The Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, which was founded in 1976, is a little agrarian oasis right in the heart of the city, it’s a throwback to how we used to buy our food. The writer John McPhee once spent some time in New York’s farmers markets, selling peppers and writing about how the natives handled, and manhandled, all the fresh food. Here’s what he wrote:
“You people come into the market — the Greenmarket, in the open air under the downpouring sun — and you slit the tomatoes with your fingernails. With your thumbs, you excavate the cheese. You choose your string beans one at a time. You pulp the nectarines and rape the sweet corn. You are something wonderful, you are — people of the city — and we, who are almost without exception strangers here, are as absorbed with yoxu as you seem to be with the numbers on our hanging scales.”
That’s from McPhee’s essay called “Giving Good Weight.” The title refers to the fact that you get your money’s worth at a farmer’s market — and, more important, that you can look into the eye and shake the calloused hand of the person who actually grew your food. So these days, not much has changed at Union Square. Farmers still rumble in, in the black of the morning.
DUBNER: What’s your drive in the morning?
DAVID: One hundred and fifty-four miles. I left at 2:30 this morning. I have a 1999 Chevrolet in back of me. I just turned four hundred and eight thousand miles on it.
David Graves owns a farm called Berkshire Berries, and today he’s selling all sorts of preserves.
DAVID: Raspberry jam, strawberry, onion jam…
DAVID: Also, hot garlic jelly.
And here’s Kelly. She works for Windfall Farms, in upstate New York.
KELLY: We’ve got an assortment of mesclun mix, we’ve got various micro greens, a micro mix, we do sunflower greens, escarole, we do edible flowers, throughout the rest of the year we’ll start bringing in some root vegetables, uh, carrots, parsnips, turnips, radishes, potatoes, garlic, pretty much we grow what we like to eat.
And this is Ruby:
RUBY: I represent a small farm upstate called Hudson Valley Duck.
DUBNER: Just walk me through some of your…
RUBY: Well, we have whole duck, duck breasts, duck legs and thighs, duck prosciutto, applewood smoked duck breast, a rillette, which is kind of like a rustic style of paté, legs and thighs that are already confit, which means cooked low and slow and preserved under a layer of duck fat. What else do we have? Duck salami, duck bacon.
DUBNER: There’s nothing you can’t do with duck!
So here’s a question for you. If we assume that the Union Square Greenmarket is a wonderful place — and it’s hard not to argue that it is a wonderful place — is it necessarily the model for how we should buy our food today? In other words, do we need to go fully rustic in order to get good? And yes, we do need to get good. Because while there are many fantastic things to be said about food in modern America, there’s a lot of room for improvement. The economist Tyler Cowen, who’s not a curmudgeon, not by any stretch, says we are in the middle of a food crisis. Or at least a food paradox:
Tyler COWEN: If you are a foodie today you have more options than ever before. But there’s also more bad food than ever before. There’s more obesity. There’s more junk food. And you see the food world— it’s getting a lot worse and a lot better at the same time. That’s one way to think about the crisis.
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Today we’re talking about everybody’s favorite subject: food. We like talking about food so much, in fact, that we’ve made a two-part podcast. In this first episode, we’ll talk about what’s wrong with food in America, how it got that way, and how it can get better. In the next episode we’ll look at whether eating local is the path to salvation. For now, let’s get back to Tyler Cowen. He’s an economist at George Mason University who also happens to be a serious chowhound. His latest book is called An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. While economics and food might seem like a pair of ingredients that shouldn’t be mixed, Cowen points out that the two have in fact long been aligned:
COWEN: If you read the early economists like Adam Smith, or Frederic Bastiat, they were obsessed with food and food markets. A lot of early economics, it is a theory of food and the food supply, because at that time food was a very large percentage of national economies. It was an important issue. People could die or starve if the harvest didn’t go well. So economics and food have been intimately related really from the beginning. And I’m trying to put food back in the centerpiece of economics.
Cowen has a popular economics blog, called Marginal Revolution, and a separate blog called Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide. He has lots of rules for finding the best restaurant meals. For instance: Cheap food is usually better than expensive food, especially when you find it in a strip mall or at a food truck. Here’s another Cowen rule: If you come across what Cowen calls an “ugly and unknown” item on the menu, order it. One more Cowen rule: while you might be drawn to a restaurant full of good-looking, happy people, avoid it. People who are serious about food generally don’t look that way. And last of all: Don’t be a food snob. Food snobs, Cowen says, are messing up everything. They place too much emphasis on expensive food or trendy food, or…
COWEN: There’s another kind of food snob where everything has to be like a farmer’s market, everything has to be sustainable, everything has to be in some way modest or geared down, or hippie-like.
As Cowen sees it, too many people spend too much energy worrying about their own pet preferences, which takes focus away from the real problems. And there are real problems. For instance, about 15 percent of Americans are said to be “food insecure,” meaning they don’t have enough to eat. And 35 percent are obese. Our number one cause of death is heart disease, and it’s quite likely that a lot of things we eat contribute to that. Added to this mix is the fact that we’re only now slowly crawling out of a long, bad food rut.
COWEN: I think there’s a very bad period for American food. It runs something like 1910 through maybe the 1980s. 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’s not very good. If you go back to the nineteenth century and you read Europeans who come to the United States, they’re really quite impressed by the freshness and variety of what is on offer. But we went a very particular route in our food world, and for a good seventy or eighty years we had some of the worst food in the developed world, and that’s the hole we’ve been trying to climb out of.
The conventional reason that’s given for why our food got bad is that we were victims of our own success:
COWEN: It’s the notion that we did agribusiness first, we did long-scale, long-distance transportation first, we commercialized everything first, and we got junk food, and chains, and bad supermarkets because of commercialization. That’s the standard story.
But that’s not the whole story, Cowen says. There are specific, overlooked, moments in history that hurt the way we eat.
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COWEN: So the mid 1920s, the first thing we do is we choke off immigration, which is just going to kill off the quality of our food. Like, imagine current American dining without immigration.
The culinary stagnation caused by immigration policy ran straight into the Great Depression:
COWEN: That doesn’t help the restaurant trade either; it doesn’t help dining out.
And that coincided with another downward force on good food:
COWEN: Prohibition, which puts out of business a lot of the best restaurants.
As Cowen sees it, restaurants were seedbeds of innovation, but during Prohibition, some of the best restaurants were forced to shut down since they couldn’t survive without alcohol sales. Now, interestingly, the overall number of restaurants in the U.S. tripled between 1919 and 1929, but they weren’t the kind of restaurants that a food lover would love.
COWEN: What you get are more diners, more fast food shops, more just ordinary food. Food is much more for children. Children, I’m sorry to say, they don’t have great taste in food. They like soft, they like sweet, they like Wonder Bread.
COWEN: So American food becomes more food for children.
So the American food scene became a bit of a kindergarchy, with a surge in family-friendly restaurants — much more so than in other countries. Another turning point for American food: World War II.
ANNOUNCER: On this 1,048th day of American democracy at war against the foes of freedom, we bring you our mayor, the Honorable F.H. LaGuardia, speaking to you from his desk in City Hall in another talk to the people. Ladies and gentlemen, his honor, the Mayor.
MAYOR LAGUARDIA: Patience and fortitude.
New York City. January 28, 1945.
MAYOR LAGUARDIA: I want to talk to you today both about the meat situation…
COWEN: People still wanted to eat meat, meat wouldn’t always be fresh.
MAYOR LAGUARDIA: You take the neck, for instance. Betty, get me the bones so that I can describe it better. Now here I have one. Let me describe it to you. The piece that I have in my hands has been boned, but there is a real good supply of meat in it. If you would want to take a cleaver and break it into smaller pieces, it would make a good stew and gravy with potatoes or dumplings and the children would like it.
Strangely enough, Tyler Cowen says, U.S. meat consumption didn’t decline during World War II. But it wasn’t the same meat as they were eating before…
COWEN: People ate a lot of Spam. It’s a canned good, it doesn’t taste very good. What we did in wartime was gear up our production of everything. We had to produce a lot, including food, very quickly and have it be produced in a form that could be stored. And we made our beef and our pork and everything else just not nearly as good.
World War II forced us to excel at industrializing our food and transporting it long distances. Once the war was over, we kept going in this direction. This industrialization trend was eventually met by another trend: a flood of women in the workforce — which, it turns out, furthered our appetite for processed, readily available food.
COWEN:You want foods that are easy to handle, quick to heat or reheat, somehow very convenient and not necessarily the best foods.Women have started working, they have less time in the kitchen, but you don’t yet have all the innovations you have today. And what you see happening is as two-earner couples and television spread across the world, food ways change and in some ways decline at first, and it takes a while for markets to adjust to that.
DUBNER: You write, “Quick and microwaveable meals were developed by bacteriologists rather than chefs.” Not a good thing. You write, “Television enabled advertising and homogeneous national brands to emerge.” So Tyler, when I read that and when I hear you talk now, you sound quite convincingly like the standard kind of food snob. I mean you personally are quite dismissive of bad food, correct? Am I right, or no?
DUBNER: You put a lot of effort into eating food that you really want to eat, correct?
COWEN: It’s fun, not effort, but correct.
DUBNER: And yet you’re also against what you call ‘food snobbery.’ You write, “That food snobbery is killing entrepreneurship and innovation.” And that, “Food snobs are right that local food tastes better, but they’re wrong that it’s better for the environment, and they’re wrong that cheap food is bad food.” So, okay, you do a great impression at first listen at least of a food snob. But then talk to me about where you and they split.
COWEN: There are a lot of different issues in what you bring up, but let me just give you a few traits of food snobs that I would differ from. I think agribusiness and consumerism are seen as the great villains. I think both are essential, we can’t do without them. They feed the seven billion people in the world. We do need to improve them, but I would work on improving them through innovation. 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 locavorism.
Coming up… if we assume that this messy food system of ours needs fixing, what are the solutions?
Alice WATERS: I think that the work of the farmer, it needs to be elevated to a very important and vital place.
And, what does dinner look like tonight?
DUBNER: I’m curious, Michael, what are you going to have for dinner tonight, do you know yet?
Michael POLLAN: You know, I don’t know because I’m going to a restaurant.
DUBNER: What kind of restaurant?
POLLAN: I’m going to Chez Panisse.
DUBNER: I’m going to a restaurant.
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Michael Pollan is a writer who has become a kind of national food philosopher. He says a lot of our food problems are due to what’s called “the omnivore’s dilemma,” which is also the title of one of his books.
POLLAN: The phrase “the omnivore’s dilemma” is an anthropological term for a, um, an omnivore that can eat so many different things, some of which is not good for you, some of which will kill you, and deciding between what is good and what is bad is a big part of why we have these giant brains we have. And that anxiety, you know, afflicts us. It doesn’t afflict the cow or the koala. I mean, they eat that one thing, and if it’s not that one thing, it’s not lunch. And things are pretty simple and you don’t need a big brain you just need a big stomach to digest all those leaves. And so it’s part of our existential predicament to worry first do we have enough food and second do we have the right food.
DUBNER: I guess the clichéd way to ask this question would be if you, Michael Pollan, were king of the day, or food czar for the day, or agriculture secretary for a year, God forbid for your sake that you’d have to do that job, it’d be miserable.
POLLAN: And for the nation’s sake.
DUBNER: But, okay, so you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the problems that have come to exist and how they’ve come to exist, but start to talk about some solutions from the production side, not yet from the consumer side, but from the production side.
POLLAN: Sure, well I think one of the most important things to do is to diversify our agriculture. You know, we’re growing vast amounts of corn and soybeans, these commodity crops that we heavily subsidize the planting of. And it’s too much of a good thing, or too much of a so-so thing. And that we should devise mechanisms in our agricultural policy that reward farmers for having more than one or two crops, because the more different crops they have, the less need they’ll have for fertilizers, which are, you know, huge fossil fuel burners, the less need they’d have for, you know, toxic chemicals and weed control problems, and it would allow us to diversify our diet on the consuming end. Because one of our problems with diet, too, is monoculture. We eat just too much of a very small handful of not very good for us things like sugar and high fructose corn syrup. So, so I guess I would try to figure out a way to get farmers to diversify and that’s not easy by any means because mechanization pushes you in exactly the opposite direction.
DUBNER: Talk to me for a minute about the subsidy part, which I know you’ve written about a lot. You say that we’re over-reliant on things like soybeans and corn and we use it in anything and everything to our dietary detriment. But…
POLLAN: Well, yeah, because those crops are really the building blocks of fast food. You’ve got the high fructose corn syrup coming out of the corn, and you have the hydrogenated oils coming out the soy. And right there you’ve got a fast food meal.
DUBNER: But persuade me that that’s not just what the public wants to eat and that the market wants to buy and sell. In other words, talk to me about how this isn’t the way a market’s working, this is the way a government-subsidized market is working.
POLLAN: Well, the reason that we subsidize those crops is not because people wanted to eat them, necessarily. Nobody actually thought to eat soy or any byproducts of soy, and hydrogenated soy oil and high fructose corn syrup were not things that anybody was clambering for. They actually grew out of an overproduction. And one of the geniuses of capitalism is when you have too much of something that nobody wants you’ll figure out how to trick it into a form where people will eat it or buy it. So overproduction breeds ingenuity, also. And why did we have overproduction? One of the reasons is that we subsidize these crops. And one of the reasons that we subsidize them is that it’s easier to subsidize storable commodities than it is things like broccoli or carrots. If you want to… I mean, the history of subsidies is very complicated because we began trying to support prices basically and keep farmers in business. That’s what we did during the Depression because the price of things like corn had fallen essentially to zero. People think, you know, we did it because we didn’t have enough food in the depression. Actually we had plenty of food in the depression — we didn’t have enough money to buy it and the farmers were going out of business. And so we started, you know, with various systems to support the price of corn, and soy, and some other storable commodities. Over time, the point of these subsidies changed, during the Nixon Administration in particular, to force down the price of commodities rather than to hold it up. And that was a radical change, and it had the effect of leading to this vast overproduction. Now, I said that it’s harder to subsidize vegetables, and it is. And the reason being that if you subsidize something you tend to get these waves of overproduction. But with corn and soy and rice and wheat and cotton, it’s not a big problem because you can put it in a silo and store it for three to five years. So if you’ve got too much of it you can, you know, put it in the bank in effect. If you do that with vegetables you have this rotting compost. I mean, you just can’t have overproductions of broccoli without, you know, having a disaster, stinking disaster. So to the extent that the government wanted to play this role in the food system of either supporting farmers, or driving down the cost of food, commodity crops, grain is how you do it. And there are also, they underlie so many other things because you feed grain to animals. So you’re supporting animal agriculture too, indirectly; you’re subsidizing feedlots. And, you know, all this made sense, and it achieved some goals, but it had a lot of unintended consequences. And one was since these were the crops that you got paid for, you planted as much of them as you can. And there were, you know, fewer limits on how much you could plant. Once upon a time, the government, in exchange for supporting you, said, “Okay, you can grow this much corn and that’s it,” because they were very concerned about overproduction.
DUBNER: What do you think would happen if, and this could not happen, but what do you think would happen if the federal government removed all crop subsidies overnight?
POLLAN: It’s a really interesting question, and it is hypothetical because it would bring down the banking system, you know, overnight, so the Fed would not allow it to happen. There’s so much debt on farms every year, you know, trillions of dollars that farmers take out to plant, and those depend on that check coming from the government. That’s, you know, your proof that you’re going to be able to pay it back. So if would be a disaster for the banking system. And from everything that I’ve been able to learn it might not even work to undo the system that we have.
DUBNER: Okay, so let’s, let me ask you to take a step back and let’s think away from agriculture itself for a minute and think about, you know, eating. I’m curious, Michael, what are you going to have for dinner tonight, do you know yet?
POLLAN: You know, I don’t know because I’m going to a restaurant.
DUBNER: What kind of restaurant?
POLLAN: I’m going to Chez Panisse.
DUBNER: I’m going to a restaurant.
POLLAN: Yeah, and I am… well just to the café upstairs. So I don’t know what I’m going to have actually. I’m being taken to dinner.
DUBNER: Ok, so I pulled up the menu here.
POLLAN: What do they have?
DUBNER: So dinner menu for tonight looks like we’ve got some six Hog Island sweet water oysters on the half shell with mignonette. I don’t know what mignonette means.
POLLAN: It’s a little vinegar with some shallots in it.
DUBNER: Thank you. Then a grilled Belgian endive with pancetta, rosemary, and egg. Squash hummus with shaved fennel and pickled cauliflower. Celery root and rocket salad with crème fraiche and beets. A house-made rigatoni with Llano Seco Ranch pork ragu.
POLLAN: Oh, man, you’re making me hungry, Stephen.
DUBNER: And then a bowl of Churchill-Brenneis Orchards page mandarins and Flying Disc Ranch dates.
POLLAN: Yeah, well you see that one of the things that Chez pioneered doing was telling you where the food came from and putting the names of the farmers, which has become, you now, almost an obnoxious cliché in a lot of restaurants, but I actually think it was a very salutary development. That you know, one of the things we need to do in this country is raise the prestige of farming, and recognize the work that good farmers do, which is really important to us. We depend on them, and yet they’re, for most of us, totally anonymous.
Alice WATERS: I do really believe that…
That’s Alice Waters herself, the owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, where Michael Pollan is going for dinner tonight.
WATERS: I think that the work of the farmer, it needs to be elevated to a very important and vital place, and we need to consider the people who take that on as precious as the people who educate us in the schools. And when that happens, when we begin to value our farmers, you’d be surprised how many people will answer that call, who will really be encouraged to take on that profession. It’s happening already, just among young people who are concerned about the future of this planet, and know that we’re headed to a dead end if we don’t think about where our food comes from and take care of that land that produces our food.
DUBNER: So here we are: back to the farm, and the farmer. You could call it the go-small-or-go-home food movement, with its emphasis on eating local at any expense. Tyler Cowen, the foodie economist we heard from earlier, he does not see this as any kind of broad solution.
COWEN: I would say there is a better food philosophy. I think locavores like most people mean well. You know, we’re all imperfect. We all do things and hold views for reasons which are not totally rational. And the purpose is to have some kind of dialogue and get us to a better place.
On the next installment of Freakonomics Radio, we’ll continue this conversation. And we’ll keep looking for a better place. We’ll talk about locavorism, and run some numbers. Some of them will surprise you.
David CLEVELAND: This is what really shocked us is we found that when you added up all these different ways in which locally grown produce got to people in Santa Barbara County we found that less than five percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Santa Barbara County were actually grown in Santa Barbara County. And the other ninety-five percent were imported.
Ed GLAESER: And we certainly are right to worry a lot about whether or not our food is fresh, and good, and tasty. But I just keep coming back to feeling a certain amount of satisfaction that I’m eating grapes that are keeping up the standard of living in Chile.
As for me, for dinner tonight… sure, I’d love to sit down with Michael Pollan at Chez Panisse for some house-made rigatoni with Llano Seco Ranch pork ragu. But that’s in California. I’m in New York. Still, I think I will go local tonight. Now, technology, has of course changed what “local” means. I can use my iPhone to load menupages.com and see what’s available for delivery in my neighborhood. Let’s see: 36 Chinese restaurants and 42 Japanese, twenty-nine kosher, three restaurants with wild game (not kosher), 19 Mediterranean, 8 Caribbean, 26 French and 79 Italian… 36 called “American” (traditional), and 22 called “American” (new).