food. This is not to be confused with junk food.
3. Be innovative as a consumer. Cowen believes that a fundamental shift in eating habits starts with individual consumers, not with political or food elites, and that such a shift can make the world a better place. The author asserts that readers can best innovate as consumers by applying basic principles of supply and demand to their daily food choices: "Try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed."

One of the author's central ideological tenets is that large agribusiness is not the villain it has been portrayed to be by authors such as Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation). Such critics tend to blame agribusiness for the prevalence of highly processed and packaged food in the American diet -- everything from Velveeta and Hostess Twinkies to McDonald's and TV dinners. Cowen contends that contemporary agribusiness is a neutral platform not necessarily biased toward inferior products. Just as we don't blame the modern printing press for the existence of bad novels, we shouldn't blame agribusiness for the low points of the American culinary scene.

Cowen says Prohibition was one reason that American cuisine went through an extended period of mediocrity and blandness. There has long been a synergy in the restaurant business between food and drink, and the sudden disruption of that equation had a disastrous effect on many of the nation's best restaurants. Chefs trained in classical French cuisine could no longer even use wine in their sauces. One commentator characterized Prohibition as a "gastronomic holocaust." Though the period of formal Prohibition lasted only a decade, many states were slow to restore access to alcohol: Texas, for example, didn't allow the sale of alcohol in restaurants until 1971. Thus, Prohibition has cast a longer shadow over the American food scene than many realize.

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Other historical factors include World War II -- which placed a premium on convenient, pre-packaged food, often of low quality. Demographic shifts in the 1950s, like the rise in suburban commuting and in dual-income households, only further reinforced the trend toward quickness and convenience. Finally, the author notes cultural considerations such as the prevalence of TV and the child-centered nature of American family life. In traditional European culture, children are expected to adapt to adult tastes; the more permissive American approach to childrearing in a sense encouraged the opposite.

American food has rebounded from its mid-20th-century doldrums, and nowhere is this more evident than in a thriving (if uneven) restaurant scene.

The strength of the American restaurant system, according to the author, is in its long and efficient supply lines. While fresh raw ingredients (particularly produce and seafood) are not always easy to find or are available only at a premium, the American system takes "sufficiently good" raw ingredients and combines them in interesting and innovative ways. Thus the consumer in search of value is advised to seek out dishes that are composition-intensive as opposed to ingredients-intensive.

The adventurous eater can employ a number of other simple economic principles to the search for good restaurant value. Synergy with other businesses can be bad in the case of hospital cafeterias, but positive in the case of casinos, where house restaurants are essentially cross-subsidized by the main source of income, gambling. Labor is a major source of restaurant cost, so extra value can be found in family-run ethnic establishments. Most of all, restaurants with a built-in supply of ready customers simply have less incentive to innovate and provide value, so, in general, avoid city centers and popular tourist areas, and pick alleys and narrow streets. His advice is similar with menus: A popular-sounding dish is likely to be below the restaurant's standards, whereas an unusual or even unappealing-sounding dish is likely to surprise.

In economic terms, low-rent venues have the freedom to be innovative at relatively low risk. Conversely, high-rent venues such as shopping mall restaurants require a large, steady stream of customers, which usually means more predictable and mainstream food. Thus, seek out rundown strip malls, urban fringes and food trucks.

"Quality customers are often more important for a restaurant than is a quality chef," writes Cowen. Take the contrast between Indian and Pakistani restaurants. The two cuisines share a great deal of common ground and many common core dishes. Yet the two cultures carry very different associations in the American market. India is a democracy and is linked in the American mind with "safe" images, like Gandhi. Predominantly Muslim Pakistan, on the other hand, is a battleground in the war against terrorism and calls to mind images of Osama Bin Laden and the gruesome execution of journalist Daniel Pearl.

What does this mean for the adventurous American diner? While there are certainly many fine Indian restaurants, the perception of Indian cuisine as safe and accessible means that many popular Indian restaurants will appeal to a broad, mainstream audience -- often resulting in less distinctive food. By contrast, the more mixed perception of Pakistani culture effectively filters out customers seeking a safe, predictable dining experience. The largely Pakistani clientele that remains is more informed and committed, a plus for the diner seeking value and quality and innovation.

In general, Cowen argues, any factor that might deter the mainstream diner -- such as explicitly religious décor, the absence of alcohol or difficult-to-read menus -- is good news for those seeking an authentic, distinctive meal. Specialization is also usually a good sign. If you're set on going Indian, pick a restaurant that focuses on a particular regional cuisine.

Barbeque in the U.S. is another example of food that has value and quality. Barbeque is a highly regional tradition, yet one that is not particularly tied to fresh local ingredients. Even the meat needn't necessarily be high quality -- indeed, the long cooking methods and rich sauces are, in some cases, a way of adapting to tougher or inferior cuts. Barbeque, the author contends, is a distinctly American hybrid combining regional artisanal techniques with the long, efficient food supply lines that are the strength of American agribusiness.

The sauces that often distinguish regional variations are a perfect example of this hybrid quality. They are composed of the kind of humble, mass-produced ingredients that in some circles give the American system a bad name: mustard, ketchup, vinegar, dried spices. Yet these same sauces are assembled artisanally in small batches that are difficult to replicate or market on a national level. They are local, and yet not local.

As part of Cowen’s defense of American agribusiness and his critique of what he views as the backward-looking food snobbery of "locavores" (a term closely associated with the work of Pollan and other liberal food activists), the author wades into the dicey waters of the debate around GMO (genetically modified organism) foods, which he characterizes as the key to the next green revolution.

Cowen makes a number of fair points. Innovations in machinery and the introduction of new hybrids and fertilizers produced dramatic gains in crop productivity in the decades after World War II, forestalling predictions of widespread starvation as the world's population ballooned. Those gains have since fallen off, and the world is in the midst of a new food crunch, one complicated by the diversion of corn for biofuel and by manufacturing gains in the developing world (and thus in lifestyle and diet) that far outstrip agricultural gains. Moreover, restrictive bans on GMO products in Europe have discouraged African farmers, for example, from taking advantage of the productivity gains they might offer.

However, Cowen’s unquestioning embrace of local food production ignores the fact that transportation is a relatively small part of food's total energy cost (according to Cowen, about 14%) and that overall per-unit energy costs may well be higher for small local farmers. "Locavore" activists should be more careful in distinguishing between products that are flown in at high-energy costs versus those that are shipped in at relatively low cost.

Yet the author's attempts to link shifts in individual consumer behavior and pressing global issues, like malnutrition and the environment, are quickly and poorly drawn. He opens the book with the bold declaration that "American food is in crisis" (a claim never fully developed), and then goes on to assert that "constructing a better eating experience" is the best single step toward feeding the nine billion worldwide facing malnutrition -- but he never quite connects the dots. Cowen is at his best when he stays simple and sticks with his own experiences as both a foodie and an economist.