Dangle a gastro-spirited book, no matter how provincial, esoteric, or ancient, before the eyes of most food lovers, and we will find something to relish. It could be a recipe, a technique, or some toothsome nugget of culinary history. Yet now, with the publication of Tyler Cowen’s “An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies,” we finally have an entry fit to make the average gourmand weep. And I don’t mean happy tears. I mean tears of disputation, tears of unintended comedy, tears of bleary-eyed fury. Take your pick.
Could it be some mix-up with the title? Instead of “New Rules for Everyday Foodies” did the author possibly mean to type “New Rules for Recent Visitors to Earth”? Because this alleged guidebook to real eating offers up recommendations that traffic in the shockingly, patronizingly obvious. Page by page by page.
Right off the bat, Cowen sets up a straw man “food snob,” a figure he proceeds to throttle. He describes “food writers, commentators, and foodies” as being misled by three doctrines: that the best food is expensive, that all agribusiness is “irredeemably bad,” that “consumers are not a trusted source of innovation” (whatever that means).
Has this guy heard of Chowhound or Yelp? Has he ever perused the food section of a big newspaper?
A few examples of Cowen’s “rules”: “Locavore” shopping is not always the most environmental; frozen food can be good; restaurants in touristy locations can be iffy; cookbooks are fine sources of information; every meal should count; great values are to be found in ethnic supermarkets; good food is often cheap food. Ladies and gentleman, we have arrived in the Land of the Obvious. Kindly brace yourself for a series of self-evident observations wrapped in a self-congratulatory rhetoric of discovery that can only suggest a writer who is well out of his professional depth.
And we have not even gotten to the faux armature of “economics” that is alleged to guide this lurching freighter of a book. Cowen’s advice boils down to this: “Food is a product of economic supply and demand, so try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.” As if we are being proffered some secret eco-insight, this mantra is repeated ad nauseam. Cut through the stilted verbiage and isn’t this what every human being with a modest interest in food beyond the matter of sustenance attempts in pursuit of a decent meal?
If Cowen’s opinions smack solipsistic at best and myopic at worst, the logic of his inquiry feels similarly elusive. Why chapters, or “lite” histories, on barbecue, Asian cuisine, and how Mexican food tastes better in Mexico? And as if we have never nibbled on a sparerib or sniffed nam pla or tried a corn tortilla? How any of this falls under the umbrella of economic analysis or a new rule for an everyday foodie is another question.
Advice to Mr. Cowen: Books are the product of supply and demand. Readers hunger for supplies that are fresh. This particular supply, to put it kindly, serves up a pale, desiccated, maddening dish.
Ted Weesner Jr., a writer in Somerville who teaches at Tufts University, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.