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How American Food Got Bad



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I just finished my colleague Tyler Cowen’s newest book, An Economist Gets Lunch. While I thought the whole thing was interesting, and highly entertaining at times, my favorite chapter is one called “How American Food Got Bad.”

While the standard explanation blames bad American food on commercialization, capitalism, and the inability of individuals to choose what’s best for them, Tyler tells a story that starts with the war on alcohol (prohibition and states’ restrictions on public sales) that led many top-quality restaurants to close down once they couldn’t subsidize good food with the profits made on drinks anymore (see cross-subsidies below), and the war that started in the ’20s against immigration and “kept American food away from its best and most fruitful innovators for decades.” He also explains how the Second World War contributed to the trend as it “shoved America into a trough of high volume, low quality junk” along with the several decades it took for American food to adapt to the “two-income family and the dominance of television as a way of spending time.”

Excessive catering of American parents to their kids’ food preferences also explains how American food got bad. Argentinian parents feed their kids kidney, Mexicans feed theirs spices, and Germans feed their kids strong-tasting breads. But American parents feed their kids chicken nuggets and other bland foods. Also, while in other countries, parents often impose their tastes on their children, somehow the reverse happens in the U.S.

I can certainly vouch for this last part. Growing up, my parents would mostly ignore my wishes when it came to food — or anything else for that matter. I wasn’t forced to eat blue cheese at every meal, but I had to try it once in a while, like I had to try every new food they put on the table. My mom fixed one meal for the whole family and if you didn’t like it, well, tough luck because that’s what was on the menu that night. As a result, my sister and I ate very diverse meals (most of them without particular enjoyment). This practice may not guarantee that children will grow into adults who can eat anything but it certainly makes it easier for parents (Having tried both ways with my children, I can confirm that point too!).

#more#These factors long with a few others explain how we end up with “a lot of bad food and a lot of sweet and bland food,” Tyler explains. He, by the way, writes that there is a certain level of exaggeration — especially among foreigners — about how bad the food is here. From the freshness of the vegetables to Texas beef and barbecue to New Orleans’ Creole and Cajun cuisine, the U.S. has lots to offer.

Of course, like everything thing Tyler writes, this book covers many other intriguing topic such as eating your way to a greener planet or the culture and values of cooking at home. If you are interested you will find out why restaurants in high-rent areas are, contrary to expectations, often disappointing and much less creative than the ones in low-rent neighborhoods. You will also learn what cross-subsidies are and how 19th-century saloons in America used the lure of a free meal to attract customers who would then spend tons of money on drinks. Today, there is a lot of cross-subsidizing going on in expensive restaurants (your drinking subsidizes your food and the food of the nondrinkers) and at Starbucks (where the coffee is subsidized by the milk and sugary stuff).

There are interesting and even useful pieces of advice in there, too, like how you can increase your chance of finding unexpected and exciting food if you only order the least appealing food on any given menu. Also, you will get a list of indispensable food items to bring back home after a trip to the Chinese grocery store.

One thing is sure, even if you don’t agree with everything in the book, you are unlikely to think about shopping for food or dining out the same way once you are done reading (even if you don’t act on it, for now).

Finally, I can imagine that this book will annoy a serious portion of the “foodie” community as, in the end, I read it as an awesome statement about the democratization of great food, not to mention a serious exercise in debunking the idea that high-quality food is reserved for a rare elite willing to invest lots of money in eating.



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