Crystal's Reviews > An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies

An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen
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's review
Dec 14, 2011

it was amazing
Read in April, 2012

Want to know why Sichuan Chinese restaurants are great in the U.S. but Cantonese restaurants are generally lacking? How Prohibition and World War 2 set American gastronomy back decades, or why our barbeque should be lauded as a true artisanal art on the level of French cheeses or Italian salame? Economist Tyler Cowen takes you on a dining tour around the globe, and explains how you can find quality meals at good prices using the basic principles of supply and demand, capital and labor constraints. It's a fun, breezy tour in a Freakonomics sort of way, and he throws in a chunk of policy recs to round it out.

Although I agree that some criticisms are needed (some of Cowen's restaurant-choosing advice seems based on anecdotal observations rather than rigorous research or theory), I do think that he makes important arguments about food systems that we foodies with means take for granted. For instance, he critiques the holy tenet that local food is always best. While eating seasonal, local produce tastes great in many cases, distance is not the only factor in carbon footprint. Production methods matter even more. Farmers who use winter greenhouses or irrigate heavily are likely using more energy and resources than a farmer in a warmer, rainier climate who ships items using transportation with a low carbon footprint. Thus, it can be better to eat a banana shipped here via boat instead of a tomato grown in a greenhouse in upstate NY, then trucked for several hours to a farmers market.

Many reviewers who have said this book is against "all that is good and Alice Waters" cite his appreciation of agribusiness (for its economies of scale) and GMOs (for radically increasing crop yields). He does gloss over the myriad issues that have resulted from the domination of agribusiness in this country, but in the end, I find that many of Cowen's policy prescriptions (to encourage less meat consumption, to tax carbon) are actually in line with what Bittman or Pollan might recommend.

Overall, the book is a good (if disorganized) mix of restaurant advice, cultural history and economic theory. If you are a devout foodie who cares about conscientious consumption, read this book and be prepared to challenge your beliefs or stand your ground.

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