Category: Food and Drink

Quotation of the day

…the GM [genetically modified] food controversy is a feature of societies for which food is not a life-and-death issue. In India, where people literally starve to death…up to 60 percent of fruit grown in hill regions rots before it reaches market. Just imagine the potential good of a technology that delays ripening, like the one used to create the Flavr-Savr tomato. The most important role of GM foods may lie in the salvation they offer developing regions, where surging birthrates and the pressure to produce on the limited available arable land lead to an overuse of pesticides and herbicides with devastating effects upon both the environment and the farmers applying them; where nutritional deficiencies are a way of life and, too often, of death; and where the destruction of one crop by a pest can be a literal death sentence for farmers and their families…The opposition to GM foods is largley a sociopolitical movement whose arguments, though couched in the language of science, are typically unscientific.

From James Watson’s recent DNA The Secret of Life, p.160, the book is also a good introductory read on DNA issues more generally.

By the way, here is a picture of aquarium fish, they are genetically modified to glow in the dark, thanks to Chris Mooney for the link and commentary.

Corporations and cheeses

Have you ever wondered why they call it Maytag cheese? As in the people who make the dishwashers and washing machines? There is in fact a close connection:

Maytag Blue
Nestled in among the rolling hills of central Iowa is the Maytag appliance factory. Down the road and around the corner is the Maytag Dairy, which produces Maytag Blue cheese, among other, lesser-known cheeses. Yes, the two are related. Fritz Maytag, son of the founder of the Maytag washing machine company, decided he wanted to make his own entrepreneurial mark on the world. Shortly before World War II, he began working with scientists at Iowa State University to begin making a great American blue cheese, modeled after those of Europe. The result was one of the first American farmstead cheeses of superior quality. The dairy is now independent of the appliance company and collects milk from a local dairy cooperative, rather than raising its own cows. Maytag cheese makers, however, are still hand making the same cheese that they created in the 1930’s. Maytag Blue’s popularity has taken off with the growing interest in American farmstead cheeses, and this wonderful, tangy blue cheese is now featured on menus across the country. Its wonderful flavor, moist yet crumbly texture, and lemony finish make Maytag one of the world’s great blue cheeses.

By the way, here is a good recipe for Maytag Blue, or just spread it on apples.

A neat story, no? Sadly, it all ends in subsidy. Here is a libertarian critique of government price support programs for dairy products:

In 1995 alone, wrote Kevin McNew in a Policy Analysis for the Cato Institute (December 1, 1999), taxpayers shelled out $8 billion to dairy farmers through various federal price-support programs…[According to James Bovard] “For the cost of the dairy program, each American family could have bought its own dairy cow.”

Little did I know that some of these subsidies go to the same people who make household appliances, I can’t possibly imagine any good reason for this.

Caviar facts

1. Venetian trading ships first brought caviar to Europe from the Black Sea in the fourteenth century.

2. Caviar remained obscure for another three hundred years. Shakespeare, in his Hamlet, even used the word caviar to refer to something unknown and obscure, Hamlet complains that this play was “caviare to the general.”

3. Galileo was an early fan of caviar.

4. Rabelais, in his tale of Pantegruel, refers to caviar as something ridiculous.

5. Many stocks of sturgeon around the world were exhausted through overfishing and “tragedy of the commons.” Russia has remained the world’s major source of caviar in part through accident. The chaos of WWI, the Bolshevik revolution, and the monopolies and inefficiencies of communism all helped prevent overfishing and preserve sturgeon stocks at critical points in time. This must be counted as one of the economic successes of the Soviet regime.

6. The sturgeon is now an endangered species and caviar movements are tightly regulated. A caviar smuggler can receive up to $20,000 for the contents of a single suitcase, those contents will sell “on the street” for as much as $100,000.

7. The future of caviar lies in fish farming and privately owned sturgeons.

These facts are all from Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, by Inga Saffron, an excellent book, or you can download it for $10.

Oenophiles love global warming?

According to a report in Scientific American:

Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University and his colleagues analyzed data from 27 of the top wine-producing regions worldwide from the last 50 years… The scientists studied Sotheby’s vintage rating…and compared the trends to climate records. Overall, they found an average temperature increase of two degrees Celsius for the wine regions and higher vintage ratings for their products. “There were no negative impacts,” Jones notes.


Armchair economics makes me suspicious
. The “top wine-producing regions” should be located in places where the weather is optimal for grape growing. If higher temperatures are better, why weren’t the top wine regions located further to the South to begin with? Higher temperatures could make previously inhospitable areas good for wine-making and even raise wine quality on net but the best regions ought to be made worse by climate change. I suspect the authors did not control well for other factors that are improving wine.

Underground dining

…securing a seat at Mamasan’s is not easy. The restaurant, which also happens to be Lynette’s apartment, has no sign, and the only way you will ever find it is if someone tells you where it is (a quiet street, a hidden door, up a dark stairwell to the top apartment). Even then, you can’t just show up: you must have an invitation. To get one you need an introduction from a previous guest. This may seem as if it’s a complicated way to get a plate of grilled salmon, but Mamasan’s Bistro is not a legal endeavor. Its kitchen lacks the certificates, permits and inspections required by the city of San Francisco. And although the coconut-mango cocktails flowed, Lynette does not have a liquor license.

Mamasan’s is not, however, an anomaly. Restaurants of dubious legality, where food is cooked in apartments and backyards, abound across the United States. These underground restaurants range from upscale to gritty, and are born from youthful idealism, ethnic tradition or economic necessity. They lack certification from any government agency and are, strictly speaking, against the law.

Many of the new entrepreneurs quite like this arrangement, this quotation is a delight:

I’ve worked at restaurants for years, and dealing with the public is a beast,” Lynette said. ”You don’t get to edit who comes into your space, and it becomes a very sterile exchange of goods. I like knowing who is coming, and whether they understand what I’m doing.”

Lynette describes her restaurant as a kind of ”party” — albeit one that comes with a bill — and many underground restaurateurs harbor similar visions.

In other cases immigrants start these restaurants out of economic necessity. Asking a taxi driver is recommended as a good way to find one. African and Brazilian restaurants in Queens are especially common. Here is the full story, and thanks to co-blogger Alex for the tip.

Yes, the public is a beast, and I suppose that includes me. But if you know a good underground restaurant in the Washington, D.C. area, please write me, and I promise not to publicize it on my Ethnic Dining Guide.

Wining about Taxes

Jennifer Rosen totals up the taxes on a bottle of wine. This summary is direct from Walter in Denver.

1. Federal import license, $500, 3 to 5 month wait.

2. Register an office for each state in which the wine is sold, $100 to $350 per state.

3. Find a distributor for each state or even each county. These distributors will add their own markup to the price of your wine. State governments will not allow you to act as your own distributor.

4. Create and print a new English language label for the wine. The label will have to meet the federal requirements for warning labels and such.

5. After shipping, wait ten days for the wine to clear customs.

In Rosen’s hypothetical case the bottle of wine that sells in its home country for $4.50 winds in U.S. stores at $15.50 per bottle.

Tax protestors often note that half of the average American’s paycheck goes to taxes. When you count the cost of regulation, government’s cost is actually much higher.

Facts about Prohibition

When browsing Nathan Miller’s recent New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, I came across the following nuggets:

1. Prohibition was originally a popular policy.

See this link for more background:

Temperance was not, as is sometimes thought, the campaign of rural backwaters; rather, temperance was on the cutting edge of social reform and was closely allied with the antislavery and women’s rights movements. Always very popular, temperance remained the largest enduring middle-class movement of the nineteenth century (‘Leaven 1978, 1984; Tyrell 1979; Gusfield 1986; Rumbarger 1989; Blocker 1989).

2. At first Prohibition advocates did not think enforcement would be very costly. The Anti-Saloon League estimated a sum of $5 million a year, Congress provided slightly more than this to hire 1500 agents.

3. A major setback came when a federal judge rule that physicians could prescribe whiskey for medicinal purposes. By the end of Prohibition, there were 10 million such prescriptions each year.

The higher the bill, the lower your tip percentage

Two psychologists studied nearly 1000 tips for restaurants, hair salons and with cab drivers. The larger the bill, the smaller the percentage tip. This is consistent with a reciprocal “payment for service” model. You pay the waiter enough to get the job done, but you don’t feel he has to work much harder to bring you a more expensive entree. Or you might simply be feeling poorer, the larger the bill.

Note that the effect levels off for sums larger than $100. After that point larger bills don’t lead to smaller tips in percentage terms. Servers also get bigger tips when they split the bills for large groups. Read here for more detail. Other research shows that servers get bigger tips if they resemble or can mimic the customer.

Mom works, child eats

Childhood obesity rates have tripled since the early 1970s. Television, junk food, and fast food are all reasons. A recent study from the Chicago Fed highlights the role of working mothers in this problem. When the mother works, the child watches more TV, eats more junk food, and has fewer good meals at home, thereby becoming heavier. A causal impact is found, however, only for families in the top quarter of income distribution. Could hired nannies bear some part of the blame? The authors also note that schools have a financial incentive to encourage children to eat meals that are not very good for them (an argument for more school choice I might add), click here for more on that topic.

The economics of diets

Meat sales are up and bread sales are sluggish. The Atkins diet tells us to dump bread, pasta, and rice, and allows us to eat plenty of meat. Could it be driving this trend? Slate examines the economic impact of diets and offers a cautionary note. Only six million people –about three percent of national population — have tried the Atkins diet. Most people are buying convenience, the growth is beef sales is centered in ready-to-serve products. By the way, sales of Krispy Kreme donuts grew last year. In case you didn’t already know, they are forbidden under the Atkins plan. Cookie and potato chip purchases are up as well. When it comes to weight gain, some economists blame sedentary jobs and cheap, readily available foods.

Addendum: Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Krispy Kreme sales are now sagging, though keep this in perspective, the company has averaged a 63% growth in operating earnings, per quarter, over the last ten quarters.

Restaurant economics

It has long been a puzzle why certain commodities receive a higher “mark-up” than others. Why is popcorn so expensive at the movie theater? Why is wine so expensive in fine restaurants?

Daniel Boulud, one of New York’s leading chefs (Daniel, Cafe Boulud, and DB Bistro Moderne), addresses this question in his recent memoir Letters to a Young Chef. Boulud tells us that wines make up 30 percent of revenue in his restaurants and have a mark-up of two to three hundred percent.

John Lott and Russ Roberts (yes, that is the John Lott) once raised the possibility that a high drinks price is a way of charging those people who wish to linger at the table longer. Boulud offers another explanation based on price discrimination. He (p.62) claims that drinkers of fine wine are “a great clientele,” and are “willing to indulge.” They will expect “only the finest ingredients,” such as good truffles, and are willing to pay for them. By offering these people fancy wines at high prices, you induce them to pay a higher net price for their meal. At the same time you need some acceptable, cheaper wines: “Those [other] customers are your future and you cannot afford to drive them away with the sticker shock of a Greatest Hits wine list.”

Boulud also claims that good restaurants are well-situated to invest profitably in wine, thus the special importance of wine for revenue.

The book contains many kinds of advice. Keep your knives sharp, we are told, and if you want to make other chefs happy, serve them a pig’s head, not caviar.