Sharing the feast – the economics of taste

Last Friday’s Independent ran an article with a headline that raised both my hackles and my eyebrows. I speak – and react – as both a foodie and very much a ‘non-Econ’, as anyone who saw my reaction to Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge may remember. The article’s title? Eat like an economist, dine like a king. Despite having a day off at the time – when you’d imagine I’d respond like a foodie – I responded like a non-Econ. Three assumptions were immediately triggered:

  • They’re talking about dining on expenses, right?
  • Do they mean ‘dine alone’, but they’re too embarrassed to say so?
  • Do they want me to recall that bit in Nudge about a drinks party organised on strict economic principles? Because I don’t …

In the event, the article was really nothing of the sort. It was plugging a book – Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Gets Lunch – that the journalist had chosen to present as applying “an economist’s cold logic to the world of food”. Mr Cowen may be a professor of the dismal science, but he also writes a foodie blog, and reading around the reviews – no, I’ve not bothered with the book – I get the feeling the foodie in him generated the desire for a book that the economist in him has found a way to pitch.

Consider the following snippet from USA Today’s review:

[…] a mind-bending book for non-economists. Cowen offers lots of mantras for foodies, the dominant mantra reading like 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.”

Pardon my quoting Homer Simpson at this point but … “doh!” Eating somewhere where I’m not subsidising an army of greeters, where the ingredients are fresh and I get value for money and something that tastes good didn’t strike me so much as economics but common sense. I got the feeling that the book might leave my mind no more bent than it already is. Besides which, these are lessons that were readily learnable not just from the evidence your wallet and tastebuds should have gathered over the years, but from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, published 12 years ago.

If your mother hadn’t already told you, Bourdain dispensed sage advice such as not eating fish in restaurants on Mondays (as it’s almost certainly been bought in on Friday). And with Bourdain you also get drugs, violence, sex and rock’n’roll. Depending on your own taste, that might get you salivating rather more than the prospect of a banquet of calculations and equations. Oh, just me then? I always was a messy eater …

But what does interest me is the choice of angle. Unless I’m seriously mistaken, the book is not about how to eat well for less. We’re not really talking about nutrition here, but about why doing something in the style of an economist is … well, the shorthand adjective is ‘sexier’. I can grasp the allure of a crisply laid table cloth, or even the bohemian charm of covering a rickety table with an old kaffiah if we’re talking authentic ethnic fare in a genuinely ethnic bistro (something that seems to press Cowen’s buttons). But this is proposing that dinner is somehow more tempting when it’s eaten off a cost-managed furniture item that has been laid with a carefully compiled spread sheet.

At this point, I blanch (sorry) a little. Where is the enjoyment of good food, the sense of occasion, the joy of sitting down with others? Even where the available extracts are about economics, I’m not sure I’d agree. Consider the following:

It feels greener to buy from the local farmer than to patronize a large, multinational banana company, but perhaps with a dubious political history at that. But there’s nothing especially virtuous about the local farmer, even if it feels good to affiliate him.”

I don’t vet my local farmer’s market stalls for their political allegiances or ask them to fill in morality questionnaires, but I can’t help but argue that buying from them not just lowers my costs but also means I’m investing in my local community. I don’t just want to eat well, I want to live in a region with a healthy local economy too. My local farmers market also swarms with Green Party members, and I think they do actually have a point or two about food miles, pollution from transportation and so on. And I thought I was supposed be looking for fresh supplies? I know bananas don’t grow in Buckinghamshire, and I accept that I’ll have to submit to Bid Bad Multinationals for much of what goes down my gullet. But I’m buying dinner, not selling a case.

Selling a case, as in an economic argument, seems to be Cowen’s strength, at least judging by the responses he has invoked. The Spectator Book Club recommends the book:

[…] if you want to talk some economic sense into your leftie friends over a dinner table […]“

while Boston.com finished its review with a fitting riposte:

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.”

My main learning point from all this is that members of the Spectator Book Club are assumed to have ‘leftie friends’. Who knew? Meanwhile, whatever the demand Mr Cowen has sought to stimulate, the Washington Post, New York Times and Serious Eats have been quick to supply less than kind reviews. I will, I suspect, be following the wisdom of the market on this occasion.

Business is business, but it bothers me that the implicit message is that the way to sell us a book about eating is to make dinner into business too. I eat of necessity, of course, but I like my necessities to be life-affirming too. I have shopped in obscure ethnic stores for decades, and can knock you up a thoroughly decent armlov, with a lovely bowl of gatnabour to follow. For a table of four, I can do that for about £4.50 a head and blow the rest on merlot. And, provided I wanted to invite you in the first place, you can make yourself at home while you eat.

I have to eat, so I like to make shopping, cooking and eating enjoyable – for me and for those I share the occasion with. I have to be able to afford the ingredients, of course, but a complete diet includes a dollop of love, a tablespoon or two of joie de vivre and a generous splash of joy. That goes some way beyond conducting a cost-benefit analysis, and – for me at least – also involves avoiding dining with people who leave me with the impression that their wallets and sphincters are pursed so tightly that they probably float in their bath. (No doubt with the water heated on an overnight tariff.)

In olden days, we used to test people whose morals and behaviours we distrusted to see if they floated in ponds: any sign of being watertight and it was straight off for the public burning. Since then, we claim to have been making progress …

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