How American Food Got So Bad: A New Marketplace Podcast


In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, Stephen Dubner and Kai Ryssdal talk about the unexpected reasons why American food got so bad. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

In his forthcoming book An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, economist Tyler Cowen pinpoints specific moments in history that affected American food for decades to come. From Prohibition to stringent immigration quotas to World War II, Cowen argues that large societal forces threw us into a food rut that lasted for roughly 70 years:

COWEN: 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.

Cowen has put a lot of thought into how our food makes it to our plates, and his own meals are carefully considered, for sure; but don’t call him a food snob:

COWEN: 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.

Here’s where you can listen to Marketplace on a station near you.


The food in america is dreadful. I came to Boston and was hoping to live here but the food is soo bad it puts me off. Im a bit of a foodie but i don't think its right to have sweet bread soggy everything else and vegetables that look so pale like they have never seen the sun. I stayed here for 6 days in an apartment that lacked even the basics for standard cooking. America your food could not have always been this dreadful. Come to the Uk we will show you how its done!

Carl Eastvold

While in Ireland, recently, we ate out frequently. I can't recall a single disappointing meal. All the food was surprisingly good and had a "home-made" quality to it. Yesterday, back home once again, and the day before, we ate out at three different restaurants. The food was mediocre, and I woke this morning feeling nauseated. I'm ready to swear off American restaurant food.


Most ethnic American food is worst than ordinary American/Canadian or British cuisine as it is often very stereotyped (they believe that you never drink this in this culture) when its not true. Certain countries are stereotypically associated with certain foods when in reality their general cuisine is more more broad. Americans will have to tamper with the recipies to try to change them to accomodate other tastes and in the process may not do a good job of it. Also much of it is not cooked by someone who really lived in those cultures, rather just heard about them and their recipes from cookbooks