by Tyler Cowen
The author, a professor of economics, writes about everything food-related, from “how American food got bad” (answer: Prohibition, watered-down immigrant food, the modern mania for catering to kids’ tastes) to eating great barbecue, from the delusion of the locavore movement to how to shop astutely at small groceries, from tips on finding a great restaurant (answer: find a hole in the wall with low overhead and loyal customers) to why Mexican food tastes better in Mexico (answer: America’s ingredients are fresher and safer but perforce blander due to transport, regulations and freezing; Mexico’s cheeses are richer and unpasteurized so banned in the USA).
I enjoyed this book, some sections more than others. His long chapter on barbecue covered some very old ground gone over years ago by Calvin Trillin; his “finding great food anywhere” section is disappointingly vague (London is expensive if you’re not eating fish and chips; you can get good ingredients in Germany thanks to the EU). The chapter on Mexican food, with its discussion of Mexican traditions of dry aging (again, largely considered unsafe in the USA) and fresh though limited ingredients, was highly informative. And although I’m not sure his claim that Prohibition hit American dining so hard is still valid today, he makes a thought-provoking case about American blandness. Despite the title, much of this book might have been written by anyone who enjoys food and travels a lot. That’s too bad, because Cowen is most interesting when he uses economic arguments. For example, he makes a case for GMOs (which lower overall food prices); attacks the locavore movement by noting that food transport costs are very low and what would really help the planet would be eating less meat, not fewer French cheeses; suggests that eating sardines has ecological value because they are at the bottom of the food chain; and advocates the spread of modern agribusiness giants to combat starvation. I don’t agree with it all, but it’s always interesting to see things from a new angle. I would have liked to have read less of Cowen’s salivating over barbecue and more economic analysis of the politics of food.