Tyler Cowen’s book An Economist Gets Lunch arrives on the table like a big, unidentifiable, whey-colored casserole. After 75 pages you’re still poking at it, thinking, “What is this thing?” and “Can I order something else?”
For a while I thought I had a bead on its contents. Cowen is a right-leaning economist and a contrarian foodie. He takes aim at a fat target: food-world pretentiousness. He attempts to skewer the slow-food, eat-local and eat-fresh movements; to him, they’re expensive and snobbish. He praises modern agribusiness. He admires the genetically modified animals and produce that opponents call Frankenfood.
Reading Cowen is like pushing a shopping cart through Whole Foods with Rush Limbaugh. The patter is non-stop and bracing. Cowen delivers observations that, should Alice Waters ever be detained in Gitmo, her captors will play over loudspeakers to break her spirit.
These observations include: “There’s nothing especially virtuous about the local farmer”; “buying green products seems to encourage individuals to be less moral”; and — a contender for Orwellian sentence of the year — “technology and business are a big part of what makes the world gentle and fun.”
What’s cognitively dissonant about An Economist Gets Lunch is that Cowen combines this needling with his own brand of chowhound hipsterism. His book is also a long, Calvin Trillin-like ode to tamale stands and strip-mall joints and ethnic food, the more exotic the better.
These cuisines appeal to the economist in him because they’re cheap and innovative. His book is packed with sentences like “Bolivian, Laotian and North Korean are staples of my dining out” and “I know how ‘Husband and Wife Lung Slices’ taste (not bad).”
This combination of elements takes some getting used to. Reading Cowen — he is a professor of economics at George Mason University near Washington, the author of a best-selling e-book titled The Great Stagnation, and a food blogger — is like watching a middle-aged man in a blue blazer play Hacky Sack at a My Morning Jacket concert.
An Economist Gets Lunch might have worked if, aesthetically, it wasn’t rather dismal. It’s flat, padded with filler, flecked with factual errors and swollen with a kind of reverse snobbery that’s nearly as wince-inducing as anything you’ll hear at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn.
You sense in almost every chapter that he’s stretching thin material. Thus the ponderous detours into much-trampled areas like the history of barbecue, the varieties of Chinese food and how to choose kitchen equipment.
Cowen presents the wisdom of the ages as if it were a series of dispatches from the gastronomic front lines. To find good food and not get fleeced, he recommends, leave the city centers and seek marginal areas. Trillin has been saying this for at least 40 years. I suspect Thucydides preferred the little joint on a side street to the place with the fountains where the waiters peeled customers’ grapes.
Speaking of Trillin, this book makes reference to the kind of ostentatious restaurants he used to jokingly refer to as “La Maison de la Casa House.” Cowen quotes his patron saint incorrectly, replacing “House” with “Haus”. Not a big deal. Except that this mistake arrives on Page 2, rattling your confidence.
Deep down there’s nothing foodies loathe more than other foodies. Cowen’s prose is animated by his dislike of sanctimonious, more-organic-than-thou types — the foodie liberal elite — but his book is its own elaborate exercise in conspicuous consumption and reverse snobbery. He flies around the globe, eats at the most expensive restaurants and sneers at nearly all of them.
Lost inside An Economist Gets Lunch are some worthy if unoriginal arguments. Cowen praises agribusiness because the world’s billions must be fed. He disagrees with the ethos that one’s meals are only as good as one’s ingredients. Many ethnic cuisines deploy cunning spices and sauces to enliven mediocre ingredients. This is good food that everyone can afford and enjoy.
In relating all this, however, Cowen comes perilously close to suggesting that we shouldn’t care about where and how our food is grown. As long as we can cloak the test-tube mush we’re given with some fish sauce and peppercorns — and I have nothing against fish sauce and peppercorns — our souls and stomachs will align in delight.
To give Cowen his due, he made me smile a few times. When choosing a restaurant, he suggests that if the people inside look happy, “run the other way.” He prefers spots where the diners “appear to be fighting and pursuing blood feuds.” Bitterness and gloom bespeak seriousness of purpose.
Yet I felt gloomy reading An Economist Gets Lunch. It’s an argument for exoticism that tastes like paste.
©2012 The New York Times
AN ECONOMIST GETS LUNCH
New Rules for Everyday Foodies
293 pages; $26.95