There Used to Be Such a Thing as a Free Lunch

Tyler Cowen writes books more often than some people brush their teeth. He also blogs many times each day, including weekends, and does a variety of other productive, interesting things.

His latest book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, is probably my favorite thing he’s written. (It’s not out ’til spring; I am lucky enough to have scored an advance copy.) It does such a good job exploring the economics, culture, esthetics, and realities of the food network that I don’t even mind the short shrift he gives Japanese cuisine (while being more thorough with Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, Thai, Filipino, and especially Chinese food).

There are a number of mind-blowing ideas and facts in the book, the most interesting of them in a chapter called “How American Food Got Bad.” We’ll get into those specifics at a later date on this blog and on our radio program. (I interviewed Tyler for an hour the other day for the radio show — excellent! On that same day, I also got to interview Alan Krueger and Danny Kahneman; I am a very lucky fellow.)  For now, I just wanted to share one brief bit in a  section about how Prohibition hurt our food development because alcohol sales subsidized food and food innovation:

Looking back in history, formerly you could take advantage of this cross-subsidy far more than is possible today. For instance nineteenth century saloons took the drinks cross-subsidy to an extreme by offering, literally, a free lunch to their customers. Once food supply became liberated from local farmers and hunters, such free lunches became common. The hope, of course, was that they would make the money back on the drinks.

An 1899 survey of 634 saloons in Minneapolis found that the free lunches were “elaborate” in 3 saloons, “excellent” in 8, “good” in 50, “fair” in 88, “poor” in 77, and the rest provided no free lunch whatsoever. A 1901 survey of 115 Chicago saloons found that “nearly all” offered free lunches; Chicago was especially known for the practice. At first it was a rigorous code of honor that the eater must also buy drinks.

But over time “free lunch freeloaders” became increasingly common, thereby rendering the deal increasingly unworkable from the restaurant’s point of view. By 1910 the free lunch practice was criticized for presenting unsanitary food (as more people take advantage of this kind of offer, the quality of the food has to be lowered if the saloon is to stay in business.) By the time war came to America in 1917, the practice was considered wasteful and was pretty much abandoned.

It is hard not to smile when one learns that Chicago was the epicenter of both the free lunch and the “no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch” movements.

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  1. MDS says:

    I am often disappointed by what Dubner writes. This is a good example. The cited passage notes that the practice of free lunches in exchange for drinks had largely disappeared by 1917, three years before Prohibition. There is no suggestion from the source that free lunches ever contributed to any innovations in food service, food quality, etc. It is odd that Dubner reads his source material so carelessly that he does not even check that it directly contradicts his premise.

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  2. Andrew says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. gg says:

    If the goal was to sell more alcohol, the movement would have led to saltier and drier and food. Did it?

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    • Hasdrubal says:

      Well, about the only free food you find at bars now will be peanuts, pretzels or popcorn. So I would say, yes, indeed it did.

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  4. Marc Robinson says:

    And here I thought the cross-subsidy with alcohol was sex!

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  5. Jeff says:

    For what it’s worth, this practice is still alive and well in some parts of Mexico. Many of the “real” cantinas in north central Mexico will bring you various foodstuffs as you sit with your friends drinking. It’s not just snackfoods; sometimes it gets pretty elaborate (mini-tacos, fried chicken, etc).

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    • carlosmx37 says:

      jeff is correct,in some parts of mexico,it is still a very good way to eat cheaply.For just buying a couple of beers,or a tquila shot and a “cuba libre”-coca cola mixed with rum-,the waiter brings you the locally famous and delicious “botanas”.
      I ´d only add that this custom is established by Spaniards businessmen,who have “mexicanized”
      some of the dishes,for instance,eggs mixed with potatoes named in Madrid “torta de patata”,here is known as “huevo con papas”…and the very mexican custom to add many chili to all,is reinforced,with a trick that is very profitable :the adding of many chilis to the “botana of today”,makes the customers to sweat heavely,and then ask for more iced drinks!
      good afternoon,and salud!

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  6. Caleb b says:

    “How American food got bad”

    Bad as in tasteless or bad as in unhealthy? I’ll give unhealthy in spades, but he can go soak his head if he means bad tasting.

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  7. Felix says:

    I also am disappointed. TANSTAAFL refers to more than just the immediate dollar price. It includes the baggage that comes with it, the expected commitment, favors owed, far more than just dollars and cents. The book might be good, but I won’t even bothering investigating if this is the best sample you can select.

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  8. Satisfied Customer says:

    I like your articles Mr. Dubner!

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