Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tyler Cowen on food snobs

I'm a big fan of economist Tyler Cowen, even though I have to overlook his embrace of the ugly term "foodie" which I associate with food snobbery. While I can't use his excellent ethnic dining guide of the Washington DC area directly, I have benefited from the universal advice on finding a good ethnic restaurant.

Cowen recently spoke with Freakonomic's Stephen Dubner about American food, foodies, and in particular why he's not a food snob.

Let me just give you a few traits of food snobs that I would differ from. First, they tend to see commercialization as the villain. I tend to see commercialization as the savior. Second, they tend to construct a kind of good versus bad narrative where the bad guys are agribusiness, or corporations, or something like chains, or fast food, or microwaves. And I tend to see those institutions as flexible, as institutions that can respond, and as the institutions that actually fix the problem and make things better. So those would be two ways in which I’m not-only not a food snob, but I’m really on the other side of the debate.
While I'm on the fence about Cowen being a food snob himself, he does hit home an important point: the people I associate as food snobs get tied up in shallow anti-capitalism and blatant conspicuous consumption.

Last night I made Swedish meatballs from an earl 1980's cookbook. Ingredients included standard ground beef, sour cream and bread crumbs made from a slice of cheap white bread. The tomatoes were the cheapest ones I could find and the egg noodles I served it on fell under the generic supermarket label.

The recipe even called for a packet of onion soup mix, so I wouldn't be able to say it was from scratch, if I cared about that sort of thing. I don't, and nothing was organic, locally-made or "fair trade."

It was a great dish, and not despite those details. Most of the details the food snobs spend so much money are simply irrelevant.


  1. I once told a co-worker about the Birds Eye Steamfresh meals. (This one is my favorite: They're microwavable, but they actually do steam the food within the bag. I think they're pretty good, especially for the price ($2.19 at Hannaford, $1.98 at Wal-Mart). When I said, "You put them in the microwave, but they don't taste like most microwaved foods", the immediate reaction I got was the eye roll. Apparently absolutely nothing made in the microwave can be good.

  2. Totally not true. While a lot of things made in the microwave are not good, a lot of things are just fine, if not fantastic.

    When I build my house, I don't plan on having one, but that's just because I seldom use the thing now, not because they aren't a useful culinary tool. But, when you use it as a clock more than you use it for cooking, you may not need it.

  3. I have eaten in fine restaurants both here and in Europe. Not a single one was so outstanding that I recall it today. My favorite meal consists of: home made cornbread, like granny used to bake, a pot of pinto or white beans, a vidalia onion, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and a tall glass of home churned (dreaming, now) ice cold buttermilk. I used to help granny churn when I was a little girl so I know what home made butter and buttermilk taste like. Kick me, food snobs as I enjoy my peach cobbler for dessert.