One of the most influential economists of the decade - and the New York Times best-selling 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 choose to eat today and how we feed the world tomorrow.
©2012 Tyler Cowen (P)2012 Random House
The premise for the book (as stated by the author) is to inform the reader how to locate good tasting food at the best price. Unfortunately, the book appears to be a collection of random anecdotes from the author's dining history.
There are some interesting ideas throughout the book, but they are buried between lengthy, uneven stories or history lessons that are only tangentially related to the theme. He is also reluctant to name names when it would be most helpful. For example, he gives detailed directions to an obscure food stand in rural Mexico but can't be more specific than "you can now find good food in some Las Vegas casinos."
His advice is simultaneously too vague and too practical. He says to avoid Chinese restaurants in midtown Manhattan becuse their rent costs make them cut corners on food quality. Who needs a book to tell them that? He follows this up with advice that since many restaurants have higher margins on wine you should go somewhere with a nice wine list but not order any drinks except water. That might be economical, but it's no way to enjoy a meal. The advice is also not completely trustwothy. He recommends family owned restaurants where family members work for little or no wages because of the labor cost savings. As though someone who is willing to take advantage of their own family would not also take advantage of the customer, who is a total stranger.
The writing is very uneven. There is an entire chapter devoted to the history and minutiae of barbecue which boils down to a paragraph of three simple rules. He then spends roughly the same time to encompass all Asian cuisine from Vietnamese, Korean and Thai thru Chinese, Japanese and Filipino.
It feels like he couldn't decide between an advice book and a food travel memoir.
Yes, in fact, I have already re-listened to this book a second time!
I will now second-guess every food choice I make while out of the country. Just kidding! I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion of BBQ, and as a native Texan, the author is right on the money!
I have had to curtail myself from repeating lessons from this book too often. They are numerous and widely applicable, but friends do eventually tire of hearing about them.
The book did suffer from some tiresome sections that felt like little more than padding, but the bulk of it was fascinating and useful.
The book challenges you to think about how food businesses work, and how you make your choices about where to eat. Essentially the idea is to apply some economists principles where to find good food.
Consider when you're paying the bill, is it for the location or the view, or the cost to source the ingredients for the particular cuisine and by proxy explains why food in tourist heavy locations is usually not too great.
You have to take some advice with a pinch of salt, for example the axiom that if a restaurant has a surplus of attractive women you shouldn't expect good food, the point being that perhaps a place is more about being seen at rather than about the food.
However, this is a book for foodies and I get the impression that the holy grail is the undiscovered, inexpensive and wholly authentic exotic restaurant in a suburban strip mall, which is to say that part of the fun of eating out is discovery.
On the contrary to another review, I loved the in depth discussion about barbecue and why by it's nature isn't as commercialized as other American cuisines, and the passion for Mexican food makes me want to take a trip across the border.
I would have preferred a more conversational style, the presentation felt rather formal for the material.
Most food criticism tells you directly where is the best place to eat, but the problem is that either the selection of good places is either rather stagnant, or the information becomes out of date or is vastly expensive or elite.
So this book is different, book it is indirect in it's advice. I'm pretty sure that if you follow all the rules you are not guaranteed to find great food, but it has helped me to think different and explore beyond Yelp and media reviews.
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