How American food got so bad

Here is a podcast with me, interviewed by Stephen Dubner.  Excerpt:

I think there is a very bad period for American food. It runs something like 1910 through maybe the 1980’s. And that’s the age of the frozen TV dinner, of the sugar donut, of fast food, of the chain, and really a lot of it is not very good. If you go back to the 19th century and you read Europeans who’ve come to the United States, they’re really quite impressed by the freshness and variety that is on offer.

I attempt to explain how this came about, in the podcast and in one chapter of my forthcoming book An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies.  Believe it or not, a lot of the blame can be placed on government, including Prohibition and immigration restrictions.  The book is due out in April, in both physical and e-copies, and it’s the longest and most comprehensive book I’ve written (yet without the price being high).

By the way, am I a food snob?  I told Dubner:

Let me just give you a few traits of food snobs that I would differ from. First, they tend to see commercialization as the villain. I tend to see commercialization as the savior. Second, they tend to construct a kind of good versus bad narrative where the bad guys are agribusiness, or corporations, or something like chains, or fast food, or microwaves. And I tend to see those institutions as flexible, as institutions that can respond, and as the institutions that actually fix the problem and make things better. So those would be two ways in which I’m not-only not a food snob, but I’m really on the other side of the debate.


The only way to make me less likely to read a long book is to also make it expensive.

"The only way to make me less likely to read a long book is to also make it expensive."

1) Revealed preference.
2) Price theory / elasticity.
3) Opportunity Cost.
4) Mood affiliation?

It's hard to find people who are concerned about the negative effects of corporate food without simultaneously denouncing corporate food as proof of the evils of capitalism. This sounds like something I would enjoy.

P.S. Your last book started out as just an e-book.. it appears that this one may be starting in both formats? If so, I can't decide if that's stagnation, progress, or moving backwards!

Joshua, I'm a liberal who does not like corporate food in part because it's anti-capitalistic. In their pursuit of unfair patents, and agricultural subsidies, they practicing a form of crony capitalism that has contributed to the low quality of the standard american diet.

I despise agricultural subsidies, but I'm fairly skeptical that they've had a tremendous effect on the American diet (I can see the possibility of some effect, particularly combined with the quotas and loan programs in sugar to push towards HFCS), and very skeptical that they're responsible for the movement from smaller farms to larger corporate farms. The smaller farms are also eligible for payments as well.

I thought the argument was not that subsidies went to bigger farms instead of smaller farms, but that subsidies resulted in conversion of more land to grain production (to get the subsidies) and thus less to vegetable production. And that the hypothesized result was perhaps an overly grain-rich diet for most Americans, instead of one that container more vegetables.

Yes, I can see some dietary effects, but fewer effects on farm size.

And the government /explicitly/ and deliberately promoted grain consumption.

Yeah, that Food Pyramid looked really weird to me...

frozen TV dinners in 1910? Not even in 1950. I suspect you need to divide into two ages: 1910-1960 (the age of rail and rail-associated restaurants and 1950-198? (the age of TV and the car). The chains developed along with the transportation system--check the Howard Johnsons entry on wikipedia: that was the big chain when I was young.

From the perspective of 19th century Europeans, 19th century America had good food.
From the perpsective of 21st century Americans, 20th century America had bad food.

The premises do not permit any conclusion about the quality of 19th century American food from the perspective of 21st century Americans.

My understanding is that we would have considered it poisonous. Contemporary recipe-books frequently took time to describe how to minimize the risk of food poisoning from your food.

i always assumed it's because of quality..
Quality food requires less innovation.
Tough meat requires lots of flavor. High quality meat does not.
Same with fresh veggies.
I love Asian and Mexican/South American food, but i've always assumed (open to being wrong) that the spices were there to preserve/cover old meat and old veggies.)

Originally they were. Yes.

Not necessarily: Filet mignon, while very tender, is pretty bland without either a sauce or seasoning or both. That's why it's often surrounded with other, more flavorful meat: Bacon.

Chicken is similar: The breast is dryer & more bland compared to its dark-meat counterparts.

I think the split isn't so much on quality as it is on preservation: The longer the food is going to be preserved (canned/frozen/etc compared to freshly harvested/slaughtered) the more processing & seasoning it needs to taste good, and the more it will benefit from food processing/perperation innovations.

Tough meat requires more care (cut it small and cook it fast, or else cook it slowly), but it can have excellent flavor.

Nutrition seems to be getting worse. Or, we are getting better at determining deficiencies.

Source? I don't think I've ever actually seen anyone with scurvy, but it was clearly common prior to the 20th century. I'd say the America diet has plenty of nutrients. We just on average consume too much food.

It is commonly recognized (see Taubes, Eades, etc.) that too much FOOD is not the problem. It is too much carbs.

> I love Asian and Mexican/South American food, but i’ve always assumed (open to being wrong) that the spices were
> there to preserve/cover old meat and old veggies.)

Agreed. Bad ingredients? Chop it fine, spice it heavily, sauce it. You have just replicated Asian, Indian, and Mexican food as sold in America.

Regarding American food being bad, well, frankly it's hard to find. There are three (okay) French restaurants within walking distance of me and innumerable Asian and Indian places, none of which are any good. There are two restaurants that could be called American: a burger place and a seafood place. The seafood place is quite good, but it concentrates on American food strengths: quality protein, not too messed up. That said, where I live in the northeast, seafood is basically the only good American food available. You need to go to the South or the Midwest to get the good stuff.

This was supposed to be in reply to caseynshan.

Meh, the Northeast doesn't actually do anything to their seafood. Maine lobster rolls are nice, but they really need a nice remoulade. Now, to make a nice remoulade....

> the Northeast doesn’t actually do anything to their seafood.

That's sort of the point.

For example,
Oysters, in ascending order of complexity: raw on the half-shell, fried, Rockefeller.
Oysters, in descending order of quality and taste: raw on the half-shell, fried, Rockefeller.

Perhaps there's a hidden causation you're missing here. Only good quality oysters are worthy of being eaten raw on the half-shell. This is similar to how the best beef requires the least amount of additional work.

This is slightly different from barbecue, where it takes a tremendous amount of work and time to properly smoke a pig, but of course the best quality barbecue is served with only a vinegar and pepper sauce that doesn't overwhelm the subtle taste of the pork.

No, I think I agree with you. The best American foods are focused on bringing out, rather than covering up, the flavor of a really good protein. Maybe my complexity point wasn't quite the right explanation of that.

But barbecue, and I think of brisket as maybe a better example, is a pure expression of this. Of course, I also love pork barbecue.

But barbecue, and I think of brisket as maybe a better example,

As a native North Carolinian, brisket is never a better example. Eastern North Carolinian barbecue, with it's lack of sauce other than vinegar and peppers, is the best example. But enough discussion of religion. ;)

To me the meat's mostly a suitable carrier for good barbecue sauce. Pulled pork serves best. Blasphemy?

Blasphemy. Go talk to someone from Kansas.

I do in fact prefer pork barbecue. I just meant that the best brisket is sauce-less.

A simple rule for finding good American food is "avoid cities."

You drop into America from the outside world and it's hard not to view cities with their vast array of awful Chinese food as a blight on the nation.

Curiously Japanese food is not so bad. More respect for the ingredients, I guess.

Ah, Finch, I totally agree with you then, and am against the blasphemer Rahul.

Chinese food has a bigger tradition of specifically adapted to American tastes (and ditto in other locations.) In the US it's often quite possible to get authentic Chinese food at places that also serve the Americanized stuff; this may require anything from looking at another menu, asking for a secret menu, or simply ordering in Chinese.

Japanese food, like many others, came more recently and is not as widespread, so it tends to be somewhat more authentic. Though California rolls and many of the sushi rolls you'll see in the US aren't present in Japan. As I mentioned below, even the hibachi/teppanyaki/Japanese steakhouse food is "authentic," though in a bizarre sense of being originally designed as "Western food with a Japanese twist for Japanese people" before failing that way and being exported as "Japanese food comfortable enough for Western people."

Rest assured, there are plenty of awful Japanese restaurants in the US, though. You can tell by the quality of the rice. Also, unsurprisingly given the relative number of immigrants, many Japanese restaurants are run by Chinese or Koreans; they aren't necessarily bad, but they're more likely to have American-style rolls and less authentic Japanese food.


Is authenticity a necessary condition for tastiness? I think not.

Okay, here I agree with Rahul. Though he'll need to continue to work to redeem himself. :)

"Authentic" does not equal "better." I think that is particularly true when it comes to Chinese cuisine.

I think there is a significant cultural difference between Chinese and Japanese restaurant operators. I notice John's earlier comment about Japanese restaurants run by non-Japanese. They are easy to spot.

Authentic is not a requirement for tasty at all. And de gustibis non est disputandum. But some Chinese restaurants that do terrible American Chinese do very good authentic food, because it's what they actually know and like.

"simply ordering in Chinese"

You and I must have different definitions of "simple"

While on the topic one must mention American-Chinese, all-you-can-eat buffets: they have transformed blasphemy into a fine art. Where else can one find crab-legs, pizza, sashimi and fluorescent green jello jostling for space on the same table?

Ah, well this probably comes down to the fact that I'm not a big meat-in-its-raw-form person. I'm more a fan of the French method of making the meat work hard for you and then adding sauce. Steakhouses are low on my list of favorite restaurants (I order the fish). I do however have bbq opinions (if you don't, you don't think enough about food): North Carolina pulled pork. Next in awesomeness is lamb ribs.

@ Finch - I disagree with your city assessment, especially when it comes to pizza.

Wait... which city? And does suburbia count as city? Because it does, if you're rural.

My mother always ascribed this phenomenon to the women's movement. Food from a box or a bag or a fast food restaurant was more than a convenience, it was a way to declare independence from the kitchen.

Gosh I hope not. Are we really that dumb? Would we seriously figure out one of the few ways to mess up this slam-dunk known as the human body for some BS political posture?

It's not a BS political posture when the alternative, prior to the conveniences of such foods, was to literally spend a large portion of your time in the kitchen, not to mention near-daily trips to the various markets to obtain the raw materials.

While not the only causal link, it's no coincidence that optional freedom from the kitchen coincided in time with the push for women to get out of the house and into the workplace. Thankfully, food selection & accessibility has progressed to a point where the choice is no longer one or the other.

Well that's what most of the world does and did. There used to be dishes people would simmer for well over night, how do you think poor people ate tripe?

Most of the world was and is poor.

It's not that we are dumb. It's that we are weak (and want to cut corners).

The health of the modern Womyn's family is a small price to pay for liberation.
The phrmaceutical giants are busy churning out the next lipitor; all so she can one up the patriarchy at last.

Libertarian blames the government for our problems... news at 11!

Are we talking about "American food" (which I am always hard-pressed to list; burgers? pot pies? cheesesteak? ) or merely food commonly available in America? America seems optimal in the sense that one can sample a wide variety of cuisines cheaply and easily.

e.g. Try finding good German food in India; or a good Mexican restaurant in Germany etc.

Chicken fried steak.
Fried catfish. (No its not the same as fish and chips; the batter is different.)
Pickled green tomatoes.
Creamed corn.
Mashed potatoes.
Green beans cooked in
(that was my dinner last night)

In some parts of the country, seafood.

Got me thinking too: Hash browns? BBQ? Chicken wings?

I'd also be tempted to add Nachos, General Tso's Chicken and Pizza.

Well, the Nachos, General Tso's Chicken, Pizza, Hamburgers list is a nice list of "American takes on foreign food."

Though that phenomenon is not as rare as some people thing. Go to Korea, or to India, and you'll find the local takes on Chinese food. Japanese curry is inspired by, but quite different from, Indian and Southeast Asian curry. And the teppanyaki / hibachi Japanese steakhouses were actually invented in Japan as "western food (steak) cooked Japanese style" (洋食) for the Japanese (like their takes on hamburger steak or spaghetti with cod roe (tarako), but turned out to be far more popular with American tourists than with the natives, so it was later exported by the Japanese to the US.

"General Tso’s Chicken and Pizza"

I've had that breakfast, no lie.

What about headcheese? Old American?

I think the Japanese curry came by way of the British. Another big food in Japan that is supposed to a Japanese version of western food is Tonkatsu.
To tie in with Tyler's comment about the proliferation of canned food due to World War II - in South Korea they sell gift baskets of SPAM in the grocery stores. I guess the Koreans acquired some kind of taste for it during the Korean War.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Ranch dressing. On everything.

Macaroni and cheese.

Gross Gross

I am Southern but these seem pretty American to me

Chicken n Dumplins
Fried Chicken
Buttemilk Biscuits
Corn on the Cob
Country Ham (yes I know evey culture has its own salted ham)
Fried Okra (YUM!!!)
Sweet potato caserole
Squash caserole
Various simple vegtable dishes (Lima beans, Collards/Mustard greens, Green beans, black eyed peas, field peas)
Pot Roast
Pecan Pie
Pumpkin Pie
Apple Pie
Sweet Potato Pie
Key Lime Pie
Cole Slaw
Cucumber salad
Cobb Salad
Ceasar Salad
Brunswick Stew
Frogmore Stew
Liver Mush/Scrapple (poor man's pate)

We ate at my grandmother's house every Sunday and some combination of the above was always on the m

Don't know why that all came in one block of text.

oh and I forgot to add Hushpuppies and Bannana Pudding!

When it comes to American restaurant food places like New York and LA are probably two of the engines of global cuisine. Unfortunately many Americans are happy to eat at Applebees. I ate there once, what a disaster.

Let's be honest, if it says "Mexican" it's really southwest american in 95-99% of cases. We can add that, also Southern and New Orleans type dishes also exist. The Southern States have some very interesting tasting American dishes when we take those into account.

I cannot understand the "food got worse" argument. Why would people accept the transition from delicious, fresh 19th century food to terrible boxed food in the 20th century? Okay, maybe the bad food was wildly cheaper and offered poor people a way to cut food expenditures from 50 percent of income to 10 percent of income. A sizable chunk of country would have still had the money to afford the luxury good that decent food would become, so it would have stayed on the market. The fact that there were cities in this country 50 years ago with literally no good places to eat suggest that much of the country never had access to anything modern eaters would consider quality vittles. Things don't get dramatically worse in competitive businesses in countries with income growth.

Well markets behave in weird ways. I'll bet food in NYC that was available at upscale restaurants was high quality. But probably few people dined there due to the cost. It wasn't necessarily impossible to afford, it's just that it would have been a serious expenditure compared to their alternatives. Maybe the real story here is the development of the technology for cheap, crappy food instead of just moderately expensive decent fresh food. If the cost difference is enough, the average quality of consumed food could decline even as incomes grow.

Seems to me you *can* understand the "food got worse" argument...

I wonder how much of this is cultural pragmatism. Personally, I drink 2-3 protein/flax/olive oil shakes per day, so I usually only have one actual meal, and even there I tend to value a high ratio of output to labor as well as a decent value. OTOH I'm blessed with some pretty good restaurants in my area for the 1-2 times a month we eat out or order in.

"protein/flax/olive oil shakes"

Sounds awful. Hope it tastes better than it sounds. What cuisine is that from; Californian?!

It's a selection from the American Bodybuilder/HealthNut subgenre.

Taste is okay, all that fat actually makes it fairly delicious, and the flax gives it an interesting texture. I even had them stop adding sweetener to the protein last year. Ingesting them is oddly euphoria-inducing, a feeling of being ideally nourished.

Spot on, TallDave. Good nutrition feels fantastic. Nothing prevents the 3PM blahs like a healthful lunch, guaranteed.

psychosomatic, no doubt

Cliff, I doubt.

Eating and digesting starchy food (pizza, potatoes) temporarily upsets balance of insulin in blood, leading to the "3 PM blahs", as someone described above.

I have experimented with various eating styles (hopefully) without much prejudice, from vegetarian to almost exclusively meat-eating, and I also noticed that foods with high content of quality oil tend to have the effect that TallDave describes.

My experience too, Marian.

What's great is that it's true no matter what the meal, as long as the starches are low (although potato starch doesn't have nearly the effect of refined grains--a baked potato can be okay, YMMV). Just yesterday I had a hot pastrami wrap with mustard and veggies, heavy on the pastrami, and felt great all day long.

LOL, a true Californian would just eat olives and lentils. Or, you know, steak.

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, and it wasn't until I started living in other parts of the country that I really realized just how good a lot of Californians can eat. Local produce meaning anything within 300 miles? Ridiculous, you eat local because the stuff's grown right there, just outside your front door. It's cheaper and fresher.

(I'm not talking about the coast, but they've got lots of produce growing practically wild in their backyards, too.)

One of my daily meals: oatmeal w. a tablespoon of omega oil, ground flax seeds, blueberries, yoghurt, hemp seeds, honey. Sounds Californian, but more or less available everywhere where there's a decent supermarket.

how the hell do you get the oil to mix with the water? does it require an uber blender or can it be done by hand?

Emulsifiers. e.g. egg yolk, honey, mustard, seed hull

I blend at home. At work it's a bit of a trick, I take a paper coffee cup and pour oil, then flax on top, then protein. The flax mixes everything together nicely, the protein makes it all stick.

It does separate after a little bit, if I'm not chugging it then I keep it in a cup and stir before sipping.

American food is indisputably better in 2011 than it has ever been. There are more choices than ever, there are more high-quality options than ever, and it is all more readily available than ever.

What comes with this is a whole lot of low-quality options as well. These usually come at lower prices and with much shorter preparation times, which make them popular.

Surely the argument for food is the same as the argument for other consumer goods? Mass production brought down the price of many, many goods while initially also reducing quality. However, the price was so much lower that people were willing to accept it. (For both, time was part of the cost being reduced in most cases-- one of McDonalds' earliest ad campaigns was about "giving Mom a night off.")

In recent years, we've gotten somewhat better at being able to produce better food that is still cheaper because it takes advantage of modern advances in technology, supply chains, etc. Again, this applies to other consumer goods as well. With perhaps the exception of furniture, where "cheap and cheap" seems to be still steadily winning over "high quality but expensive"-- but even there Ikea-cheap is a big advancement over the earlier mass-produced cheap.

This sounds right, except for the part about Ikea.

You don't think that Ikea's lightweight particleboard furniture is a big advancement over the lightweight low quality particleboard furniture that came before it?

It's an advancement only if I can find all the screws and thingeys to put it all together. The battle of Ikea starts after I get home and unpack the box.

You could use Craigslist to disintermediate the labor component, plus you'd probably save money.

I could not give you a source, but I could have sworn that I had read that European travelers to America were aghast at the restaurants in the 19th century. And they sounded jaw-droppingly bad. Maybe those people who cooked their own food had access to fresher/better produce and meat, but the restaurant food (cuisine) was much worse. Which leaves me to ask: what, exactly, do you mean by "better food"?

I wonder if it depends on where. British food was dreadful up to the 80s at least.

Most European travellers to America were appalled by everything they saw, congenitally. I enjoyed "Uncouth Nation" on early anti-Americanism.

No one is ordering quarter pounders with a gun to their head. Maybe fries, twinkies, etc. actually do taste good and foodies are just a vocal minority? Maybe we all secretly like fast food, but claim to hate it for signaling reasons. Pass the corn syrup, please!

If you can't appreciate the simple pleasure of taking a long, refreshing swig from a bottle of Karo, I'm pretty sure we couldn't be friends.

My grandfather was a fantastic cook, he made white sausage from scratch, he made his own jellies from wild berries my mother and grandmother picked, amazing rye bread, and he made the best tasting lightest swedish pancakes anyone ever saw.

Then he covered them with Karo... Hinestly we went through two bottles of that stuff a month, he even put it in his coffee.

No that stuff really is bad. Of course humans are attracted to foods that are salty and fatty but I always feel like garbage after eating McDonalds or any of that crap, a Big Mac can really ruin your day.

A big mac? really? your stomach is that weak?
A big mac is about as "weaksauce" as you can get.

It doesn't upset my stomach, but it makes me sleepy and maybe gives me a headache. Mostly I just feel gross and greasy.

I say it's all a mental illusion.

I don't agree with CBBB many times, but I need to co-sign this.

Then again, my food is mostly meat + vegetables + dairy products + fruits + nuts, so I am unused to anything baked of flour.

Another thing is that "cheese" they put on the Big Mac. I'm not a big cheese fan to begin with but I can't stand that rubbery yellow stuff.

It's no illusion. It's possible to make a really good hamburger and a lot of American cities (and plenty of non-American ones now, too) have very good burger places. McDonald's simply does not make good burgers, though. Their ingredients are cheap and they slather it with ketchup and mustard to disguise this -- they have to to keep the cost of their food so low.

I've heard people making the same arguments about British food, for the same period and for the same reasons. Not sure that's any more convincing. What exactly were foreigners ever really impressed about in these two "countries" (Anglo-American and the UK) other than the availability of fresh meat as a general factor of richness? A great cuisine does not fall to Prohibition and does not happen to be magically more effected by industrialisation.

It all just seems like a lot of just-so stuff - there is no large single factor and I find it improbable that a lot of small separate effects would push in a negative direction.

Also immigration = food innovation or flavor innovation? There's certainly not a strong trend cross nationally, is there? High immigration countries (e.g. Brazil) aren't sources known for cuisine or innovation, but more frequently sinks. Immigrants may matter in terms of bringing new food culture*, a more "foodie" culture and a culture of innovation, but I don't really think they are necessary to bring new flavours - if you can grow the thing, or buy it at market as local produce, people will be interested, if you have a foodie culture and if you don't, they won't and there won't be any innovation (no matter how many immigrants).

*Frankly, I don't really see a lot of penetration outside into the autochthones from immigrants, in terms of actual food preparation - there is more of a tendency to take foreign or immigrant cuisines and recupes, standardise them, and then sit on those recipes and the existing recipes, not to use these recipes as starting points to build new original recipes or remaster existing recipes, what is the mark of truly great food culture. To make great food, people need to taste and they need to learn technique and they need to want to bother. They don't need 1,000,000 possible ingredients.

I think Anglo cultures are particularly bad in this due to the Anglophone foodie snob obsession with "authenticity" and "perfection" - the concept of authenticity and perfection creates these single standardised platonic recipes (as applied through perfection, this reaches its nadir or zenith in Heston Blumenthal's "In Search of Perfection" recipes, even though he is a creative chef), where if you don't meet that, the alternative is why bother trying new flavours?

Food snobs are people who pretend organ meat tastes good so they can scoff at you for not liking it.

Organ meat tastes awesome but I have never scoffed at people for not liking it because that always made it cheaper. Then the Feds decided to start outlawing Beef tripe and state regulations took away my lamb kidneys and I don't scoff I get outraged.

Same with dairy restrictions, it is not the food snobs who are making me smuggle cheese across the border.

That's interesting because I always assumed a snob had to have expensive tastes and organ meats are some of the cheapest items out there. Personally, I'm a fan of organ meats. An explosion of taste, flavor and texture which "normal" meat can never provide.

It's hard to find a good menudo, but oh, so worth it.

Organ meats have a reputation of being both low class and high class. Scoffing at them is fairly middle class.

An integral talent of the food snob is to take something essentially ordinary and then surround it with enough hype and mystique to transform it into nouveau haute cusine.

Food snobs MUST constantly find food that most people haven't tasted or liked so that they can continue to be elite. If Uno's Pizza was the ultimate food ever made, the Food Snobs would have to hate it. By definition.

Anyone else read the Jungle? Pre-1910 wasn't a common man's food paradise. You know my favorite food? A Burger King burger, because it's engineered to taste better. I eat lots of healthier, more complex things, but who cares? Food, like nearly everything else, is better, more affordable and has more variety THAN AT ANY OTHER TIME IN MANKIND'S HISTORY, and everyone else is seeing the past with rose-colored glasses.

Not sure The Jungle is 100% authentic in its descriptions

If the patty, sallad, sauce, and bread are separate then its gourmet and "good for you."
If its all together then its somehow "bad for you."

The truth is that good burgers are pretty incredible, and despite having eaten in restaurants all over the world. I come back here and feel lucky that I can have something like a good burger.

Pretty sure Chicago's Union Stock Yards are responsible for destroying our conception of "fresh" meat, that is, making us think fresh meat came from a fridge or freezer at Jewel rather than a butcher off a recently-slain animal. William Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis" has a fine chapter on it. Moreover, the stockyards were formed not by government regulation so much as capitalist meatpackers and railroaders and the formation of a commodities exchange.

The Annihilation of Space

American food is fantastic, and that's the problem.

I concur. Seriously. Burgers, barbeque etc are just incredibly good.

Yep. Swedo wins the thread. Away now, little ones.

I won the thread, as always

The "food has gotten worse" argument makes absolutely no sense. Food is more disease free, there is greater variety, it's cheaper (with maybe the exception of tuna b/c of overfishing), and it probably tastes better than it ever has. We've seen innovation in almost all facets of life since the 19th century - why would this be any different for food? Think about how advanced recipes have become and how diverse they've become.

Here is a thought experiment hypothesis: If the best chef of the 19th or 20th century were to try to compete on Iron Chef against the best chefs in the world today, they would get CRUSHED. The chefs today already have all of the older chef's cooking techniques, plus more modern techniques (and technologies), plus more varieties of flavor.

Also, globalization has lead to the mixing of different cooking techniques and different types of food that never would have been possible earlier. Can anyone deny that mixing of different cultures has vastly improved the variety, and maybe even the quality of food. E.g. food in New Orleans. French, southern, creole, cajun all rolled in one = freaking delicious.

No, in fact on Iron Chef the 19th Century chef would win. On Iron Chef the purpose of the competition is to make dishes out of limited/weird ingredients.

You are nuts. How would a 19th century chef know anything about ingredients from outside their region? Name a chef that could cook Chinese, Mexican and French?

Any way Tyler's arguement is that American Cuisine was shitty in the mid-20th century not that it's worse NOW then it was before. In fact he believes since the 1980s it's gotten much much better.

Any explanation must have something to do with UK, as food there is also terrible.

"of the sugar donut, of fast food"

The biggest food trends these days are donuts/cupcakes and upscale fast food

Alright food, now that's a topic. Cowen might be often wrong about macroeconomics but even I have respect for his culinary opinions.

Wait a minute I just read the Amazon description:
"He shows why airplane food is bad but airport food is good"

Airport food is GOOD? Where? What Airport?
I take it back I TAKE IT ALL BACK.

SFO is full of mid-scale chain restaurants these days. That's *way* better than what was available in the 80s.

Actually now that you mention it I remember being fairly impressed with the selection at O'Hara. Alright Tyler you win, this time.

The trick is choice. Choice can elevate people's impressions of quality.

One of the wings of the Detroit airport. Legal Seafood in the the Philadelphia airport. Beer in Logan...

Sky Bistro in Philly, Legal's at Logan. Some Tex-Mex joint in Phoenix that was open at 1:00 AM the last time I was there.

There are some great options now beyond bad Chinese and Pizza and standard fast food.

Oh yeah, and the Shipley's Donuts at Houston Hobby. Yum.

Tyler's from Northern Virginia, and the food at Dulles is decent.

Most visitors who wrote about America were Brits. British food was unbelievably bad from the early 19th Century until recently, so your evidence doesn't sound too persuasive.

In general, urbanization made food worse because it had be to conveyed long distances. The British mass urbanized earlier than the French, and their food was pretty awful because it had to be something that wouldn't rot on the way from the fields.

Another sign of food snobbishness is a menu that gratuitously mentions geographic origins of every damn item:

Australian, grass-fed, lamb chops wrapped in Bumblefuck family-farm bacon, sauteed with locally sourced organic onions. Served with a side of seasonal Idaho potatos, homemade dumplings and a chutney based on fairtrade Jamican bananas.

Yes, but at least at grocery stores, labeling the origin of foods is pretty much only tool I have at avoiding mercury and other heavy metals in my diet (i.e. anything from China).

So Five Guys is food snobbishness, considering how they like to name the exact town in Idaho today's potatoes came from?

Adding adjectives and other descriptive terms to a menu item or its ingredients makes the item more attractive to the diner. Restaurants know this well. You'll never see a "hamburger" on the menu, you'll only see a "boldly seasoned hamburger" or a "flame-cooked hamburger" or a "thick and juicy hamburger". Even if the adjectives impart no meaningful information whatsoever. It doesn't matter. People respond more favorably - uncritically and unconsciously - just because there's the superficial appearance of signals of quality.

The snobbier restaurants are signalling even harder.

Next time you go out, count how many items on the menu are "cooked to perfection"

I first travelled to the US for 3 months in 1966. I was struck by how cheap acceptable food was: I liked the rye bread, the hot dogs, burgers, blueberry pie. I was also struck that it didn't seem to matter how much more you spent on the food, it got no better than "acceptable". I had two good meals in all that time - a lobster in New England, and a Chinese meal in an SF restaurant where I was the only round-eye customer. Much of the food was laughably inferior to even British or German food of the time - tasteless apples and strawberries were completely new to me, for instance, or meat that had not been hung. The coffee was uniformly dire, adults drank sugar-water at table, the beer was feeble. It wasn't hard to believe that things might get better. The most reliably good thing had been the iced water automatically brought to your table.

Have the Brits finally ended ice rationing? WW2's been over for 66 years now, but "ice water" last I checked still only has 1 small ice cube; two if you ask for "lots of ice".

Jeez, i guess i'm the only one nostalgic for the Hostess day-old bakery and sugar donuts.

From Tyler's Dining Guide:
General remarks

Ordering is often a more important decision than choosing the restaurant. Keep in mind that restaurant staff can be unreliable; sometimes they will steer you towards something safe and uninteresting. (Many Chinese still express amazement that many Westerners can eat with chopsticks, for instance.)

Some rules of thumb, none of which are absolute:

1. Avoid dishes that are “ingredients-intensive.” Raw ingredients in America – vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. – are below world standards. Even most underdeveloped countries have better raw ingredients than we do, at least if you have a U.S. income to spend there, and often even if one doesn’t. Ordering the plain steak in Latin America may be a great idea, but it is usually a mistake in Northern Virginia. Opt for dishes with sauces and complex mixes of ingredients. Go for dishes that are “composition-intensive.”

2. Appetizers often are better than main courses. Meals composed of appetizers and side dishes alone can be very satisfying. Thai and Lebanese restaurants provide the classic examples of this principle.

3. Avoid desserts. Most ethnic restaurants in America, no matter how good, usually fall flat with the desserts. Especially if the restaurant is Asian.

4. Order more than you plan to eat. Keep in mind that you are ordering for variety, not for quantity. You can always take the rest home.

Those are great recommendations. Dessert is almost always an expensive disappointment.

How much of that is simply diminishing marginal returns? By the time we get to dessert most of us are pretty satiated.

I doubt whether much of it is diminishing marginal returns. It's just that countries differ. Everyone mocks British food, but the desserts are usually far better than American or French desserts. C'est la vie.


Just move to NYC or SF and go to good restaurants

This whole thread hangs on what you define as "American Food."

Is it:
(1) P.F. Changs
(2) Per Se
(3) Kreuz Market

Number 1 is just nuts. It's completely untrue.

In 1900 60% of the population was so poor the getting enough to eat posed a problem and malnutrition was common for people that did not live on farms. I doubt that the Europeans that admired our food was eating the food that the majority of Americans ate. However as more people joined the middle class the food the majority of Americans ate, became "American food"

Yes, this is a key point: which "America" are we talking about when we talk about American food? Even after 1900, pellagra was a significant health problem in the South. Yet the South is also, as others have pointed out, the source of some excellent barbecue. So was Southern cuisine good or bad?

Did you see the 'Whats Cooking Uncle Sam?' exhibit at the National Archives? I think its up for a little bit longer. Worth it.

Using neurotoxins on our food may or may not have been a genius move.

In my remarks about American food in 1966 I forgot to mention the cheese: three months without encountering edible cheese. No wonder the memory had been suppressed.

Most of the pushback re: Industrial Ag., comes from how the factory model actually operates in order to gain 'efficiencies.' Feeding corn to cattle in order to reduce feed costs (corn diets make cattle sick and in need of antibiotics) and hormones in order to speed up growth, (said hormones being eaten by humans along with the antibiotics) are practices that concern a lot of people. Mega feedlot operations resemble huge petri dishes where we are cultivating the next generation of pathogens.

And then there's also the expanding 'dead seas' in the Gulf produced by overuse of synthetic pesticides.

In brief, the current American version of agriculture presents some very serious 'unintended consequence' costs that need to be addressed, but aren't.

The way that I see it is, people have chosen cheaper and faster food over better tasting food. I lament the decline of the bakeries in Providence RI where I grew up but the children of the bakers choose easier more lucrative jobs. If people had been willing to pay more for better food they could have raised prices and still done more volume and run the bakeries and hired out some of the work and made more money.

Cheap and / or fast need not be mutually exclusive from better tasting.

Precisely. Indian cuisine doesn't use many expensive products, yet it is delicious.

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