Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
An Economist Gets Lunch
By Tyler Cowen
Dutton, 293 pages, $26.95
“Let’s be clear,” Tyler Cowen writes in “An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies,” an eccentric first-person hodgepodge of gastronomic thoughts, strategies and travel stories. “Every meal really matters to me.” Readers of his blog, Marginal Revolution, know that he means it. Nominally devoted to economics, the site also catalogs meticulously the ethnic restaurants in the Washington area. In a typical post, he’ll review a new Bolivian restaurant and compare it not only with other Bolivian restaurants but with others serving food from the Cochabamba region.
His goal now is to provide a guide to dining well anywhere, while minimizing risk of the Cowen nightmare, a meal that is an expensive bore. His commandments fall into two categories. The first is variations on a general mantra derived from the law of supply and demand. Eat, he urges, where “the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.” An ideal restaurant would be a sushi bar near Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, where fresh fish and discerning diners make selling bad sushi unviable as a business. The height of folly, perhaps, would be my own gastroenterologically fateful decision to visit what was then the only sushi restaurant in Villahermosa, Mexico (an unforced error, I must admit).
The second category is classic Cowen advice—heterodox, clever and preposterously, sometimes uselessly, specific. He advises, for example, looking for Thai restaurants attached to motels (more likely to be family-run and not desperate to make rent). For authenticity, he awards points to Pakistani restaurants that feature pictures of Mecca, since they’re more likely to cater to Pakistani clientele. (“The more aggressively religious the décor, the better it will be for the food.”) Find restaurants where diners are “screaming at each other” or “pursuing blood feuds,” he says—indications that people feel comfortable there and return frequently with their familiars.
Mr. Cowen rightly singles out pit barbecue—eaten in situ in the region that produces it—as the greatest American culinary innovation. (Though he considers the Mexican equivalent, barbacoa, its equal.) It is a style of food that, like a Wi-Fi signal, fast loses its potency away from its home base. “Eat barbecue in towns of less than 50,000 people,” he suggests; the brisket Valhalla known as Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, Texas, accordingly wins the unrestrained praise it deserves. For the best barbecue, look for restaurants that open in the morning and have real pits with stacks of burning wood, since nothing signals commitment better than a willingness to spend nine hours overnight cooking meat next to a pit of fire. These labor-intensive operations, Mr. Cowen writes, show “just how uneconomical true barbecue art can be”—which suggests that if you want to eat like an economist, you should find a chef who doesn’t cook like one.
For home cooking, Mr. Cowen urges exploitation of specialty ethnic markets, both because doing so will inspire more innovative cooking and because shoppers there tend to be discerning. He describes a month of shopping at his local Chinese grocery, where he discovered fresh fish and cheap produce brought in from a network of fishing boats and farms, both near and distant. The mostly Chinese customers stand for no flaws in their greens, he says, and it isn’t unusual to see a shopper examining individual peas with a level of scrutiny normally reserved for uncut diamonds in Antwerp.
The ghost at Mr. Cowen’s banquet is Michael Pollan, who is mentioned sparingly but haunts most popular food writing these days. In his demonization of agribusiness and praise of local, simple foods, Mr. Pollan opposes much of what Mr. Cowen adores. The two writers share a hatred for processed junk, and one suspects that they’d enjoy some of the same meals. Mr. Cowen, however, has no time for locavorism—the pathology that leads some diners to exclude all but local products from their diets—and shows a winning appreciation for food beyond its raw ingredients. Better ingredients, he says, can usually be found more easily in other countries. What America excels at is a combination of choice and diversity, aided by such globalizing factors as easy immigration, cheap rents in strip malls, and low barriers to entry that allow risk-taking and innovation.
If one’s goal is to eat well, Mr. Cowen’s rules are golden. Whether they produce a pleasant meal overall is another matter. It helps if you’re Tyler Cowen, or at least share his monomaniacal view that “constructing a better eating experience” means maximizing flavor at the expense of all else. A good atmosphere is not just secondary: It’s a sign that the restaurant cares about something other than what’s on the plate. Mr. Cowen says to beware of scenic views, bevies of beautiful women, and well-stocked bars. “You want to see that the people eating there mean business,” Mr. Cowen writes. Food is a business he knows intimately, although his preference for delicious meals in windowless rooms with ugly women, pictures of the Kaaba, and active blood-feuds will not be a taste shared by all.