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.

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, is the website. Couple of weeks, huh?

Dubner: Talk to you soon, Kai. Thanks.

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  1. about good food says:

    Really it’s not enough vegs in the supermarkets.

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  2. Flo says:

    One thing bothers me with the podcast:

    How in the world can you compare american & european food production to the production in developing countries (I’m throwing them into the same bowl because, as oppose to what the podcast suggested, they are the same in terms of food production and food quality, i.e. europe lowered its standard to the american one)? Anyway, I think diversification and less simplification helps more here – maybe the podcast might have gotten 10 minutes longer, but I think that the average american has a longer attention span than just 5 minutes, eh? Anyway, I think in industrialized nations it makes sense to switch to local food production. In developing countries food is already produced locally, per definitionem. Thats why they ARE developing countries. The problem there is the infrastructure and the low productivity. We (as in the industrialized countries) have too much productivity, and the wrong system to distribute it (i.e. laisse-faire capitalism).

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  3. Mrs. Robb says:

    Eat less and eat lighter, say goodbye to sugar and fine carb for a month, then every morsel will taste great again.

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  4. Brendan says:

    Bad for you – yes

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  5. Richard Tasgal says:

    I’m not a historian, but…. Was food in America in the 19th century really varied and fresh? This doesn’t conform to the description in Gerald Carson’s book Cornflake Crusade. See especially Chapter 3: “The Great American Stomach Ache.”

    The book is available on-line from the Library of Congress.

    Let me give just a couple excerpts below. You could quote much more of the evidence (which seems pretty persuasive to me). The diet for most American in the 19th century seems to have been appalling.

    Rich Tasgal

    `A native writer, Robert Tomes, author of The Bazar Book of Decorum, a popular book on American manners, which ran through nine editions between 1870 and 1878, confessed that “there is no country in the world where there is such an abundance of good raw material for the supply of the dietetic necessities of man, or where there are so many people with the means of obtaining it, as in the United States …” and yet “there is hardly a nation that derives so little enjoyment and benefit as the American from its resources. We are … too carnivorous … the national stomach is kept in a constant state of active assault.” The result: “atonic dyspepsia.”‘

    `Around Civil War times a lecturer upon food and cookery appeared from France, M. Pierre Blot, who tried to elevate the American cuisine. Blot got a stony reception. A few in the small, rarefied world of the bon ton imitated the French with their ices and ice creams, their green vegetables and salads. But the cits refused to surrender their skillet, spider bread and dried-apple pie for Frenchified fruits, pot herbs and foreign sauces. The craving for variety could be met only by using a comparatively small number of food materials in a large number of different ways. Thus the good wife set her table with a profusion of preserves and pickles to perk up the appetite; and flour took the form of an infinity of cakes and pastries. During 1878 one Vermont housewife made 152 cakes, 421 pies, 1038 loaves of bread, 2,140 doughnuts. Some in the popular health movement, making a virtue out of an unavoidable necessity, agreed with a crotchet of Hitchcock’s that the less variety at a meal the better. For this rationalization the Amherst President rested upon classical authority. Hippocrates, he pointed out, said that a variety of dishes produced a “commotion” in the stomach.’

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  6. John J. says:

    This sounds like such a great premise. I love how Tyler proposes that the quality of food is skewed to children’s wants, and that’s why the cheap and easy food tends to be high in sugar, fat, and gooey. I wondered why there was so much sugar after watching Supersize Me, but never made that assumption.
    And I also can’t wait how Tyler expands on what he means by “bad.” Everyone knows that fast food is generally unhealthy and contains mostly empty calories. However, I wonder if he’s going to draw on the new era that emerged these past 20-30 years of an on-the-go, single or 2 working parent lifestyle, that has subsequently put pressure on fast food instead of home cooked, healthy alternatives.

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  7. kaitlynn says:

    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!

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  8. Carl Eastvold says:

    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.

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