Holy cow, Robert Wenzel links to this NYT review (“A Contrarian Chowhound Weighs In”) of Cowen’s new book. I haven’t read the book, but this guy (Dwight Garner) really puts on a show that is worth quoting:
Tyler Cowen’s “An Economist Gets Lunch” arrives on the table like a big, unidentifiable, whey-colored casserole. After 75 pages you’re still poking at it, thinking, “What is this thing?” and “Can I order something else?”
Reading Mr. Cowen is like pushing a shopping cart through Whole Foods with Rush Limbaugh. The patter is nonstop and bracing. Mr. Cowen delivers observations that, should Alice Waters ever be detained in Gitmo, her captors will play over loudspeakers to break her spirit.
What’s cognitively dissonant about “An Economist Gets Lunch” is that Mr. Cowen combines this needling with his own brand of chowhound hipsterism. His book is also a long, Calvin Trillin-like ode to tamale stands and strip-mall joints and ethnic food, the more exotic the better.
These cuisines appeal to the economist in him because they’re cheap and innovative. His book is packed with sentences like “Bolivian, Laotian and North Korean are staples of my dining out” and “I know how ‘Husband and Wife Lung Slices’ taste (not bad).”
This combination of elements takes some getting used to. Reading Mr. Cowen…is like watching a middle-aged man in a blue blazer play Hacky Sack at a My Morning Jacket concert.
“An Economist Gets Lunch” might have worked if, aesthetically, it wasn’t rather dismal. It’s flat, padded with filler, flecked with factual errors and swollen with a kind of reverse snobbery that’s nearly as wince-inducing as anything you’ll hear at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn.
The quality of Mr. Cowen’s prose varies wildly. Many of his sentences read as if he composed them before entirely waking from a nap. Here’s an example: “The more fundamental problem is that labels do not encompass the same economywide information that is communicated by the price system in its assessment of competing uses for resources.”
Word-goo of this sort creeps in everywhere. One of his favorite books is assessed this way: “I found his writing compelling and the photos full of striking colors.” Items on one’s plate are “foodstuffs.”
You sense in almost every chapter that he’s stretching thin material. Thus the ponderous detours into much-trampled areas like the history of barbecue, the varieties of Chinese food and how to choose kitchen equipment. Truisms are sprinkled like whatever the opposite of salt is. “Barbecue restaurants often have idiosyncratic names,” he announces, to aliens I suppose. “Like Bubba’s.”
Mr. Cowen presents the wisdom of the ages as if it were a series of dispatches from the gastronomic front lines. To find good food and not get fleeced, he recommends, leave the city centers and seek marginal areas. Mr. Trillin has been saying this for at least 40 years. I suspect Thucydides preferred the little joint on a side street to the place with the fountains where the waiters peeled customers’ grapes.
Speaking of Mr. Trillin, this book makes reference to the kind of ostentatious restaurants he used to jokingly refer to as “La Maison de la Casa House.” Mr. Cowen quotes his patron saint incorrectly, replacing “House” with “Haus.” Not a big deal. Except that this mistake arrives on Page 2, rattling your confidence.
Mr. Cowen later writes, “Google brings up over a million mentions for ‘tofu fajitas.’ ” That sounds crazy, so you check it. It turns out that Google offers only about 30,000 mentions of “tofu fajitas”; giving it a wider search range (without quotation marks) brings it up to about 115,000. Confidence further rattled.
Deep down there’s nothing foodies loathe more than other foodies. Mr. Cowen’s prose is animated by his dislike of sanctimonious, more-organic-than-thou types — the foodie liberal elite — but his book is its own elaborate exercise in conspicuous consumption and reverse snobbery. He flies around the globe, eats at the most expensive restaurants and sneers at nearly all of them.
“For a few years running Noma, in Copenhagen, has been judged the world’s best restaurant, but my meal there bored me,” he declares in a typical formulation. Soon enough he’s back home slumming around in decrepit neighborhoods for food carts and talking about the four spice grinders he owns.
To give Mr. Cowen his due, he made me smile a few times. When choosing a restaurant, he suggests that if the people inside look happy, “run the other way.” He prefers spots where the diners “appear to be fighting and pursuing blood feuds.” Bitterness and gloom bespeak seriousness of purpose.
Yet I felt gloomy reading “An Economist Gets Lunch.” It’s an argument for exoticism that tastes like paste.