Category: Food and Drink

Haitian fact of the day

In Haiti’s slums, round swirls of dough can be found baking in the sun. They look almost appetizing until you learn the ingredients: butter, salt, water and dirt…

And the dirt biscuits of Haiti – called “argile,” meaning clay, or “terre,” meaning earth – are not exactly a final cri de coeur against starvation.

Like the mice in Malawi, they are a staple of the very poor, somewhere between a snack and a desperation measure. Making them has been a regular business for years. The clay is trucked in plastic sacks from Hinche, on the central plateau. Blended with margarine or butter, they are flavored with salt, pepper and bouillon cubes and spooned out by the thousands on cotton sheets in sunny courtyards that are kept swept as “bakeries.” They cost about a penny apiece.

“They’re not food, really,” said David Gonzalez, a reporter at The Times who has visited Haiti many times. “People with hunger pangs eat them just to fill up their stomachs.”

Here is the full story (NYT); it is sad to even use the “food and drink” category for this entry. Here is a previous installment of “Haitian Fact of the Day.”

Update: I wrote this post a few days ago, before the horrific flood. Flooding is such a severe problem in Haiti because of deforestation, brought on by poorly defined property rights to trees and forest.

The burdens facing French food

Consider the value-added taxes that were “harmonized” all over Europe during the 1990s. They benefit fast-food chains, since the tax on takeaway is only 5.5 percent, while they penalize sit-down restaurants, whether humble bistros or haute cuisine, which pay 19.6 percent. When President Jacques Chirac ran for re-election in 2002, he promised to reduce the tax, but such is the nature of the new Europe that all 25 countries will have to approve the measure for it to take effect–in 2006.

That’s just the beginning, here is the full story. Thanks to Michael at the ever-excellent for the link.

On the brighter side, here is a video of a French chef serving cicadas.

(Super) Markets in Everything

Exercise while shopping for food? How ironic, how wry, how soooo post-modern. Surprisingly, it’s not a work of art – it’s a British shopping cart.

The Trim Trolley (yes, it’s really called that) is about to roll into the aisles of the Tesco supermarket in Kensington for a trial run.

The futuristic, £500 shopping cart has a large center wheel with 10 levels of resistance that make it increasingly harder to push. Handlebar sensors (just like the ones on gym equipment) rate heartbeat, time, distance, and calories and fat burned. German cart company Wanzl designed the trolleys expressly for the Tesco chain and says a 40-minute shopping spree can burn up to 280 calories. That’s pretty close to what you achieve on a machine at the gym.

Thanks to Marc Andreessen for the pointer.

The cost of dieting

Why are Americans so obese? One factor is surely the decline in the relative price of carbohydrates. In hunter-gatherer society, you couldn’t get pasta or bread at all. But how about today?

“What’s really cheap are foods made with refined flour, added sugar and corn syrup and added fat.” People with limited income, he says, “buy foods that fill them up, and who’s to blame them? They get the most calories for their money.”

Not everyone is willing to pay for a good and tasty diet. Christine Davies speaks:

“I tried both the Atkins and South Beach diets, but pound for pound, protein is a lot more expensive than carbs,” she says. “The South Beach diet recommends fish about three times a week. I’d have to eat canned tuna three times a week to afford it, and I get tired of eating the same foods.

“Plus, you have to cook everything yourself,” she says. “Following it on a day-to-day schedule would be completely impossible because of the complexity of the recipes and the cost of the foods.”

She’ll get little argument from Phil Lempert, one of the nation’s leading experts on food prices and grocery-store shopping. Using exclusive data from AC Nielsen and menus from the best-selling diet books, Lempert calculates that strict adherence to the low-carb, meat lovers’ Atkins diet would cost about $100 a week (presuming you eat all meals at home). The salmon-rich South Beach diet priced out at almost $90 a week. That’s far more than the $35 that Davies spends at the grocery store each week to feed herself.

Many other people live in “food deserts,” where supermarkets with fresh vegetables are a long distance away. Of course all this holds only for North America. The world’s very poor find calories hard to come by, engage in hard physical labor, walk much more, or have better access to home farmed fresh foods. Only in the U.S. are carbohydrates so cheap.

Here is the full story. Here is a related article on the cost of dieting. Here is Bruce Bartlett’s excellent short piece on the economics of obesity, with links to the academic literature.

As for me, if you ignore price and delivery costs, I would gladly eat sashimi for at least half of my meals.

Food predictions and pronouncements

I very much enjoyed giving the keynote address to the International Association of Culinary Professionals. But this was not a crowd that wanted to hear about standard errors, or indeed numbers of any sort. They wanted raw predictions and proclamations. Here is an edited sample of what I offered up:

1. Fast food will get much better, and soon.

2. Look to eat in strip malls, not shopping malls. Low rents encourage culinary experimentation and attract immigrants.

3. America’s culinary profile is defined increasingly by ethnicity and demographics, not by geographic region.

4. French cooking, for all its virtues, is stagnating.

5. The UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are all up-and-coming culinary hotspots.

And what about investment advice?

That’s what economists are really good for, no? And no one wants to hear that you believe in the weak form of the efficient markets hypothesis.

Put on the spot, I offered the following principle. If sushi restaurants are new to a country, and are succeeding, buy shares in the stocks of that country. Raw fish, of course, can be toxic. Quality can be hard to monitor with the naked eye. Sushi consumption is a sign that people are starting to trust each other.

My thoughts on food

The Baltimore Sun interviews me on food, dining, and globalization. Here is my favorite bit:

Sociologist/food scholar Alice Julier of Smith College says she’s not sure if Foodland is characterized by more abundance or just the absence of clear authorities on how to make choices.

“There’s sort of a continual argument going on,” says Julier, who will not be attending the conference. “There’s a pastiche of voices speaking to what’s good and what’s not.”

In the din is the voice of Tyler Cowen. He knows the complexity of it all, yet a brief conversation with him suggests that on one level, at least, it’s simple: Try the China Star, order the Szechuan chili chicken.

Read the whole story, as they say. Just don’t put down your Szechuan chili chicken.

Addendum: Here is my on-line ethnic dining guide for the DC area, which includes a longer review of China Star.

Markets even in things you can’t imagine anyone would want

Read about restaurants where you do your own cooking, and no this is not just Korean barbecue. In some places you cook your own steak, at least they still wash the dishes for you.

The same article offers us some sad news:

Last fall, when almost 100,000 of the “surveyors” who contribute to the Zagat dining guides nationwide were asked what “irritates” them the most about dining out, 74% said service; only 6% said food.

And no, it’s not because they’re all dining at Matsuhisa.

That being said, I don’t think poor taste is the only culprit here. Often we blame the person we can see — the waiter — more than the person we can’t see, namely the chef. Economists have long understood the distinction between the seen and the unseen, let us not forget that the fallacy applies to other contexts as well.

Outsourcing and dining?

White House Council on Economic Advisers chief Gregory Mankiw was scalded last week for saying that sending jobs overseas was a good thing for the economy. So on Tuesday, he tried to, as they say on the Hill, revise and extend his remarks at a luncheon with economists. The restaurant? Chinatown Garden on H Street NW.

The Bombay Club was booked?

Here is the link. I propose that all opponents of outsourcing be forced to eat American food for one month straight.

The new Michelin winners

The Michelin dining guide will upgrade three restaurants, all in France, to three-star status. One three-star restaurant will be demoted to two stars. The Michelin three-star designation is the highest a restaurant can obtain, right now there are only twenty-seven three-star restaurants in the world.

Perhaps it is no accident that only three stars are used for the world’s most rigorous restaurant system (Gault-Milleau, in contrast, has a scale up to twenty). The smaller the number of stars, the harder it is to inflate the standard. If the scale has one hundred steps, no one can really tell if a “73” restaurant is pushed up to a “75” rating by mistake. Ratings inflation can slip in over time. But everyone knows if a restaurant is elevated to three-star status by mistake.

Michelin precommits to quality rankings and takes great care to preserve its name as a restaurant “gold standard.” It is commonly believed that the number of three-star restaurants in France is capped, in fact it has remained close to twenty-one since the mid-1930s. Furthermore it is harder to get back a third star once you have lost it, than to win it in the first place, see the first link for more information.

French cooking may be suffering under excess taxes and labor market regulation, but French food criticism is alive and well, in this case under corporate auspices and subsidy. The Red Guide does not make money on its own terms, but rather serves to advertise the parent company and burnish its image. It is a classic instance of the private production of public goods.

So the next time that Roger Ebert gives a movie either a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down,” this is a signal that he is offering a truly important evaluation.

“I’d like the genetically modified organic food, please”

It turns out that much of the organic food in the U.K. has genetically modified components, usually soya:

Transgenic soya was found in ten of 25 organic or health food products tested by Mark Partridge and Denis Murphy, biotechnology researchers at the University of Glamorgan in Pontypridd, Wales. Eight of the ten were labelled either as ‘organic’, which should indicate the absence of transgenic ingredients under Soil Association rules, or explicitly as ‘GM-free’.

My take: Who cares? But the study does show just how arbitrary categories and labeling distinctions can be. “It’s all made out of matter,” I am fond of saying.

Protectionism hurts fine dining

My biggest personal complaint with U.S. trade policy concerns non-pasteurized cheese. Read Fred Foldvary:

Few Americans know what really good cheese tastes like, because the U.S. government bans tasty handmade cheese made from untreated milk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits the sale of cheese made with raw milk, which has not been aged for 60 days. If the raw-milk cheese is from France, voila, its sale is prohibited in the USA no matter how long it has been aged.

The danger of eating raw-milk cheese is similar to that of eating raw oysters, yet the latter is legal in the US. Those with higher risk of infection, such as pregnant women, should not eat raw-milk cheese, raw oysters and steak, and other foods that can harbor microbes that cause diseases. But Europeans have been eating raw-milk cheeses since ancient times, evidently with little ill effect. European cheese makers are generally careful to keep the milk uncontaminated, which minimizes the risk.

Now I have a new grudge: the ban on Szechuan peppercorns.

Since 1968, the federal government has banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns, which are the dried berries of the prickly ash shrub. The Agriculture Department did not really enforce the ban until two years ago, and its effort is expected to dry up supplies soon. Some chefs and retailers say that they are unable to find the peppercorns, which are often an ingredient of five-spice powder, a common Chinese seasoning. Others say they are selling what was stockpiled before the enforcement effort began.

The details are a bit complicated, but if you can believe the NYT, there is no good reason for the ban other than excessively broad bureaucratic classifications (a related item endangers citrus crops).

You can’t cook Sichuan food without huajiao,” said Wang Dinggeng, the chef at Grand Sichuan International on Second Avenue. “You can’t get that special ma la flavor,” he said of the peppercorns’ numbing (ma) and burning (la) effects.

Tragic, I say, tragic. By the way, if you ever visit my university, make sure you eat at the Szechuan restaurant China Star, in Fairfax, on Rt.236. Get the house specials, before it is too late.

The culture that is French

Concern over France’s diminishing importance in world cuisine has prompted the government to create a gourmet university, which it yesterday promised will be nothing less than the “Harvard for the art of French cooking”.

The university will open in October in Reims, in the heart of Champagne country, and admit 70 French and 30 foreign students in its first year, according to Renaud Dutreil, minister for small business and consumption.

And why is French haute cuisine in crisis?

The suicide of Bernard Loiseau, France’s best-known three-star chef, drew attention to the difficulties the best restaurants experience in reconciling innovative menus and silver service with the commercial realities of high wages and massive fixed costs.

Mr Loiseau’s suicide coincided with widespread frustration at international criticism claiming that French chefs have failed to move on from nouvelle cuisine and have fallen far behind Spanish, Italian, American and even British rivals.

… many restaurateurs have been frustrated by the government’s failure to lower VAT on sit-down meals.

The election pledge by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, prime minister, to reduce the rate to 5.5 per cent from the current 19.6 per cent is facing German opposition in Brussels.

Did you get that right? London is now a more interesting dining spot than Paris. The core problems involve an overregulated French labor market and excessively high French taxes. Here is the full story.

On a related note, it is now the case that 35 percent of all French movies are shot outside of France, most commonly in the Czech Republic. French filmmakers are asking their government to set up a specially subsidized studio complex, to restore French cinematic competitiveness. It is time we start realizing that government regulations involve an aesthetic price, not just an economic burden.

Addendum: Here is additional commentary on relative French culinary decline, with useful links.

Do only smokers benefit from moderate drinking?

Richard Ippolito says yes:

This paper uses data from the Health and Retirement Survey to measure the effects of alcohol on the incidence of morbidity and death. The study is able to reproduce the implied benefits of engaging in moderate levels of alcohol consumption, even after controlling for a large number of independent variables not usually available in health data sets. In fact, the controls work in the direction of supporting the benefits of engaging in even higher dose levels than conventionally recommended. It turns out, however, that smokers and quitters enjoy most of the benefits of unusually high alcohol consumption. Non-smokers evince modest benefits that are completely captured at very low dose levels. In general, the results suggest that studies of alcohol intake on health need to pay more attention to the characteristics of users. It may be that alcohol is especially beneficial for populations that are deficient in their health for other reasons like smoking or poor eating, whereas populations who follow good diets and do not smoke benefit very little from alcohol use.

Smokers should drink even more than we had thought, or quit smoking. Non-smokers won’t benefit much from drinking. Thanks to Newmark’s Door, one of the most useful yet underrated blogs, for the pointer.