Imagine going out to eat with someone who really likes to talk about food, and imagine that this person is also an economist. That's An Economist Gets Lunch, three hundred pages of very excited chatter about food culture and markets across the world. There's no argument to be had, just sheer enthusiasm for the subject at hand, one that I had to be wary about reading because it kept giving me the munchies. Cowan's concoction is a weird mix of culinary discussion, economics, world travel, and history. He doesn't produce a set of rules: there's a principle guideline, followed by many little bits of advice. The key principle is this: food is a product of supply and demand, so look for options where the supplies are fresh, suppliers are creative, and the customers are demanding. The implications of this are broader than "avoid fast food". Cheap doesn't necessarily mean bad; most of Cowan's favorite culinary experiences happen while traveling in less-industrialized areas of Mexico, Nicaragua, Sicily, Thailand (he's very well traveled, this fellow) and other places. Because food markets are predominately local there, supplies tend to be fresh and the creators specialists in their region's offerings. The price is dirt cheap, compared to the cities. A high price tag doesn't indicate that the food is exquisite, either: often it carries with it the money sunk into creating a luxurious restaurant environment, complete with superfluous staff like valets, or the high rents.Cowan especially disdains the city centers of touristy areas like Paris and Rome. You want good Italian food, hop on a train and head for the back country, he urges. And French? Try Japan.
Cowan makes for an interesting dinner companion, going from this to that topic. He starts off with a discussion of why American fine dining is largely inferior to Europe's, blaming it on Prohibition, television, and parents who cater to their kids' bland palates. Later on he devotes an entire chapter to the majestic enterprise that is barbeque, and defends agribusiness. Don't blame agribusiness networks because they produces crappy fast food, says Cowan, any more than you would blame the printing press for producing pulp fiction. Curiously for someone who is generally aware of the impact politics have on markets, he assumes the entire reason people rally against GMOs is because they're scary. It's not a question of the products being proven safe, but of power and corruption: the companies producing these things are the ones with commanding market shares and accompanying political influence, supposedly regulated by their former coworkers. No sooner has he written on this, however, has he returned to an apparently favorite topic: the ins and outs of good Chinese food.
This is a book of interest, but it goes back and forth so much I have no idea who the target audience is. There's definitely more information about food than economics, for what it's worth.
EconTalk interview with Cowen on the book. You can scroll down for a transcript of the conversation and get a lengthier feel for the author's many food interests.