Eat carrots, avoid asparagus. Buy your Cokes in Chinese supermarkets and for the perfect dinner, choose a Pakistani restaurant. Don’t trust the places where the waiters smile too often, and don’t be ashamed of eating in shopping malls. Does anything sound odd about these little suggestions? If so, you shouldn’t dismiss them. Because tips like these and many others can be found in the new, already much-discussed book, An Economist Gets Lunch, which examines everyday eating according to economic theory. Just published in the U.S. last April, it’s an original and provocative way of linking American history, economics, and fine dining – and debunking some of the widely accepted ideas.
The author, Tyler Cowen – a well-respected economist, University professor, author, world traveller, food critic for the Washington Post, and New York Times columnist -- , applied his own economic theories to food, transforming them into rules and suggestions for the American consumer, after tracing the nation’s history of food and dining. Writing about food is nothing new for Cowen, as he also authors a blog about ethnic cuisine, but it’s his curious and original way of bringing an economic “flavor” to the plate, which makes the ideas in this book so provocative.
Ethnic food is a main feature of this book, and he has myriad ideas and suggestions about it: Cowen is convinced that one, in general, eats much better in restaurants that are run by and specialize in food from other countries – many of which can be found in unglamorous strip malls. Prices are usually much lower than the average “traditional” restaurant, the food is always flavourful, and diners can expect to be happily surprised. Cowen encourages readers and diners to always order something that they normally wouldn’t, a dish that sounds “strange”, one with unfamiliar ingredients, or even something that sounds like it wouldn’t taste good. This tactic ensures that what you’re ordering is something that “natives” like and look for, and that will most likely offer an unexpected delight. Among the various kinds of ethnic restaurants, Cowen advises choosing those that don’t serve alcohol – like Pakistani ones – because the chef knows that diners’ palates won’t be “masked” by wine or beer. He also strongly urges diners to be patient and understanding if their dishes don’t come to the table as speedily as they’d like: it’s a good sign, he insists, because it means the kitchen hasn’t just heated it up in a microwave.
But the most controversial aspect of Cowen’s book, is his criticism of the committed “locavores” – diners who insist on eating locally. Despite being an enthusiastic environmentalist, Cowen urges people to not take “zero-chilometer” too seriously. “Most people, even well-informed people,” he writes, “don't have a good sense of how much an afternoon drive in a Mercedes contributes to the climate change problem relative to buying a batch of flown-in asparagus or subbing in a steak for a chicken breast.” So eating local is great, but we should always keep in mind that transport contributes only to 10%-15% of the energy consumed. Cowen discourages eating those fresh products that are flown in so they can arrive at our tables, and says we should all embrace the more resistant ingredients like carrots and cabbages that are grown virtually everywhere. A carrot can survive a long-haul drive; an asparagus won’t. So unless you live somewhere where asparagus are grown in abundance, it’s time to re-consider the carrot.