Cookbooks and Economics

Writing for Foreign Policy, Tyler Cowen explains what cookbooks can tell us about economic development. Why is it easy to find Mexican food cookbooks, but impossible to find a cookbook detailing the recipe for Yemen's mutafayyah dish? Here's Cowen's economic explanation:

Consider how cooking evolves: It starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks, along the way transforming a recipe from oral tradition to commercialized product. In the home, recipes are often transmitted from grandmother to mother, or from father to son, or simply by watching and participating. I've seen this in rural Mexico, for instance, when an older daughter teaches her younger sister how to pat tortillas the right way. When societies get richer, you start to see restaurants, a form of specialization like auto mechanics or tailors (see: Adam Smith on the division of labor). Restaurants require that strangers -- other cooks -- be taught the process. That means simplifying or standardizing ingredients so they're easier to work with and, in many cases, available year-round. This, of course, means writing down the recipe. Once a dish reaches these commercial milestones, cookbooks will follow.

Why America’s Economic Growth May Be (Shh!) Over: a New Marketplace Podcast

With the Presidential debate finished, we are officially in the final lap of America's second-favorite spectator sport. (Yes, football is better than politics.) Of all the talking that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will do by Nov. 6, you can bet that a great deal of their breath will be expended on economic matters. Because that's what the President of the United States does, right -- runs our economy?

Well, actually, no. The President has far less influence over the economy than people tend to think -- as we've pointed out not once, or twice, but three times.

That, of course, won't stop the candidates from talking about their plans to "fix" or "heal" or "restore" our economy -- all of which imply that we are in an economic doldrums that is sure to pass. But what if it doesn't? What if the massive economic growth the U.S. has experienced through most of our history is a thing of the past?

That's the topic of our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player in the post.)

Foodie Economist Tyler Cowen Answers Your Questions

We recently solicited your food questions for economist Tyler Cowen, whose latest book is An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. (He also blogs at Marginal Revolution and at Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide.) That book was the jumping-off point for our recent podcasts “You Eat What You Are” Parts 1 and 2

Below are the answers to some of your questions. Cowen talks about food subsidies, the Malthusian trap, "ethnic" food, the the meal he'd like to share with Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. Thanks to all for participating.

Q. Any advice on choosing the best food when eating at a college cafeteria? - Philip Mulder

A. That is a good time to start your diet. Otherwise, look for items which can sit and stew for a long time.  Indian food works okay in such contexts, as do stews, as the name would suggest.  Stay away from anything requiring flash frying or immediate, short-term contact with heat.  The vegetables won't be great, but often they are not great (in the U.S.) anyway, so now is the time to fill up on them!  The opportunity cost of eating the bad-tasting but nutritious food is especially low in these circumstances.

Tyler Cowen on Wal-Mart and World Hunger

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton interviews Tyler Cowen about food and economics.  Here's a particularly interesting bit about why Wal-Mart's presence in places like Africa might actually make it easier for the poor people to buy food there:

Cowen: If you look at wheat and rice, there have been price spikes over the last five years and they've made food a lot harder for poor people to afford. The so-called "Green Revolution" has somewhat slowed down. This is an unreported story. Crop yields are stagnant. It isn't a problem we can solve overnight but it's really one of the biggest problems in the world. It hardly gets any publicity. But for poor people in India, the Middle East and parts of Africa, it really matters.

Some of the problems are we don't have enough trade. It could be either legal barriers or just costly to transport or trade things. If there could be a shortage of rice in one place, it actually not that easy to ship a lot of rice in there because of bad roads and so on.

Bring Your Food Questions for Foodie Economist Tyler Cowen

Our latest full-length podcasts are "You Eat What You Are," Parts 1 and 2. They were inspired in part by Tyler Cowen's latest book An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. Here's what I had to say about the book in a blurb: "Tyler Cowen's latest book is a real treat, probably my favorite thing he's ever written. It does a fantastic job exploring the economics, culture, esthetics, and realities of food, and delivers a mountain of compelling facts. Most of all it's encouraging -- not a screed, despite its occasionally serious arguments -- and brings the fun back to eating. Delicious!"

What Would Tyler Say?

Economist Tyler Cowen's Twitter feed was recently hacked -- for the purposes of selling a weight-loss product.  In response, and following in the heels of his successful and hilarious #FedValentines economics meme, our own Justin Wolfers proposed a new project -- #tylertweets.  Some of our favorites:

  • The best Whoppers are to be found at BKs attached to gas stations, but avoid if they advertise clean restrooms. -Art Carden @artcarden
  • cannibalism is wrong, but not for the reasons its critics say. We ignore the wisdom of cannibals at our peril. -@ModeledBehavior
  • My #tylertweets involve the Gold Standard, two albino goldfish, a braised goat and Paul Krugman in a small town in Mexico. -Justin Wolfers @justinwolfers

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:

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."

Japan: To Give or Not to Give?

In the wake of Japan's tragic earthquake and tsunami, Felix Salmon argues against donating to the cause. Salmon cites concerns about the hobbling effects of earmarked funds, uncoordinated NGOs, and Japan's wealth.

Tyler Cowen on Pay as You Wish Restaurants

Cowen thinks they're a bad idea.