Food and Drink

That is the new and excellent book by Dan Jurafsky, due out this September, and I found it interesting throughout.  Here is just one bit:

In fact, the more Yelp reviewers mention dessert, the more they like the restaurant.  Reviewers who don’t mention a dessert give the restaurants an average review score of 3.6 (out of 5).  But reviewers who mention a dessert in their review give a higher average review score, 3.9 out of 5.  And when people do talk about dessert, the more times they mention dessert in the review, the higher the rating they give to the restaurant.

This positivity of reviews, filled with metaphors of sex and dessert, turns out to be astonishingly strong.

That is another reason not to trust customer-generated restaurant reviews.

And how exactly do Americans conceive of dessert?

Americans usually describe desserts as soft or dripping wet…US commercials emphasize tender, gooey, rich, creamy food, and associate softness and dripping sweetness with sensual hedonism and pleasure.

This association between soft, sticky things and pleasure isn’t a necessary connection.  For example, Strauss found that Korean food commercials emphasize hard, textually stimulating food, using words like wulthung pwulthung hata (solid and bumpy), coalis hata (stinging, stimulating), thok ssota (stinging), and elelhata (spicy to the extent one’s nerves are numbed).

How can you resist a book with sentences such as these?

The pasta and the almond pastry traditions merged in Sicily, resulting in foods with characteristics of both.

Here is a previous MR post on Jurafsky, including a link to his blog, and concerning “Claims about potato chips.”

A restaurant with three Michelin stars is now trying to up its customer service game by Googling its customers before they arrive. According to a report from Grub Street, an Eleven Madison Park maitre d’ performs Internet recon on every guest in the interest of customizing their experiences.

The maitre d’ in question, Justin Roller, says he tries to ascertain things like whether a couple is coming to the restaurant for an anniversary, and if so, which anniversary that is. If it’s a birthday, for instance, he wants to wish them “Happy Birthday” when they arrive. He’ll scan for photos of the guests in chef’s whites or posed with wine glasses, which suggest they might be chefs or sommeliers themselves.

It goes deeper: if a particular guest appears to hail from Montana, Roller will try to pair up the table with a server who is from Montana. “Same goes for guests who own jazz clubs, who can be paired with a sommelier that happens to be into jazz,” writes Grub Street.

Obviously, the restaurant is just trying to be better in tune with the people sitting around eating its food and drinking its wine. But it seems like a reasonable assumption to believe people posting their birthday dates online aren’t doing so in the hopes that someone they’ve never met before will know, as if by telepathy, to wish them the best on their special day.

There is a bit more here, and for the pointer I thank Donnie Hall.

I am now curious what they would do for me.  Any ideas?

Addendum: Here is what happens if you buy a scale on Amazon.

Mexico City Recommendations

by on April 11, 2014 at 11:41 am in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink

I will be in Mexico City next week (con la familia). Recommendations and suggestions welcome!

There is yet another paper on this topic, I know you are weary of it, but I remain glued to the screen, so here goes:

Stock theft is an endemic crime particularly affecting deep rural areas of Pakistan. Analysis of a series of cases was conducted to describe features of herds and farmers who have been the victims of cattle and/buffalo theft in various villages of Punjab in Pakistan during the year 2012. A structured interview was administered to a sample of fifty three affected farmers. The following were the important findings: i) incidents of theft were more amongst small scale farmers, ii) the rate of repeat victimization was high, iii) stealing was the most common modus operandi, iv) the majority of animals were adult, having high sale values, v) more cases occurred during nights with crescent moon, vi) only a proportion of victims stated to have the incident reported to the police, vii) many farmers had a history of making compensation agreements with thieves, viii) foot tracking failed in the majority of the cases, ix) all the respondents were willing to invest in radio frequency identification devices and advocated revision of existing laws. The study has implications for policy makers and proposes a relationship between crime science and veterinary medicine.

The link is here, and for the pointer I thank Ben Southwood.  This is in fact a significant and understudied topic in development economics, namely small-scale predation in rural settings.

Not surprisingly, that piece appeared in the Berliner und Münchener tierärztliche Wochenschrift.

It should be in a Tyler Cowen sort of place.  Probably not in the center of town, but still in SF proper.  Where should I go?

Thank you for your suggestions.

Not just the general reason why they are bad, but rather a very specific reason.  Caitlin Dewey reports about:

…a new paper appropriately titled “Demographics, Weather and Online Reviews.” The study analyzed 1.1 million online reviews of 840,000 restaurants, looking for exogenous — or external — factors in the data. In other words, they wanted to figure out what makes us like or dislike a restaurant, beside the restaurant itself.

The results can be surprising. The diners’ education levels? No effect on actual ratings. Population of the area? Again, not so much.

But reviewers consistently gave worse ratings when it was raining or snowing outside than when it was clear. And reviewers usually liked restaurants better on warm and cool days, rather than very hot or very cold ones.

In researcher Saeideh Bakhshi’s words: “The best reviews are written on sunny days between 70 and 100 degrees … a nice day can lead to a nice review. A rainy day can mean a miserable one.”

Not surprisingly, restaurants in California and Hawaii are popular.

But they are asked by Roland Stephen:

What signals are food trucks sending by pricing only in round numbers ($6, $8 etc.) unlike brick and mortar competitors (whose prices are often very similar, but expressed with lots of .95s )?

My best guess is this.  You buy something from a food truck and then you eat it.  You don’t keep running up a tab.  (The same is true for food stalls by the way, though you may run up a tab in the hawker centre as a whole.)  In a sit-down restaurant, there is a sequence of salad, main course, drinks, dessert, and so on.  People might estimate their total running bill using first digits, and thus there is reason to “trick” them into thinking they have spent somewhat less than they have.  The food truck doesn’t have that same incentive.

Addendum: Many of you say “to economize on change,” and maybe so.  But why is this motive especially strong at food trucks?  The truck clearly has the room to carry the change, and the typically urban clientele is the same group of people who are paying $6.99 plus tax somewhere else.  In this context maybe speed matters more, or the percentage of cash transactions is higher to the extent many trucks do not take credit cards or wish to discourage the use of such cards.

What’s surprisingly affordable in hotel rooms across the globe is, however, vodka. It’s much cheaper than peanuts and, in some cases, even water.

That is the case for instance in Zurich, Helsinki, and Oslo.  (Where is the profitable cross-subsidy?  Or is this price discrimination?  Is vodka less likely to be claimed for reimbursement from third-party payment?)  In Toronto hotel minibars, a can of nuts costs on average $18.23, at least among the hotels sampled.

That is all from Annalisa Merelli, via David Wessel.

Via Kevin Lewis, here is a new paper on that question:

The Behavioral Economics of Drunk Driving

Frank Sloan, Lindsey Eldred & Yanzhi Xu
Journal of Health Economics, May 2014, Pages 64–81

This study investigates whether drinker-drivers attributes are associated with imperfect rationality or irrationality. Using data from eight U.S. cities, we determine whether drinker-drivers differ from other drinkers in cognitive ability, ignorance of driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws, have higher rates of time preference, are time inconsistent, and lack self-control on other measures. We find that drinker-drivers are relatively knowledgeable about DWI laws and do not differ on two of three study measures of cognitive ability from other drinkers. Drinker-drivers are less prone to plan events involving drinking, e.g., selecting a designated driver in advance of drinking, and are more impulsive. Furthermore, we find evidence in support of hyperbolic discounting. In particular, relative to non-drinker-drivers, the difference between short- and long-term discount rates is much higher for drinker-drivers than for other drinkers. Implications of our findings for public policy, including incapacitation, treatment, and educational interventions, are discussed.

Here is an ungated version of the paper.

In case you didn’t know.

Have a sofa in the kitchen

by on March 21, 2014 at 2:03 pm in Food and Drink | Permalink

That is advice from Richard Branson:

10. Do what you love and have a sofa in the kitchen

You only live one life, so I would do the thing that you are going to enjoy. When life boils down, this might sound like a little much coming from me, I do have my own little island in the Caribbean, but when we are on that island, we tend to just live in the kitchen.

The rest of the advice, more pedestrian, is here, and the original pointer is from Tim Harford.

Selfish Gene Cafe.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson, citing David Dobbs.

Federal health authorities on Tuesday reported a stunning 43 percent drop in the obesity rate among 2- to 5-year-old children over the past decade, the first broad decline in an epidemic that often leads to lifelong struggles with weight and higher risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke.

The drop emerged from a major federal health survey that experts say is the gold standard for evidence on what Americans weigh. The trend came as a welcome surprise to researchers. New evidence has shown that obesity takes hold young: Children who are overweight or obese between age 3 and 5 are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults.

There is more here, via Charles C. Mann.

Bruce Arthur, a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

I grew up in a Polish immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, where I was raised on a diet high in seafood. My mother was raised close to the Baltic Sea and we weekly went to the local grocery store and bought a lot of salmon, halibut, sea bass, and scallops. I thought it was absolutely delicious. Sometimes we went to local ethnic grocery stores (generally Italian, the Italians had lived in the neighborhood before the Poles came and still ran a lot of businesses) and bought fish that was whole rather than filleted.

When I went off to college, I encountered people from the East Coast for the first time in my life, and I was shocked to learn that they did not believe that good seafood could possibly exist far away from an ocean coast. They would say things like “I would never eat fish in the Midwest, I wouldn’t trust it!’, which, as an 18 year old who was very much alive after eating a lot of fish in the Midwest, I found absurd.

After all, I thought, isn’t most seafood globally sourced these days? Few of our common food fishes are actually native to the Atlantic Coast, and if you’re flying fish in from the Pacific Northwest, South America, or Oceania, it seems to me that it should be least fresh on the East Coast, which is the part of America furthest away from where these fish are actually caught.

Of course, there could be other factors. Perhaps fish is freshest not closest to the ocean, but in denser areas – if everything is closer together, the places where fish is bought and eaten are presumably closer to the site of its first arrival in the area. Perhaps there’s a cultural factor: fish wasn’t always globally sourced, so perhaps coastal areas have more fish tradition that results in a higher quality of food. But surely the historic high rate of movement within (and into) America weakens that effect.

Anyway, I’m wondering if you have any insight into this. Am I right to scoff at regional seafood snobs, or do they have a point?

The more important reality is that hardly any regions in the United States have good indigenous seafood these days and thus no relative snobbery is justified.  Maine lobster or catfish in parts of the south might be exceptions, and in neither case does the Alchian and Allen theorem hold (i.e., the highest quality goods remain those closest to the source).

In general regional demand effects are strong, as I argue in An Economist Gets Lunch.  People outside of southern Ohio don’t understand good Cincinnati chili and so they don’t get it.  The ingredients can in fact be transferred to North Carolina but they aren’t, least of all with the proper applications.  A lot of good Sichuan dishes can be reproduced reasonably well in the United States, but you don’t get them until the properly demanding clientele is in place (by the way Gourmet Kingdom in Carrboro, NC is excellent).  Who amongst us is a properly demanding judge of asam laksa?  And so on.  One interesting feature of these equilibria is that regional mobility does not seem to undo them.  If you move to southern Ohio, you can rather rapidly become a standard bearer of good taste in chili, but you slack off once you are back in northern Virginia.

Gabriel Axel, RIP

by on February 13, 2014 at 12:34 am in Film, Food and Drink, Philosophy | Permalink

He was the director of Babette’s Feast and he just passed away at age 95.  What stuck with me most from that movie, and what is one of my favorite sentences ever, Axel himself cited upon receiving an Oscar:

Mr. Axel was a week shy of his 70th birthday when he took the podium in Los Angeles in April 1988 to accept the award. After saying his thank-yous, he quoted a line from his film: “Because of this evening, I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”

The obituary is here.