I reviewed On the Noodle Road in the Wall Street Journal.
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.
Originally published in The Daily.
In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service asked the nation to vote by postcard on whether the new Elvis Presley stamp should depict Elvis as a young man — slickly pompadoured, tie loose, cool as a diner malt — or as the jonesing, sequined lard-ass he later became. The decision wasn’t a hard one: Voters overwhelmingly chose the young Elvis, preferring to remember their idol in the days when he put Crisco in his hair rather than into his face. Memories of Presley’s shape late in life remain painful for some fans, who prefer the image of a lithe young star with a pelvis so provocative that, even fully clothed, it could not be shown on television. But Elvis morphed into something much worse, burying himself in his own pudge, until on Aug. 16, 1977, his heart decided it could no longer work under those conditions and left the King dead on his bathroom floor.
Originally published in The Daily.
In 1921, in the early days of meat inspection, an American cow’s journey from factory to restaurant was still long and uncertain, a public-health gamble for everyone but vegetarians. Ground beef was especially suspect. If you, the diner, dared to sink your fangs into a burger, your greasy mouthful might contain an unpleasant surprise: if you were lucky, part of a cow; if you were not — something else.
Martin van Almsick gave me a tour of his chocolate factory in Dubai, where he manages the production of the world’s first camel-milk chocolate. Read about it at the Atlantic food channel.
Originally appeared at The Atlantic‘s Food channel.
A little over a century ago, the New York street food of choice was the oyster, which grew so abundantly that rich and poor alike ate them in vast quantities. That period feels distant and fantastic, partly because oysters are now a luxury food, and partly because it’s hard to imagine a national cuisine not dominated by the hamburger.
The signature American sandwich has always been an unapologetically demotic food — at least until recently — but Ozersky’s cultural history emphasizes three principal phases in our collective consumption: first, its murky origins in “hamburger steak,” first served in the U.S. but associated with immigrants from the port city of Hamburg; second, the early days of White Castle in the 1920s, when the preparation of burgers became a science and an art; and finally the postwar McDonald’s era, when a ruthless entrepreneur named Ray Kroc took the fast-food model and made it franchisable nationwide, and then worldwide.
The burger is, Ozersky notes, an irreducible food, a “gastronomic endpoint, like sashimi or a baked potato.” Yet somehow, with each phase, innovations prevailed. White Castle figured out that it could cook faster and more evenly and use griddle space more efficiently if it served square burgers, not round ones, and poked a hole in the center. McDonald’s embraced the all-Styrofoam-and-paper service area, streamlining itself into absurd profitability. And Dave Thomas, the genius behind Wendy’s, invented the drive-through window, capitalizing on the sandwich’s key virtue — its portability. You can eat a hamburger as you drive (try that with an oyster).
The Hamburger is short but comprehensive, heavy with interesting detail about the habits of American diners and restaurateurs. (It would be better if it were even leaner; the gratuitous lessons in pop sociology should be trimmed first.) One serious omission, though, is a realistic discussion of the scale of the industry it describes, which we all know is staggeringly large, but it is in fact even larger than most appreciate. The amount of beef McDonald’s alone uses in a year is so great that if the cows supplying its restaurants were all in one herd, and were being killed Blackfoot-style by stampeding them off a cliff 20 feet wide, McDonald’s gauchos would have to be rushing the herd off that cliff from dawn to dusk, every day of the year, to satisfy demand. The pop and sizzle of hamburgers conceal the frantic moos of an unfathomable number of animals, and it would be nice to have some acknowledgment of their sacrifice.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com
PETA’s million-dollar prize is an occasion for irony — delicious or repulsive, depending on one’s perspective. About a decade ago, an urban legend claimed that the government had barred Kentucky Fried Chicken from calling its food “chicken,” because it used genetically modified Frankenbirds, brainless and grown in jars, that bore no resemblance to chicken or poultry of any kind. That supposedly explained the rebranding of Kentucky Fried Chicken as “KFC” — a government demand for truth in advertising. Needless to say, this idiotic myth contained not even a grain of truth. KFC continued to use real chickens, and to abuse them wantonly in the production process. PETA noticed and launched a campaign, “Kentucky Fried Cruelty,” to draw attention to KFC’s brutal methods. Now PETA’s prize suggests the organization wishes the urban legend had been true from the start. One looks forward to clever PETA graphics featuring Colonel Sanders in a lab-coat, instead of bloodstained and sporting devil-horns.