The Boston Globe on Cowen on food

by on April 20, 2012 at 3:42 pm in Books, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

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.

That is Josh Rothman, there is more here.  Here is a Q&A with me on food, and what is always in my cupboard: “Goya beans, cumin seed, dried ancho chilies.”

Scoop April 20, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Why did you choose to price the Kindle version so high? At $9, I’d have probably downloaded, but $13 seems a lot to pay for something that avoids all physical costs, particularly when you can’t swap it with friends or resell it.

Scoop April 21, 2012 at 11:05 am

In rereading this, I see it looks like I was grousing. This is only partly true. I was actually hoping Tyler would give us a post some time about how the decision got made — how they calculate which price points work for different books and how much of the decision hinges on author/publisher/amazon.

Ed April 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm

If the review is accurate, this really is an economist’s view on food; its not important that the ingredients are crap, look at all the creative things our diverse immigrant population does with them! We don’t worry about the price of extracting light sweet crude oil, we have ZIRP and derivatives!

Bill April 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Re: What’s in Tyler’s Cupboard: “what is always in my cupboard: “Goya beans, cumin seed, dried ancho chilies”

What a great lead in to American food marketing, food distribution, labeling and advertising in its roll creating brand awareness. And, an interesting story about image.

Of course, what I am talking about is Goya Foods, and the branded Goya beans in Tyler’s cupboard. You see, those beans were not actually made by Goya, they were likely private labeled for Goya. You may think Goya is a mexican or latin american brand, because you see it in the Mexican market. Actually, Goya was started by two spanish immigrants to the NY who imported spanish goods. Later, they acquired some Puerto Rican operations, but they primarily contract out the manufacture, or source from abroad, putting their label on the products.

Goya’s success was in offering a full and wide line of imported products with the Goya label to ethnic grocery stores. (By the way, marketing to ethnic groceries is TOTALLY different than marketing to regular grocery stores. For example, shelf payments are not common). By sourcing and LABELING undifferentiated products of the homeland with the GOYA label, GOYA has become a name, not only in the ethnic grocery, but in the national grocery.

You see, people like me who shop in an ethnic market see the Goya label; we think: hey, these guys must know how to make garbanzo beans; we later go to our regular merchant and urge them to carry the Goya products (demand pull marketing).

I think it would be an interesting experiment for Tyler to have a blind taste test of the Goya beans with other undifferentiated beans and see if his students can tell the difference. They are probably from the same canner.

But, in your mind, they taste different, because they are GOYA, which you saw populating all those places in the Mexican grocery store.

Next time, try the banana leaf. It’s Goya too.

bartman April 20, 2012 at 10:52 pm

He’s not implying they’re better, and he doesn’t say they’re canned. If I want a small (1 lb or less) bag of white beans or pinto beans, at my local grocery store (Wegmans) the only brand available is Goya. So either I go to an Indian store or I buy Goya brand dried beans if I’m on a regular grocery run.

I think you’re projecting a bit too much.

Bill April 21, 2012 at 8:00 am

Bart: Re: “If I want a small (1 lb or less) bag of white beans or pinto beans, at my local grocery store (Wegmans) the only brand available is Goya.”

That’s the point: Goya by sourcing under its own label has been able to move from the ethnic to the mainstream store, often serving as the category captain for latin foods in that category.

As to projection, Goya’s success is identical to what would have happened if Chung King in the 60’s or Chef Boy Are Dee, had, in their respective areas, put their label on everything they could import from Asia or Italy ( ie, Chung King sesame oil, Chung King tofu purchased under private label, or Chef Boy Are Dee dried pasta, etc.), and became the category leader in Chinese grocery stores or in Italian food markets. Then later becomming the category leader in your local Wegman’s.

When you say “He’s not implying they’re better, and he doesn’t say they’re canned.” Really also tells the point as well: if their dried beans, the labels doesn’t tell you much if the name Goya is attached, any more than if you go to the grocery this weekend and buy a 10 lb bag of russett potatoes with the Green Giant label on them. Take a taste test of those potatotoes v. unbranded.

On this last point, consumer marketing in the last 10 years has moved towards the branded undifferentiated product category. For a few cents more, you can get the brand. And, that’s it. But, if the brand makes you warm and cozy, or in some other way makes you feel better, go for it. Just know what your getting.

How were those dried beans.

Bill April 21, 2012 at 8:56 am

Other examples, besides Green Giant in the produce category, is Dole Fresh (not canned).

BTW, I am not trying to belittle Goya (or Tyler) for that matter. What I am trying to say that Goya was very successful in creating wide procurement depth and putting their label on practically anything they could source. And, because of some unique aspects of ethnic grocery store marketing, established themselves from just a few products they manufacturered, to virtually every part of the ethnic store.

In a note below, someone mentioned that they liked Le Preferida. They canned their own, did not develop an extensive label/sourcing program because their focus was on traditional grocery stores, which at the time, carried relatively few ethnic items. Poor decision. Today, not only is ethnic grocery growing, but ethnic in traditional grocery growing. My point is that by having an extensive line (sourced, not manufactured) in ethnic groceries, you established credibility to national grocery chains, including your local chain, Wegman’s.

Rahul April 20, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Unbranded imported ethnic goods (from poorer nations), depending on provenance, can be of extremely variable quality. Branding serves an important function here. Goya has just too much at stake to sell sub-standard (e.g. bug infested) or dangerous (e.g. Azo dyes in Indian turmeric etc.) products.

So although you are right that Goya is making a killing on it; yet there’s definite benefits to the consumer. And really I don’t mind paying the price premium for this “trust” aspect.

Bill April 21, 2012 at 8:05 am

You are right to the extent that the brand label sourcer does source to reduce variability, but so does the store, since they do not want to have bad product in their store as well.

In national consumer surveys, for example, Safeway brand tomatoes rank higher than some national brands, even though the national brand is the Safeway supplier. The trust value is higher for the same good.

Bill April 21, 2012 at 9:00 am

By trust value, I mean trust value in the Safeway brand.

Bill April 21, 2012 at 10:40 am

Rahul, To make my point clearer: grocery stores have an interest in sourcing–making sure that the tumeric they put on their shelf does not have high variable quality. They are the first (or maybe second if there is a wholesaler) before you purchase. The store loses its reputation if they source poorly, and why should they?

In fact, because stores perform that sourcing role so well, the private label store brand sometimes caries more cache than the national brand, as I pointed out.

Rahul April 21, 2012 at 11:11 am

Agreed but who has more at stake to not lose reputation? A, say, $800k value local ethnic store-operator or a $500M company?

Bill April 21, 2012 at 11:55 am

Rahul, Both have cost of losing a customer. In fact, you could argue the local grocery store owner has more to lose over the life of the customer that is diverted to another store. And, the amount of loss doesn’t need to be high if the cost of monitoring is low–do you suppose a store manager, if he gets complaints, or if he samples, won’t pull the product from the shelf or not order the product from the wholesaler the next time?

Bill April 20, 2012 at 5:46 pm

As a little follow-up, as my Goya awareness is now about 10 years old, Goya now distributes 1,600 products. Its labeling is now down to 40% from co-pack, whereas before it was much higher. Here is a link that tells you more about the subtlety of ethnic marketing and the separation of ethnic from non-ethnic channels: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0UQX/is_8_67/ai_108000120/

Bill April 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm

What is also interesting about Goya and ethnic food marketing, and, frankly, the success of Goya on brand identity, is that when immigrants came to the US, they were unaware of Goya, as it was a US label–not a Mexican, not a Honduran, not a Guatamalan, or any other Latin American label. It did acquire operations in PRico. So, brand identity developed in the US, and the brand was based on imported products Goya put their label on. Today, Goya is associated with Latin America in the US, for the most part (until recently), never having left the shores.

It tells you how important brand is, and how it can be extended into even the Gringo stores at your local grocery.

The company is worthy of a case study on brand identity and development.

JC April 20, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Need some Help –

Does anyone know where to find the best chile rellenos in the DC area?

Tyler Cowen April 20, 2012 at 7:25 pm

R&R Tacqueria!

chug April 21, 2012 at 9:36 am

R&R Tacqueria – Gas station tacos
http://tylercowensethnicdiningguide.com/?p=1339

Selfy April 20, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Continued ringing of your own bell gets old quickly. Everyone gets it by now, dude.

AB April 20, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Goya? La Preferida for this Anglo foodie.

mk April 21, 2012 at 12:25 am

Maybe I just need to read the book, but are you suggesting that it is not agribusiness’s fault that our tomatoes virtually always suck? OK, in a complex system it’s difficult to pin blame on particular actors, but for example this is just clearly wrong on many levels. The only non-crappy US tomatoes I’ve ever eaten have been local (or garden-grown).

Looking at all foods taken as a whole, I imagine that the story is quite nuanced, but the tomato seems like a very concrete example of agribusiness innovation sitting down with a newspaper and taking a massive leisurely crap on the concept of food quality.

Rahul April 21, 2012 at 1:19 am

Local tomatoes cannot be produced as cheap as agribusiness ones and most Americans have decided that the cost premiums are not worth the privilege of eating a local tomato. Those who can afford it and value it, go ahead and eat the local ones. But not everyone will.

Ray Lopez April 21, 2012 at 1:59 am

Yes Rahul is right. Blame agribusiness for bad tomatoes since they breed them to be picked green and ship easily, after being gassed with CO2 to make them red. Same with bananas–United Fruit planted the “Cavendish” species of banana in Central America–which you see everywhere in the USA–since it’s easy to ship. But in southeast Asia you’ll find many other more delicious species of banana (and sold by Dole as well as Del Monte!). Also the fabulous smelly durian fruit is found there…no equivalent in the USA unless you go to a Chinese food mart and then it’s not as fresh or as good. Not to mention several fruits not even found in the USA (the chico fruit, bread fruit, plantain banana, and rambutan come to mind, not to mention fresh green or red coconut–no it’s not like the dried mature version you see in the USA, and the calamansi too).

Sbard April 22, 2012 at 9:19 pm

They plant the Cavendish banana because the formerly predominant Big Mike variety was basically eliminated by a plague.

Andrew' April 21, 2012 at 6:33 am

It’s not the cost, it’s the time.

Rahul April 21, 2012 at 7:20 am

How do you mean? Doesn’t it cost more too to grow locally on a small scale, without mechanization, in non-optimal climates and soil, in locales with higher living and labor costs etc.? Why only time?

Steve Sailer April 21, 2012 at 1:33 am

Why was I not surprised that this review included the word “vibrant?”

Steve Sailer April 21, 2012 at 1:35 am

Yes, it must have been the decline in Irish immigration that wrecked American cuisine. Who hasn’t said, “Tonight, let’s go get some Irish food!”

Marian Kechlibar April 21, 2012 at 2:33 am

While I am generally skeptical of the entire “celebrate diversity” mumbo – jumbo, I would tentatively concur with the opinion that, in many countries, immigration has generated wider supply of good restaurants.

In the EU countries, it is often easier for a non-EU immigrant to get a business permit than a work permit. Skilled immigrants often find it hard to have their degrees/credentials from abroad accepted as valid. Opening an ethnic restaurant is easier to do, as it requires much less bureaucratic hurdles.

In Prague, the offer of good ethnic restaurants (from Bulgarian and Greek through Georgian, Persian, many Indian ones, Thai, Korean or Mexican) is much wider than in, say, 1996, and, in many of them, the food is fabulous. (On the other hand, some of them are notorious for hygienic issues).

From what I’ve heard about England or the Scandinavian countries, ethnic restaurants are pretty much the only way how to eat some non-bland, tasty food (unless you count lutefisk etc. as your favorites).

M April 21, 2012 at 6:24 am

From what I’ve heard about England or the Scandinavian countries, ethnic restaurants are pretty much the only way how to eat some non-bland, tasty food

At least in the UK, there tend to be lots of gastropubs and Modern British/Modern European restaurants in the same urban areas as ethnic restaurants and not a lot of penetration of these outside these areas. In areas where the native restaurants in poor, the ethnic restaurants tend to be poor as well. I’m not sure how either of these has affected the other. Generally immigrants are more willing to work for less money in this relatively low paid sector with unsociable hours.

I think there’s a lot of pussyfooting on this topic (how have immigrants contributed to North American food and European food) around the fact that North West European food cultures are different from Southern European (including French) and general world food cultures.

They did not traditionally have much access to many aromatic foods. They also tended, for whatever reason, to focus more on providing reliable and large supplies of protein, fat and carbohydrate and less on food connoisseurship, which was largely reserved for alcohol. Plus industrialisation on top of this, hitting the UK particularly hard (relative to less industrialised Northwest European nations like Denmark, Netherlands and France, with otherwise similar food traditions).

(which is not something to see as negative. After all, famines ceased in Northwest Europe relatively early, compared to most of the world. And these countries escaped the Malthusian Trap and massive rural employment much earlier.

The “meat on the table” and “eat it up whatever the taste because its good for you” attitudes, though they may disgust “foodies”, may have done a lot of real world good.)

Ed April 21, 2012 at 10:23 am

I’ve read that English cuisine in particular was ruined by the war (specifically World War II) and the need for rationing. Now I’m not sure I buy this -food shortages in World War I (though not the later war) were more severe in central Europe and Russia and the effect on the cuisine doesn’t seem to have been as bad or as long lasting.

Norman Pfyster April 21, 2012 at 12:08 pm

There’s a lot of truth to this. Pretty much all of America is immigrant; I suspect the 18th and 19th century immigrant cuisine was not the foodie paradise Tyler finds attractive. My mother’s husband’s family was only one generation off the boat from Norway, and he doesn’t have much good to say about the food he grew up with.

Norman Pfyster April 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm

The other oddity about connecting immigrants and restaurants is that such a connection is very urban in its focus, and doesn’t include the immigrants who settled in the wide open areas of the midwest and south and rarely went to restaurants.

Steve Sailer April 21, 2012 at 3:47 am

Generally speaking, the blander a country’s traditional foods, the better its civic institutions (e.g., Norway, Sweden, Scotland, England, Canada, America). D.P. Moynihan used to point out that the secret common denominator of American states ranking high in various measures of well-being (e.g., Minnesota usually does well) was proximity to the Canadian border (i.e., distance from the equator).

The closer to the equator, all else being equal, the spicier the produce, because warm weather plants need to generate their own poisons to deter parasites.

Prakash April 21, 2012 at 7:05 am

Singapore being the exception, I guess.

Vanya April 23, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Russian and Ukraine make a pretty big exception to that rule, to the extent your rule probably doesn’t work at all. Traditional cuisine in Kazakhstan and Mongolia is nothing you’d cross the street for either, but I daresay China has better civic institutions.

Jeff April 23, 2012 at 1:46 am

Should alcohol stop subsidizing good food?

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