The cookbook theory of economics

That is a new piece by me, from Foreign Policy.  Here is one excerpt:

First consider global cuisines like Mexican or Chinese. You can find a handful of good cookbooks pretty much anywhere these days. It’s not just that we’re all suckers for guacamole or stir-fry. It’s development economics in practice — a foodie measure of how much these societies have moved toward greater commercialization, large-scale production, and standardization of production processes. Quite simply, it’s the recipe for economic progress.


Consider how cooking evolves: It starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks, along the way transforming a recipe from oral tradition to commercialized product. In the home, recipes are often transmitted from grandmother to mother, or from father to son, or simply by watching and participating. I’ve seen this in rural Mexico, for instance, when an older daughter teaches her younger sister how to pat tortillas the right way. When societies get richer, you start to see restaurants, a form of specialization like auto mechanics or tailors…Restaurants require that strangers — other cooks — be taught the process. That means simplifying or standardizing ingredients so they’re easier to work with and, in many cases, available year-round. This, of course, means writing down the recipe. Once a dish reaches these commercial milestones, cookbooks will follow.

The piece closes with:

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to see Adam Smith in action, go out and get yourself some Sichuanese peppercorns and some fresh Thai basil — that’s the true wealth of nations.

You can buy my book An Economist Gets Lunch here.


Excellent article and some v powerful but subtle points. Coming from the UK (London in particular) we are going through what you might call a "heritage" phase in many social aspects, including food. ie - popularity of old english recipes (Dinner restaurant by Heston Blumenthal + many others) and simple, pared back recipes / restaurants in other cuisines, focussing on the ingredients + heritage + even foraging for food
What do you think the tipping point is for this development? On any given night in central London you can eat the cuisine of pretty much any country (less so the rest of the UK!) yet it is becoming increasingly popular to look back to "original" English ingredients and recipes. Based on this can we expect a trend in China, say, to move away from Chinese recipes, through McDonalds, to Italian, French (as in Japan) etc, and then back to Chinese?
Interested to get your thoughts.

I expect the whole cycle in China will be faster and less deep. At bottom, Chinese food is better than European food and both cultures reveal the preference.

"At bottom, Chinese food is better than European food"

Europe is not a country. (nor, really, is China).

No offense, but I don't really think this is a cycle which has happened as such.

For instance, most people in the UK pretty much have never liked and probably never will like Chinese food very much (in the sense of being able to eat it frequently or more than a few dishes, or anything other than the less authentic or unusual dishes), and I think this is much more the case for continental europe's chinese food consumption. Still, people probably eat more "Chinese" food in the UK today than they have previously.

Re: a back to China movement in China, I think this probably wouldn't happen as Chinese food is very well developed as is. Less moving away from Chinese food seems more likely than movement away and an eventual revival movement, which is about trying and being able to raise the quality of native foodstuffs to meet international competition, with them possibly eventually seeing a minor resurge in popularity.

The genre of Chinese food probably doesn't have much "low hanging fruit" in it, if you see what I mean, compared to other idioms. Chinese cooks have traditionally been clever, so there isn't much basic, easy stuff they can do to raise their game.

Thinking about food always makes me feel poorer, especially when I spend $37 for the standard Chinese take-out.

You might be ordering too many egg rolls.

Well, no. I can say definitively that's not the problem. It's about $8 per entree. Get enough for some variety for a family and that's what it is.

you are gormandizing too much wonton soup

THAT could be. General question, why is soup always so expensive?

Strangely, a commonly accepted belief in Germany is that no good cook ever shares an accurate recipe - in other words, the best cooks only either pass on their skills through teaching, or they don't ever intend their best recipes to continue beyond their death. Resulting in inferior recipes being 'commercialized,' in this quite stretched out metaphor.

Whether the Italians or French (each noted as have much better cuisine than in Germany) have the same perspective would be an interesting question.

Chefs who make their money/name/whatever they are after purely through their restaurants have an incentive to keep secrets. Those making money purely from cookbooks etc. face different incentives.

The big secret is the best ingredients which is primarily fresh ingredients.

Except for a minority of dishes, I doubt you'd be able to distinguish fresh vs processed / frozen in a strict blind tasting.

People can't possibly be expected to judge cooking for themselves.

prior, I know you like to make these sweeping statements about Germany and I usually don't care enough to argue with you about them, but in this case I'm really curious what the basis for your newest insight is. I've lived in Germany most of my life and I've never encountered anyone not readily willing to share their recipes. Maybe they're all bad cooks though...?

And why would this be unique to Germany. By analogy, a scientific paper is very much like development of a recipe and we have created an entire hugely unproductive sector solely to reward people for sharing.

This is why TC hires private investigators to hunt down Peter Chang.

Oh, sure they are willing. But they cunningly left out some things. :) I think, that's what he's saying.....

That belief is not entirely without basis. Julia Child is well known for having held many of her secrets back when publishing her famous cookbooks. For example, she doesn't tell you it's easier to poach an egg if it's rolled around in the boiling water for a few seconds before cracking. A lot of these people probably do it for selfish reasons, to keep the best recipes for themselves so there will always be a demand. On the other hand, some of them take the opposite tack - one example I feel confident giving is that of Joanne Chang, the founder of the Flour bakery in Boston. I'm pretty sure she's revealed all of her secrets and just trusts on her ability to innovate to stay in business even as she sells her cookbooks.

How can you say she held back secrets if you know the secrets?

When she first published a cookbook, its size was considered monstrous, and the detail excessive. I bet in a decade you will be accusing Myhrvold of keeping secrets by not putting them in his 2,438 page, 23.7 kilogram Modernist Cuisine.


Child was a popularizer. Her books also got simpler over time, which is hardly what you would do if you were holding stuff back.

I know "the secrets" because I learned to poach eggs from someone else. There are similar instances of this in Child's cookbooks where I *don't* know "the secrets," I've just heard from others (my wife, for instance) that her recipes are frequently incomplete.

The size of the cookbook was monstrous because of the number of recipes, not because of the level of detail. I own a set of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I will accuse Myhrvold of keeping secrets if he withheld procedural tricks to speed things up or secret ingredients. I don't care though because I don't care about Modernist Cuisine.

And to CD - the second volume of Mastering the Art was just as complex as the first, but her other books were simpler because they included more photographs (and fewer recipes) and were all based on the recipes she did on TV. There's a limit to how complicated you can make things in a TV show.

You clearly don't cook much, jtf, if you're staking your claim on "owning" a book and complaints from your wife. I have *cooked* from most of her books, over 35 years.

- Detail: take your copy of _Mastering_ off the shelf, pick a recipe, and compare it with a a recipe for something similar in any contemporary (early 60s) cookbook e.g. _Joy_, Elizabeth David's books, Escoffier, anything you like. I think you will find that _Mastering_ is much more discursive and detailed.

- Which recipes do you or your wife think are incomplete?

- Your poaching bit is silly. There are multiple ways to poach eggs. There are multiple ways to do lots of things in the kitchen. People have favorite techniques. I don't follow Child in many things, but I don't draw paranoid conclusions from that fact.

Please. I've been cooking daily since I was 16, from various regions but with a focus on my mother's Taiwanese cooking. I may not have 35 years of experience but that's because I'm not yet 35 years old.

I don't own any similar-era cookbooks, and I hold it up to the standards of today, not of Julia Child's time.

Out of personal interest, I followed up on my wife's story and asked her about it. She specifically cited the croissant recipe as one where the amount of butter to dough did not work as advertised. Being rather more empirically minded than most, she repeated the directions many times and with multiple bakers, including a professional one; same result.

Moving into apocryphal hearsay, she related a story from _her_ mother where a second dish also did not produce good results. After actually writing Julia Child, a reply came back that amounted to "I don't give away _all_ my secrets." I can't relate anything more, but it sounds plausible.

My conclusions are not "paranoid." Even if Julia Child in particular isn't guilty of holding back what she does, the incentives work out for professional chefs to not give directions to perfectly reproduce their original work, especially if they have a flagship restaurant.

In the popular imagination, cooking is often about recipes and secret ingredients, but how much truth is there in that characterization? Running a good restaurant is mostly about sourcing the best ingredients and managing the kitchen. Cooking a good dish is mostly about understanding the best technique for cooking and serving the ingredients. As long as the food is well-seasoned, I'm not sure that recipes are all that important. Technique is what separates good food from great and it is certainly easier to teach that through face-to-face instruction than through a cook book. Perhaps these chefs simply don't want to have unskilled people making lesser versions of their dishes; therefore downgrading their own reputations.

German culinary secrets are safe from me.

My Swedish great grandmother was an excellent formally trained chef, she even had a Swedish decoration, she was the household cook for a prominent New York family before she married my great grandfather. When the Lutheran church in her town in Minnesota put out a cookbook she submitted four or five recipes, each subtly changed to make it fail. Every other lady in the town did the same thing. That cookbook is probably the worst cookbook I have ever seen, I have also seen that with some Junior League cookbooks in smaller cities. So it is hardly a uniquely German thing.

As a side note, when looking at a Junior League cookbook the ones from large, or more cosmopolitan, cities are much better because they name the recipe's author and because a smaller portion of the readership will have actually eaten the writer's food, the reputational reward for the recipe outweighs the reward for being able to make a dish better than anyone else.

The whole piece is really excellent, Tyler. I've posted chunks of it at two blogs. My own, New Savanna:

And at Replicated Typo, a group blog about linguistic, but also more generally cultural, evolution:

I like the way you ground a particular craft, cooking, in the material world by contrasting oral (and home-based) tradition with cookbook culture. The notion that Mexican cuisine is on the cusp of being cookbook-ready is wonderful.

We do share recipes in Germany.
I did give copies from my family cookbook to others.

What you share with others, you can retrieve, when you lose the original book in bomb raids or Vertreibung.

The Family cook´book is passed on from generation to generation, it is hand written, so you know, who put the recipe in, and it is restricted to the core recipes. When my mother died, we made all copies, and when my father will die,it will be passed on to my older sister. As it was, as it is, and as it will be.

But j r made the most important point: Writing down ingredients, durations, temperatures is easy.

Techniques are more important , but are more difficult. How do you describe the right consistency of a Klosteig (dumbling dough), or a Sauerbraten Sauce?. You have to feel it in your own hands. I can not describe it. You learn this only by doing it together with your mother and father (he is responsible for the forming of the dumblings, but I had to lecture him on the dough : - )

Whether there is one more Wacholder or Lorber in it, does not really matter much, the consistency counts, and how you arrive at it. Just watching it one time, is not good enough.

And the same holds for economics and society.

Spanish llp corporation law may be very similar to Germany. But what they make of it in courts and daily practice, is very different.

LOL, the same goes for Irish banks and their supervision

Enjoyed the article. A couple of points.

1. The article defaults to a romantic narrative about tasty folk cuisines moving up, e.g. "starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks." French haute cuisine and Mughlai cuisine, for example, are court food, rich and fancy (professional) cooking for rich and fancy people, which transition to upscale restaurants. I agree there are amazing home-cooked culinary traditions, Andhra Pradesh being an obvious one. But to tell the story without class makes it too simple.

2. Ethnic restaurant traditions fall into typification and sometimes decadence. The Chinese food I've had in Mexico, Central America, and Turkey has been terrible. Italian food - who can explain it ? - is almost always good in Italy, usually mediocre in other parts of the world. Apparently emigration selects for bad cooks.

This is certainly true of Swedish cuisine, which is terribly underrated internationally. Swedish home cooking is heavily influenced by court food, the traditional Swedish diet is astonishingly monotonous. If you look at various European countries the ones with a long history as independent states with wealthy courts have a much more complex and interesting cuisine than states that lacked ruling dynasties. Compare Sweden and Denmark to Finland and Iceland, or Slovakia or Ukraine to Poland or Russia.

A commenter at FP already made this point, but I felt it worthwhile to repeat here: isn't a country's taste for foreign food overwhelmingly driven by the presence of immigrants from various countries rather those countries' level of cultural/economic development? This explains popularity of Mexican food in America, and the sudden exposure to Thai cuisine in the 1970s, when immigration rose nine-fold (American servicemen experiencing Thai cuisine, and Thais immigrating to the US, do share a common cause, obviously, but the causal pathway for the Thai-food craze is surely the latter, no?).

Lebanese/Palestinian immigration explains why falafel is seemingly more popular than the Turkish doner in the US, even as the two dishes share equal billing in Europe (Easier preparation probably helps too).

Turkey has almost no decent Chinese/Indian/Thai/Japanese cuisine because it has never historically attracted many immigrants from Asia. By contrast, there are pockets of Georgian, Uighur, and Turkmen communities with excellent restaurants in Istanbul.

Beyond immigration, another interesting thing to consider is the variety of specialized ingredients and equipment required to prepare staple dishes, which Tyler touches on. Italian is quite easy because its base ingredients--wheat, tomatoes, cheese, garlic, etc--are so widely available. By contrast, your Tanzanian porridge, or the Ethiopian injera bread, require a specific grain that is only grown in specific regions. In this sense, the grand patterns of world history and geography seem to determine how cuisines can spread. Had the Habesha civilization of Ethiopia/Eritrea been more expansionist or trade-oriented, one could imagine the relatively hardy teff plant (from which injera comes) gaining a foothold in southern Africa and even the Indian subcontinent. This would have enabled the modern Ethiopian immigrant to more easily start up their own restaurant; as it is, they often must source the teff from back home.

It is indeed important to add immigration as a factor, but there has to be yet more to it than that. I'd say that Asian restaurants in the US are most commonly, in order:

Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean ... and then a big drop-off to Filipino, Malaysian, etc.

But in terms of their population in the US, the most common backgrounds (using 2010 census data) are:

Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese ... Thai is way down the list, below Cambodian and Hmong, and barely above Laotian.

On a per capita basis, Thais must be the most restaurant-crazy ethnic group in the US (in terms of operating restaurants, although I think a good proportion of Thai restaurants are operated by people of Chinese or Chinese-Thai backgrounnds). Meanwhile Filipinos are one of the largest Asian groups in the US, but one has to search very hard to find a Filipino restaurant (and I've always been disappointed by the quality of the food at the Filipino restaurants that I've been to).

The LA Times even had an article a few years ago asking why aren't there more Filipino restaurants -- there are plenty of good Filipino chefs, but their restaurants do not sell Filipino cuisine. The best that anybody could offer was that Filipino food has to be cooked and eaten at home; it just doesn't work well in a restaurant.

So I don't think the immigration theory nor Tyler's economic development theory do a good job of explaining the patterns that we see. There's more going on, else why do we see so many Thai restaurants and so few Filipino restaurants in the US? Personally, I think one major factor is that Thai cuisine is just plain better than Filipino.

Tyler's article mentioned Burmese food ... he may remember Mandalay Restaurant in Boston near Symphony Hall, long gone. But I was in Boston last week and was pleased to find there's a Burmese restaurant called Yoma in Allston which is quite good. Its food seems to be more similar to Chinese than Mandalay's had been, but was nonetheless different, and good.

Re: restaurants, most Asians in the US are still first generation migrants, so looking at the educational qualifications of first generation migrants helps.

Indians for instance are high education, while the Chinese and East Asian groups are highly diverse, overrepresented at the high and low ends.

Go tell an unemployed construction worker with two kids that thai basil is the true wealth of nations. And make a video of it, please.

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