The WSJ reviews *An Economist Gets Lunch*

by on April 7, 2012 at 7:06 am in Books, Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

From Graeme Wood, the review is here.  It has the excellent title “From Invisible Hand to Mouth.”  Excerpt:

For authenticity, he awards points to Pakistani restaurants that feature pictures of Mecca, since they’re more likely to cater to Pakistani clientele. (“The more aggressively religious the décor, the better it will be for the food.”) Find restaurants where diners are “screaming at each other” or “pursuing blood feuds,” he says—indications that people feel comfortable there and return frequently with their familiars.

I liked this line:

These labor-intensive operations, Mr. Cowen writes, show “just how uneconomical true barbecue art can be”—which suggests that if you want to eat like an economist, you should find a chef who doesn’t cook like one.

Note, however, that if you have talent but do not wish to scale it up very far, running an excellent local barbecue restaurant still may be a good use of your time.  The last two lines are sincere flattery:

Mr. Cowen says to beware of scenic views, bevies of beautiful women, and well-stocked bars. “You want to see that the people eating there mean business,” Mr. Cowen writes. Food is a business he knows intimately, although his preference for delicious meals in windowless rooms with ugly women, pictures of the Kaaba, and active blood-feuds will not be a taste shared by all.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon here.  For Barnes & Noble here.  For Indiebound.org here.  It is due out April 12.

Ted Craig April 7, 2012 at 8:31 am

You left out these lines:
“If one’s goal is to eat well, Mr. Cowen’s rules are golden. Whether they produce a pleasant meal overall is another matter. It helps if you’re Tyler Cowen…”

Scoop April 7, 2012 at 11:23 am

At least two of those tips seem counterproductive to me. Can anyone argue the other side and explain why I’m wrong? I’m constantly looking for ways to find better restaurants.

1. I generally look for restaurants that have a mix of natives from the appropriate country and American diners, particularly with cuisines from poor countries. I do NOT find that natives inherently know more about what constitutes quality examples of their home cuisine, particularly if they come from a place where they were likely to grow up too poor to experience the best of what their nation had to offer. I also find that people will gravitate not to the best of their national cuisine but to places that mis-cook it in ways similar to their mothers/other relatives/favorite restaurants growing up. I also don’t trust natives to be able to distinguish what elements of their national cuisine are truly world class and what elements they like simply from familiarity. I find that American foodies, many of whom spend a huge amount of time cultivating their palates, far more reliable. First, they try enough of everything to find which national cuisines just suck. (And contra Tyler, I think many of them do.) Plus, white foodies (unlike natives who will find something decent nearby and stick with it) will try each of the 75 different places that serve cuisine X in a given region to find the best one. That said, you want some mix of people from the actual country to demonstrate that it actually serves food that tastes like home to people who grew up in that country. If it’s ALL white foodies, what you’re probably eating is the invention of some chef rather than the food of some nation — which is often better than the food of some nation, but not always what you’re looking for.

2. A few regulars in a restaurant is a good sign, but I think too many regulars in a place is a terrible sign. Yes, it means the place is not so bad that people never come back, but it means that it caters to people who really are not very food curious (assuming that it’s located in a large urban area with hundreds of dining options. If you’re in a three restaurant town, this does not apply.) People who really like food and have options do not go back to the same place again and again and again. They mix it up. People who become regulars either like eating the same thing over and over (which is rare among food lovers) or they select a restaurant based on things other than food: friendship with the owners, discounts for their repeat patronage, a liking for the familiar over the unknown. All bad reasons to be in a restaurant. Plus, if the place is full of regulars, it means that it does not have the sort of good regional reputation that attracts people who care about food, people who would make reservations in advance and crowd the regulars out, to some degree.

P.S. It was brilliant signaling of cultural sophistication by Tyler to use Pakistani food as an example. The notion that there is world class Pakistani food ranks among the more absurd things he has ever written but scores of gullible readers will have images of Tyler having some gateway into cosmopolitan worlds that they can only dream of when they try the Pakistani place near them and find that, if you didn’t grow up there and didn’t develop a nostalgic tongue for it, it sucks.

PrometheeFeu April 7, 2012 at 12:21 pm

I’m sorry you had such crappy experiences with Pakistani food. I most definitely did not grow up with it and I’ve had some pretty amazing experiences with Pakistani food. It’s not my favorite, but there are definitely some great Pakistani restaurants out there.

maguro April 7, 2012 at 2:03 pm

All I know is that switching from franks and beans to authentic Pakistani food drove Babu out of business.

“You are a very bad man, very bad man!”

Ted Craig April 7, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Nice reference.

Scoop April 7, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Actually, I overstated the claim. The article does not hold that Tyler claims any Pakistani food is world class, merely that some places are better than others, which is certainly true.

Still, dirt poor nation, bad climate for growing most things, no pork: bad food (compared to many other places, at least, though they do like mutton, which is better than lamb because it’s sheepier. Lamb is for people who don’t like sheep flavor). Claiming you like things that most others don’t like: easy route to show you are better than others.

skeptic April 7, 2012 at 12:28 pm

De gustibus and all that. All food taste – including your own – is conditioned by familiarity and what you expect. Its clear you like food catering to white foodies, don’t fool yourself its because its world class etc.

RM April 7, 2012 at 2:05 pm

I would appreciate an explanation from Tyler on how Pakistani food differs from Indian food. I understand that as you go over into Afghanistan and Balochistan (more Iranian influences?), the food may change. But how does mainstream Pakistani food differ from Indian food? When one thinks of Pakistani food, they are thinking of variations of curry, not variations of Afghan or Iranian or food, no? I suspect that Tyler imagines a difference that is not as great. Certainly Punjabi food is the same on both sides of the border, no? And southern Pakistani food cannot be much different from what one would get in Gujarat.

On a related note, does Tyler have any insights into how the cuisine of the two countries diverged since partition? And why? What economic forces could have led to the divergence?

Rahul April 7, 2012 at 2:29 pm

The Pak-India food variation is, of course, a continuum (the border didn’t exist 70 years ago). Yet, once you go deeper into the nations the cuisines are indeed distinct (but not entirely non-overlapping; you’ll see common dishes and flavors )

One trivial difference is the number of beef dishes. Another confounding factor is that when non-Indians think of “Indian” food it is typically the cuisine of Punjab. There’d be absolutely nothing in common between Pak cuisine and Indian food drawn from the South, East or West-Central parts of India.

RM April 7, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Points well-taken. Yes, there are significant regional variations in food in India. But my point is that Punjab and Sindh, where most of Pakistan’s population is concentrated, are really just another regional variation of Indian food. On yet another complicating note, Pakistan’s population (I believe mostly in the south) consists of many Indians who moved from northeast India. Surely, they brought their food traditions with them.

Besides the well publicized “South Indian” restaurant, most Indian restaurants in the US serve basically the same menu. I believe that the vast majority of what Tyler is calling Pakistani food is the same menu with halal meat and a few additions such as beef nihari (now a national dish in Pakistan but which originated in Utter Pradesh) and beef kheema. Enlighten me Tyler.

LB April 7, 2012 at 3:55 pm

My impression is that Pakistani food is mostly cooked with oil, whereas clarified butter is used to make Indian curries. This is an important difference, to my taste.

Scoop April 7, 2012 at 7:56 pm

What you’re conditioned to like is part of it, certainly, but many people rise way beyond that. I was conditioned to like my mom’s cooking, at least by familiarity, but it didn’t take me too many trips out to realize that the unknown cooking of professional cooks blew the pants off anything Mom could produce.

People who spend huge amounts of time, effort and money seeking both incredible variety — unprecedented variety in world history — and the best of everything will, in fact, develop more sophisticated tastes than people who have only ever experienced one cuisine and never had the money to experience even the best of that cuisine..

OK. OK. I guess if you’re a real stickler for what can and cannot be proven, there’s no way to prove that dinner at the French Laundry tastes better than human excrement, and yet, I find journalism that helps me find “good” food to be very helpful to improving my quality of life.

Millian April 8, 2012 at 8:18 am

1. On average, most “white” consumers (by which I assume you mean non-co-ethnics) are not foodies who attend 75 venues of a sort.
2. Good point.
P.S. Pakistani food has become the national cuisine of the UK at this point. Groundless, groundless criticism.

PrometheeFeu April 7, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I love the line about scenic views. Though I must add a caveat. This is a trade-off. And so you can have beautiful women, a scenic view, great decor, AND amazing food as long as you are willing to pay a very high price.

Ken Rhodes April 8, 2012 at 11:26 am

Absolutely. Just look back a couple of comments to see The French Laundry.

Ted Craig April 7, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Here’s a tip about Vietnamese restaurants: Look for a restaurant with a clientèle made up of either natives and/or working-class white men above the age of 60. No, I’m not kidding.

Peter H April 7, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Vietnam war vets as signaling? Makes sense I suppose.

Peter April 7, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Find restaurants where diners are “screaming at each other” or “pursuing blood feuds,” he says—indications that people feel comfortable there and return frequently with their familiars.

And the risk of being caught in the crossfire as the bullets start flying adds a bit of frisson to the dining experience.

Barkley Rosser April 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm

OTOH, there is nothing wrong with going to restaurants with good views or pleasing decor as long as one accounts for the extra amount that one is paying for the food in order to have those things. It is not that good chefs avoid such places, the places just charge more for them and the wise customer should realize that they are paying for those things as well as the food. Indeed, many of the world’s finest restaurants have either or both nice views and fine decor. They just happen to be more expensive as well.

So, without getting into the matters of the number of regular diners, the volume or number of bullets of blood-feuds, the precise nature of religious imagery, or exactly how Pakistani cuisine should be labeled or described, etc. Tyler is certainly correct that if one wishes to maximize the quality of food per dollar spent, one should indeed avoid places with nice views or decor. (And pretty sneaky of you to have a book come out on my birthday, Tyler, :-)).

Barkley Rosser April 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Oh, some years ago I wrote a satire on Tyler’s dining recommendations entitled, “The Latest Recommendation from the Washingtoon Ethnic Dining Guide.” At the time, Tylelr linked to it. It is still accessible under that title down some ways on my website at http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb .

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