How American Food Got So Bad: A New Marketplace Podcast

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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.

Audio Transcript

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio, that moment of our lives -- every couple of weeks -- where we talk to with Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same name. The subject matter is the hidden side of everything.

Dubner, it's good to talk to you my friend.

Stephen Dubner: Good to talk to you Kai. And I have a question for you if you don't mind.

Ryssdal: Of course, that's kind of how these things go, isn't it?

Dubner: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate America's food -- I'm curious to know?

Ryssdal: OK, big topics. Uh... 7.3.

Dubner: Yeah, all right. So... um...

Ryssdal: So is there a right answer?

Dubner: No, there is no right answer. I was just curious. You know why? Because we love to complain about our food.

Ryssdal: Yes.

Dubner: And for those who like to complain, there's a new book coming out called "An Economist Gets Lunch," by Tyler Cowen. And he explains -- how he puts it -- "How American Food Got Bad." And some of the explanations are really interesting. For starters, he blames Prohibition.

Tyler Cowen: A lot of good restaurants, they make a lot of the profits on the drinks. When you shut down their ability to sell wine, beer, other drinks, basically it put them all out of business. Those quality restaurants, within a period of year or two, they vanished.

Ryssdal: Yes, but Dubner, Prohibition was like 80 years ago, man.

Dubner: It is true but many profound effects have distant causes -- as I've tried to teach you, grasshopper. Anyway, we did bounce back -- but what we did was we bounced back in volume of restaurants. But a lot of them were diners and cafeterias. Cowen says we began to cater more than any other nation to our children's palates.

Cowen: Compared to a lot of Asian cultures, or European cultures, when it comes to the food scene, very often in America the child is in charge, and that again means soft, and sweet, and gooey.

Dubner: So you've got soft, sweet and gooey food taking center stage -- plus, Cowen argues, a lack of new flavors. Can you guess why we didn't get any new flavors?

Ryssdal: A lack of new flavors? No, I got nothing.

Dubner: Immigration. Or, really, the lack immigration. The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas that weren't lifted until the 1960s. More immigration generally means more food innovation. New -- you know, everything -- spices, ingredients, know-how strategies -- and we weren't getting a lot of either of those.

Ryssdal: OK, but let me throw another one at you, though just for the heck of it: What about convenience? We were in the '40s and '50s a more mobile society. We wanted convenience wanted frozen, we wanted drive-thru and all that good stuff.

Dubner: That's exactly right. Cowen, he says that -- this is interesting -- it's kind of a byproduct of World War II. Which is that during the war, out of necessity, we had to learn to can, package and transport food on a much bigger scale than ever before. And when the war was over, we liked our Spam. We hung onto it, and all those processes that came along with it. What's interesting though is that in Europe World War II had the opposite effect.

Cowen: It shut down a lot of transportation, it shut down a lot of borders. So people ate very locally. They would grow things in their gardens. You know, they might even eat the family pet. Do things that we might not find that tasty or that pleasant. But the result in Europe was to make it more local, not less.

Ryssdal: OK, so now that I think about it, the family pet is probably like a cow or a pig -- not Fido, right?

Dubner: Depends on your family, Kai. I can't speak for your family.

Ryssdal: And local makes sense too, right?

Dubner: It does and you know American food now, Cowen -- and just about everybody else -- argues, is on the upswing. And a big part of that is this local movement -- the idea that we should all eat more local food, maybe all local food, which might taste better often. But as a solution to the food future -- the idea of feeding more and more people around the world nutritious and affordable food -- Cowen argues that the locavore movement is a little bit snobbish and a lot impractical.

Cowen: The biggest food problem in the world today is that agricultural productivity is slowing down, and for a lot of the world food prices are going up. And for that we need more business technology and innovation, not locavore-ism.

Ryssdal: You are going to get such hate mail, can I tell you?

Dubner: Well, I think we should direct the hate mail to you this time after the turkey breast incident.

Ryssdal: Oh man, I'm still hearing about that! Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics.com is the website. Couple of weeks, huh?

Dubner: Talk to you soon, Kai. Thanks.

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  1. Katie F says:

    I was surprised that the Great Depression wasn’t brought up, perhaps because it’s a bit obvious. Prohibition did shut down good restaurants, but so did one of the biggest economic crises of the century. Also, in that same vein, wouldn’t people be looking for cheap, easy food if they were struggling economically? I know this doesn’t explain why other nations’ food is so much better, but I thought it was strange that this wasn’t mentioned at all.

    Otherwise, it was a great podcast!

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    • James says:

      Except that good food can certainly be cheap & easy. For instance, it takes more effort to produce white flour than to grind the same wheat into whole wheat flour, and it’s no more difficult* to make bread from the whole grain flour than to produce the airy sponge that’s today’s mass-produced bread.

      (*Probably less: I can make a batch of decent whole wheat bread in about 15 minutes of actual work – neglecting rising & baking times – but I doubt that I could make anything remotely close to a commercial loaf.)

      Likewise with many ethnic cuisines: at base, they’re the cheap & easy food of poor folks.

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  3. Eric M. Jones. says:

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    • Jen says:

      You’re definitely alone there. I think if I were to be put to death, my last meal would probably be something like tuna steak frites [cooked to rare] with a soft-boiled egg and tomato wedges.

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    • Travis says:

      What is this… I don’t even… ?

      I’m not sure that “chicken” is particularly “healthy.” While it may be slightly less unhealthy than cow or pig, in some aspects, it has other properties that are not as good, such as inflamation promoting properties. Also, much of the estimate with respect to the fat content of chicken is somewhat outdated, as chickens are now fed much different diets and get much less exercise than they did when the estimates were made.

      With respect to there being millions fewer of them… perhaps there should be? Chicken batteries seem like horrible, horrible places to me. I think it would be quite compassionate to produce less of them.

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      • Jen says:

        The obvious solution is to vote with your dollars and only buy free range chicken which is actually pretty healthful to eat in the sense of any meats being healthful.

        All in all, Americans tend to be more meat-centric than other peoples. I feel like people should take more advantage of the current depressed economy to get creative with cheaper cuts of good quality meats and to incorporate much more, and economically feasible, vegetables into their diets. Many of the world’s best cuisines are largely vegetable-based, and when there is meat, it’s slow roasted or braised or stewed—all things that are meant to take a cheap cut and elevate it to deliciousness.

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  5. caleb b says:

    How American Food Got So Bad – starts with the premise that American food is bad.

    Bad for you, maybe. Bad tasting? I don’t think so. And what is strictly defined as American food? I’d consider all of the following “American” because they’re all easily accessible and, though maybe not originated here, developed into something unique and distinct from their origin here.

    BBQ
    Burgers & Fries
    Pizza
    Chili
    Pot Roast
    GUMBO
    Nachos
    Cheese Steak sandwich
    Mac & Cheese
    Fried Chicken, fried pies, chicken fried steak, heck anything fried really.

    Here’s a question, have you ever tried to get something like Nachos in France? Ugh. Or try anything in the U.K. – flavorless. I’m not saying we have the best food in the world, but to say it’s bad is crazy talk. Although, I from America, so I recognize the bias.

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    • Cody says:

      It’s bad because everyone one of those things could contain natural neurotoxins, artificial chemicals, extra, added sugars ( sugar KILLS you when over done, plain and simple, and over done is 95% of the bread products in grocery stores, which is included in every one of the things you stated ), antibiotics, hormones, and who knows what else.

      Thats the problem.

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    • J Pro says:

      It tastes good to you because you’re inured to it. It’s all the damn table salt and other stuff. Anyway, taste isn’t exactly everything–or are you suggesting otherwise?

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  6. Ken Arromdee says:

    If you ask almost anyone why a TV dinner is considered bad food, their reply will probably be that the TV dinner is made to optimize traits other than taste and nutrition. Likewise for fast food. But when you think about it’ the main reason why a lot of “good” food was created was basically the same thing: for instance, pigs’ feet are a delicacy because people who don’t have a lot of money needed to use every part of the pig. They weren’t created because people thought pigs’ feet tasted especially good, they were created because someone was trying to be as cheap as possible. Of course they then tried to make the pigs’ feet taste as good as possible given that they were cheap enough to eat pigs’ feet in the first place (a statement that of course can also be made about fast food and TV dinners).

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  7. Travis says:

    I think “bad” has to be better defined, as well as how American food “got” there. If we are discussing health impact, then it’s clear that Americans have some of the most health averse diets on the planet, easily.

    If we’re talking about foods taste, then I think we just need to look at the fact that so much of our food production values the price over freshness, taste and nutrition. (though the optimizing of price over nutrition is also a factor with respect to the unhealthiness.) Though *some* American food can be very very tasty, and does very well.

    If we’re talking about the general “state” of our food, that it’s often prepared extremely carelessly, and extremely cheaply, then again it comes down to price.

    While we have a good variety of tasty foods in the united states, there are so many atrocious aspects of our food production and presentation and ultimately consumption. There seem to be a lot of factors, between market forces and advertising (in which bad food is often made to look good), to changes in expected lifestyle (far fewer houses have “homemaker” wives) to increased demand in the workplace (people have to work longer hours now, for roughly the same pay, and often at multiple jobs leaving little time for food preparation).

    Ultimately though, I think one factor that simply isn’t talked about much is education. People simply haven’t been taught to feed themselves. It used to be that the mother of the house would feed the family, but as that became history there is this myth that cooking for oneself is difficult, time consuming or even dangerous, when it’s really none of those things.

    It’s actually very, very easy to cook a home made meal that tastes as good as anything you would get at a high end restaurant, for a fraction of the price. That just isn’t oftent communicated to consumers (though perhaps with the rise in popularity of the Food Network people will begin cooking for themselves again).

    Indeed, perhaps the move away from self-prepared food is the biggest reason that american food has gotten so bad. Perhaps people spent so much time eating bad food, they forget what good food tastes like.

    Sorry for the aimless rant.

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  8. crquack says:

    I do not know about America.

    I lived in two different countries before I moved to Canada. Not a day goes by when I am not thanking my lucky stars for the choice, quality and prices of the food available to me in our supermarkets.

    Of course we cook our food ourselves.

    The only thing that puzzles me: Why does ethnic food travel so poorly? Curry in Vancouver is nothing like the curry in London and I do not even know how that compares with Bangalore. Italian food this side of Atlantic is nothing like in Italy. Try getting a loaf of German bread (nothing special, common Bauernbrot) – you are SOL! It’s not that the latter is difficult to bake: We did it from a mix available in evey supermarket in Rhein Pfalz. Here, I cannot get even professional bakers to make it.

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