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“An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies” by Tyler Cowen

By Hannah Wallace,

Economist Tyler Cowen calls himself an “everyday foodie,” and his new book, “An Economist Gets Lunch,” is aimed at people like him. So it seems reasonable to ask: What is an everyday foodie? A single mom on food stamps who shops at the farmers market? A locavore who cooks nourishing meals for less than $5?

It’s impossible to say, because throughout this distractingly discursive book, Cowen never defines the term. At first, he hints that he’s addressing eaters of a lower income bracket. “I also view wise eating as a way to limit inequality,” he writes, noting that in the United States the wealthy often eat better than the middle class. “It doesn’t have to be this way and I’m explaining how, even on a modest income, you can eat and enjoy some of the tastiest food in the world.”

As if to emphasize his solidarity with those on “modest incomes,” he shows how he disdains fancy restaurants and celebrates agribusiness and the cheap food that it produces. But it soon becomes clear that Cowen thinks a modest income should be able to finance trips to Dar es Salaam and Switzerland, meals at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, and a taste for the finest foie gras. This is the everyday of the 1 percent.

Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, frames his book as a manifesto — “I hope these pages will show that becoming a better consumer of food can literally revolutionize the world,” he states at the outset. But “An Economist Gets Lunch” doesn’t deliver. Written in an informal, almost flippant tone, it reads like a culinary guide for amateurs crossed with a contrarian, anti-environmentalist, pro-genetic-modified-organism rant. Sandwiched inexplicably between is a long digression on the history and culture of barbecue.

Cowen’s advice for would-be food revolutionaries is as stale as a loaf of weeks-old Wonder bread. Any traveler worth her salt knows that the best food is where the locals eat, but while he was traveling in Nicaragua, this came to Cowen as a revelation. He cautions readers not to eat from a Chinese buffet and then says, “Chinese food that has been sitting is often Chinese food that has become soggy.”And does it really take an economist to figure out why restaurants with “wonderful views or innovative decor” have a high drink mark-up?

Cowen’s peculiar maxims — such as “Eat at a Thai restaurant that is attached to a motel” and seek out food trucks in sketchy neighborhoods — are flimsy generalizations. Granted, they are delivered tongue-in-cheek, but they sound less like sage advice from an influential economist than random pointers from a garrulous uncle. The result is that you don’t trust Cowen’s judgment when he takes on more serious subjects such as world hunger and the obesity crisis. He thinks, for instance, that genetically modified organisms can stave off the former, and he blames obesity on a lack of self-control.

Cowen takes great pleasure in making outrageous assertions, yet he frequently undermines them. He disparages Bon Appetit magazine, documentaries such as “Food, Inc.,” and adherents of slow food, lumping them all under the same category: “food snobbery.” Yet Bon Appetit regularly covers food carts and barbecue joints (both of which Cowen praises for being sources of cheap, good food), and Slow Food USA’s mission includes making healthy food accessible to people of all income levels. Clearly, Cowen’s assumptions are not based on any up-to-date research. Later, it’s jarring when Cowen calls barbecue “the greatest slow food of all.” I suspect he’s being tongue-in-cheek, but to readers who are familiar with Slow Food’s mission — which includes preserving regional cuisines and supporting small businesses — it just sounds as if he finally understands what Slow Food is truly about.

He also dismisses locavores — in a chapter called “Eating Your Way to a Greener Planet” — saying you shouldn’t worry about where your food comes from, since food miles compose only a “small part” of the total energy cost of producing food. Yet a few paragraphs later he instructs his readers to eat root vegetables because they’re less likely to arrive via airplane, “an especially environmentally unfriendly activity.” In Cowen’s eyes, if you opt for local produce over “a bunch of bananas in a boat,” you’re misguided, since local farmers “can damage the environment more” by driving their trucks into town. But if you eat local asparagus over asparagus that’s flown in from South America, you get his seal of approval. Strangely for an economist, Cowen doesn’t address the financial stimulus that buying locally has on a regional food economy. Many locavores, though they care about reducing the distance food travels from farm to plate, also buy local to support area farmers, ranchers and food producers.

There are a few intriguing ideas sprinkled throughout the book. Cowen argues persuasively that America’s dumbed-down food culture is due to permissive parents who let their kids dictate what’s for dinner. He proposes that people who care about the planet swear off refined sugar because sugar processing is energy-intensive (though I wanted some evidence to be fully convinced). After realizing how easy it is to eat more leafy greens when they’re abundant and cheap, Cowen gets to thinking “about the need for a new kind of food revolution and how it can be accomplished.” He might be surprised to learn that this revolution — to make leafy greens and other produce more affordable and abundant — is already underway. And it’s being led by the very locavores and Slow Food advocates Cowen thinks are snobs.

Hannah Wallace writes about food justice and sustainable agriculture for a variety of publications including the New York Times, Portland Monthly and Civil Eats. 

AN ECONOMIST GETS LUNCH New Rules for Everyday Foodies By Tyler Cowen Dutton. 293 pp. $26.95

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