10 Apr 2012

I Don’t Think He Liked Tyler Cowen’s New Book

Humor 27 Comments

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.

27 Responses to “I Don’t Think He Liked Tyler Cowen’s New Book”

  1. Adrian Gabriel says:

    Robert Murphy > Tyler Cowen

  2. TJK says:

    A smackdown is always the best kind of review. I think he nailed him with the “reverse snobbery” even if he did mention it twice

  3. Major_Freedom says:

    Look what this guy wrote about Annie Proulx’s memoir:

    “Reading Ms. Proulx’s prose is like bouncing along rutted country roads in a pickup truck with no shock absorbers.”

    Seems to me that he’s just your average, run-of-the-mill, upper east hipster poseur with a predilection for vulgar isms that are rather short on substance and long on Sarah Silverman-ish wisecracks that border on attention seeking desperation.

  4. Patch says:

    I do like the other link on Wenzel’s website (http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2011/05/how-tyler-cowen-reads-10000-books-week.html) which talks about how Cowen reads, erm, “speed reads” (frankly thats being charitable) books. I don’t know the guy, but seems like he could be a little full of himself. Opens up a book, reads like 20 pages, and then says he read it. Yeah, like thats going to enhance your knowledge.

    • Beefcake the Mighty says:

      “Seems like”? Patch, if there’s a more self-important asshole than Cowen in the blogosphere, I’m certainly unaware of it (Pete Boettke sometimes comes close, but his periodic bouts of self-loathing take the edge off somewhat).

    • Beefcake the Mighty says:

      Patch’s link here is striking. As the commentors note, it explains a hell of a lot. However, what is really shocking is that Cowen allowed this to be published. It really demonstrates what an ueber-douche he is.

  5. Adrian Gabriel says:

    Mr Murphy, I totally agree with this guy. Cowen tried making some ignoble and ignorant comments about you at the ISFLC 2011 Conference. I was there and had to tell him off. Cowen is a statist

    • justin says:

      At first I didn’t agree with the NYT review. But after hearing that Cowen had bad things to say about Dr. Murphy, it would be intellectually dishonest of me to not immediately infer that his book about food is not very good. Because the two are very related and everything. Let me know if you’re not following my logic.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Justin, Cowen had me for lunch at the ISFLC 2011 Conference. Hence the relevance.

        • Justin says:

          I wasn’t referring to your post, I was referring to this comment. How about this- can you tell me any logical reason to put these two sentences in this particular order in the same paragraph. “I totally agree with this guy. Cowen tried making some ignoble and ignorant comments about you at the ISFLC 2011 Conference” If I’m reading this correctly, is it not just saying “I agree that Cowen’s food book is bad because he said bad things about Bob Murphy”? That’s a textbook non-sequitor.

          • Bob Murphy says:

            Justin, I understood full well what you were doing in your original comment. Look at his comment, look at your response, and then look at my response.

            (Or, alternatively: Suppose we go with your interpretation and assume I thought you were criticizing my blog post. Then my comment to you is completely nonsensical.)

            • Justin says:

              I guess your going to have to spell it out for me then because I’m lost. You say that Cowen had you for lunch has “relevance.” Relevance to what?

              I assumed you thought it was relevant to why you made this post in the first place, but clearly that’s not right. So now I think you meant it has relevance to whether Adrian should agree with the book review, and I can’t see why that would be true either.

              • Bob Murphy says:

                Somebody please help me here. Or hang me.

              • Dan says:

                It was a joke Justin. You correctly pointed out that what Tyler said at that conference has no relevance on whether his book on food was any good. Dr. Murphy joked that they had lunch together at that conference. Since the book is about food and the diss happened at a conference where they had lunch he is facetiously tying the two together.

              • Bob Murphy says:

                Oh my gosh you guys… You are BOTH right/wrong. Justin was asking how Tyler ripping me at a conference was relevant to a review of a book he wrote on dining out. So I described his ripping of me as “had me for lunch.” To be clear, Tyler has never gone to lunch with me.

                Is this thing on?!?!

              • Dan says:

                I find the confusion that dry wit and sarcasm creates on the Internet is funnier than the actual jokes.

              • Dan says:

                Ha, I was thinking as I wrote that that it would be funny if I was misinterpreting your joke as well. Proves my point though, the confusion was funnier.

        • Major_Freedom says:


  6. Ben Kennedy says:

    I get 484,000 hits on tofu fajitas (without quotes) – I guess I should my confidence in the review should be rattled

    • joeftansey says:

      I was completely amazed when turning safe search off did not change the number of hits returned AT ALL.

      I think I found an unexploited segment of the adult entertainment industry.

  7. Justin says:

    Ahh well thank you. I thought by “Had me for lunch” he meant “chewed him out” or… well enough with the lunch puns.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Yes Justin that’s exactly what I meant. And so that’s why him chewing me out would be tied to his book on food.

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        So, what did you and Tyler have for lunch? Roast chicken?

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        Or, was it Vietnamese?

  8. Beefcake the Mighty says:

    Tyler Cowen is a mega-tool.

  9. senyoreconomist says:

    Dr. Murphy,

    Well, how did he chew you out? What was he complaining about? What was the argument about? Did you let him have it right back? If he “had you for lunch”, that implies he beat you in an argument. He didn’t really do that did he? Are you kidding when you say he “had you for lunch”, was he doing it in fun, or was it a serious blow up. Thank you very much.

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