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.
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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.
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.