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What is "American Food"? Cheap, Tasty, Inventive, and Ethnic

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 18, 2012 04:30 PM

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Tyler Cowen is best-known for being a libertarian economist at George Mason University -- his book The Great Stagnation changed the debate about the economy last year. It turns out, though, that he's also a prodigious food blogger and globe-trotting ethnic-food obsessive. In his new book, An Economist Gets Lunch, Cowen brings the two halves of his life together, and, in the process, comes up with a surprising take on American food. He manages to be a pro-agribusiness foodie.

A large part of Cowen's book is taken up with dining tips which, while they probably won't surprise many dedicated omnivores, still have an enjoyable, counterintuitive ring to them. Cowen's goal is to get the best food possible for the money. Essentially, his ideal restaurant is a bare-bones ethnic restaurant in a suburban strip mall which contains other, similar ethnic restaurants; in the best case, the place is full of families, only serves soft drinks, and is incentivized by intense competition to focus entirely on serving great food for an unbelievably low price. (If he lived in Boston, he'd almost certainly favor the fantastic noodle restaurants arrayed in the food court of the Super 88 Asian supermarket in Brighton.)

In such a restaurant, your best bet is to order randomly, perhaps focusing on dishes with particularly bizarre or off-putting names. Many apparently 'better' restaurants, Cowen argues, actually focus on things other than the food: If you see a restaurant full of smiling, beautiful people enjoying fancy cocktails, the odds are that the taste-to-dollar ratio will not be in your favor. I wholeheartedly agree with this advice, in the main, although I suspect that it only applies to certain sorts of diners. Many people aren't quite omnivorous enough to order, say, the "loofa with special sauce" at a Szechuan restaurant. (Loofa, if you're interested, is a kind of gourd, and tastes sort of like a honeydew melon.)

Cowen's book offers more than ethnic-dining tips, however; it situates them in a broad historical context. Many of today's mainstream foodies, Cowen argues, have the history of American food all backwards. They assume that American food is so terrible and unhealthy because of agribusiness: We eat terribly, the thinking goes, because our food is frozen, packaged, and trucked over vast distances before we eat it. Cowen has an entirely different explanation for the mediocrity of American food. As he sees it, American food was ruined by a series of entirely contingent historical events -- Prohibition, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the rise of TV -- which effectively ruined the restaurant industry. Those events were especially damaging, he argues, because immigration was so severely restricted during much of the 20th century. Immigrants were the people who can do the most interesting things with the cheap food on offer in the United States; without them, American food became boring and bland.

Now that immigration is on the rise again, America is a food paradise: the extended food supply chain created by American agribusiness means that food is plentiful and cheap, while our vibrant immigrant communities take that cheap food and make it awesome in a million different ways. (Barbecue is an example of a home-grown food culture which acts, in many respects, like an immigrant one.) The essence of American food, Cowen argues, is that it's inexpensive, innovative, and various. To eat well in America, you have to embrace its unique history, and start from the fact that "the United States is a country where the human beings are extremely creative but the tomatoes are not extraordinarily fresh." If you're obsessed with the farmer's market, you've got American food wrong; instead, think of America as a hotbed of "food innovation," where the best food is getting made at strip malls and in food trucks. It's an alternate vision of food in America.

Many critics aren't convinced; in the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes that reading the book is "like pushing a shopping cart through Whole Foods with Rush Limbaugh"; it "delivers observations that, should Alice Waters ever be detained in Gitmo, her captors will play over loudspeakers to break her spirit." Some people, of course, may simply value other things when it comes to food -- wine, for example. For the rest of us, the Super 88 food court awaits!

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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