Haute Cuisine pour Vous?

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Rachel Laudan on the History o... Jesse Ausubel on Agriculture, ...

In an age of abundance, how does the way we think about food differ from the past? This week, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed historian Rachel Laudan for a fascinating conversation about the history, culture, and economics of food.

We'd like to see their conversation expand here. Please share your thoughts on the prompts below in the Comments. As always, we love to hear from you. burger2.jpg

1. What was the most interesting thing you took from this week's episode? Explain.

2. Even today, French cuisine is regarded as the pinnacle of fine dining. How did this come to pass (and why did British cuisine fall out of fashion)? To what extent are you surprised that there has been less cultural backlash against haute cuisine?

3. Eugene Wei at Remains of the Day was inspired by this episode to write a lengthy post on the role of food in the competition for status. Read it, please. Do you think food is the new music?

4. Are you a proponent of local food? Why or why not? Why has Laudan been critical of this trend, and to what extent can you, especially as a local food devotee, agree?

5. Laudan and Roberts describe the emergence of the hamburger and its cultural significance. How does the humble hamburger illustrate the importance of abundance and choice? What food(s) do you predict will be "the next hamburger," and why?

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Aaron Luchko writes:

It was an interesting episode though I do have one small quibble with her characterization of the movement against processed food since there is a very legitimate health reason.

Food sellers have a strong motivation to make food as tasty, calorie dense, and generally addictive as possible. And the more they succeed the fatter the consumer will get.

With unprocessed food the seller is limited in how much they can enhance these traits. And the levers levers they do have, such as having fresh well cared for ingredients, tend to correlate with with health. And the unhealthy ingredients such as bacon (sorry but I continue to believe Taubes is wrong) are easily identified.

But with processed food the mechanisms to improve flavour are much stronger, a lot less healthy, and much harder to detect. The incentives suggest that healthy processed food is both harder to find and harder to verify once you do find it.

Lillian M writes:

1. Best takeaway was increased empathy for the bland, unimaginative, and often unhealthful food choices of my co-workers. It is the "republican" cuisine, and my love of adventurous world food just doesn't fit with their worldview. I think there's some xenophobia there too, but largely it's embracing the "people's food", which has a long history in the US. In culinary school, we studied the menu of Lincoln's inauguration supper. Interestingly, it was very much the food of the people, and not haute cuisine--that sent a strong message about his administration.

2. The French food thing was fascinating. I've never been that wild about french haute cuisine, living in a world of fresh crispy vegetables and wonderful spices, but it would have been transformative if I had lived 50-100 yrs ago. I'm not surprised there's little backlash these days...I think that the movement towards "new" American cooking and haute cuisine reflects US inferiority about our cultural offerings relative to Europe. Also, that movement is largely urban, educated, and white--it does not reflect the entire US, so hard to draw generalizations. If you talk to people here in fly-over country, you WILL find some backlash against that cuisine.

3. Yes definitely status. Constantly increasing the "challenge level" to broadcast status to one's neighbors. Honestly I cut my eyeteeth on Napster, so I only experienced the tail era of music as elite bragging rights.

4. I have been a proponent in the past, but have reexamined my thinking. There are lot of of efficiencies and better access that come from globalized food systems. I think local food is great to integrate into your diet for fun, education, community, and teaching non-farming kids about where food comes from. But nothing needs to be 100% or black and white! In college a housing co-op where my friend stayed adopted a 100% local (within 50 miles of city in upstate NY) diet. That winter they experienced fatigue, increased cold/flu, and poor skin and hair. Several were diagnosed with dietary deficiencies! And these are Ivy League students! Why not just eat 30% local or something?

5. The hamburger part was great. I had never thought about how emblematic it was. I loved Dr. Laudan's deep thinking on this. On my recent travels, I've noticed that internationally gourmet hamburgers are all the rage. I wonder what this signifies? The world has diverse and complex views of the US, but perhaps they're not all bad if people are rediscovering the hamburger? Also increased global wealth and food access may further spread the love of hamburgers.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Aaron Luchko makes a great point.

I recall that there have been a couple of EconTalk episodes about supermarkets ("Munger on Milk" for one) in which the point was made that shelf space at a supermarket was extremely costly and competitive. Only products that sell well can expect to command prime real estate in a supermarket. Thus, there a powerful incentive for manufacturers to tweak their products in ways that improve sales. And the Holy Grail is a food product that is shelf stable (less spoilage), addictive (or at least habituating), and can carry a big markup.

I think Laudan is correct in her argument that all food is processed to some extent and that this is, in important ways, a good thing. But it isn't all good.

Jerm writes:

1) My local community college has a chef program. Every semester, they churn out dozens of students who go on to cook in hotels or elsewhere in the food industry. They've been able to spend a couple of years of their life learning about all aspects of food production, and they are all probably more talented/knowledgable than the personal chefs of the kings of 1800.

That sounds outlandish, but that's because of nostalgia bias. I wasn't a particularly skilled swimmer, yet I beat all the Olympic records of 1900 when I was twelve. Today's community college chef has better knife skills, broader food literacy, and more comfortable shoes than the masterchefs of yesteryear could ever dream of. It's technology, as well as the type of specialized time that a 21st century lifestyle will allow. I can normally get people onboard with this idea, even if the "nostalgia factor" made it initially dissonant.

But the one thing that even I am not convinced of...what about wine? Were the wines of 1900 worse than those of today? Are 21st century French wines better than the wines of Louis XIV? What about Yellow Tail? Would Yellow Tail be the best wine of medieval times?

It HAS to be true that processing, bottling, storage, and transportation are better today than ever before. The chances of getting a "funky bottle" must have been much higher in the past. Could a wine snob in the 1850s reliably be able to tell the difference between two different vintages? How well would they know the wines of a region 200 miles away? For some reason, wine is one area where the nostalgia cannot be overcome, resulting in one of the best uses for a time machine. We need to know the truth about wine quality in the distant past. We need to take a bottle of Yellow Tail and serve it to Louis XIV.

Jerm writes:

4) I am a beer person. So I'm a big fan of local beer. When I visit a "beer city", I try to take a tour of a local brewery. While I'm there, I chat with other beer people, all of us telling stories about beers we've drunk in places we've been. My favorite beer is not from my community, but I'd love to try a new beer that is made locally. And the most interesting beer to drink is one that was homebrewed. That's probably got some great stories behind it.

It's easy for me to enjoy local food because I'm a consumer. I'm not a commodities trader, worrying about price fluctuations in anonymous pork bellies or frozen concentrated orange juice. Most of the value I get from my food dollar is far removed from the farm.

This week's criticism of local food was simple: with cheap transportation and efficiencies gained from mass production, it's highly unlikely that a locally-produced (probably small batch) product is the best available. And it definitely won't be the cheapest. Especially if the local factories are made with a locally produced hammer. (For more about the folly of making your own machines, search for: Thomas Thwaites toaster)

And that criticism is right. No local beer is cheaper than those available from the large breweries. No local beer is "better" than the best of Denver/Portland/metroTexas/Philadelphia/DogfishHead. But it's still worth seeking out. It's still interesting, because the brewer is trying to communicate an expected flavorset, as well as discover subtle differences that arise from their mix of ingredients and production process.

Eating local doesn't mean that "local is always better." I don't drink local wine (bleh, yucky!), but I eat local corn. I've lived my whole life thinking that fish and mushrooms are born under plastic wrap somwhere in the womb of Safeway. And that's still mostly true. But backyard tomatoes are interesting, even if my friends never transform their garden into a multinational tomato conglomerate. You just pick and choose and discover what works for you.

Even with local beer, only one ingredient can be produced locally. This means that most small brewers are taking nonlocal barley, hops, and yeast and mixing it with local water. But that's enough to spark interest. Fuel passions. And for most people, that's where a large percentage of their food dollar goes.

Bill writes:

1. Most interesting thing I took from the episode was the explanation of the economic reasons why grains became the ideal resource to sustain human development (they meet all three criteria: nutritious, storable, and transportable). This history is important in today's context where corn and gluten are seen almost as pervasive evils. The point I take away is that there may be more nutritious foods and variety is undoubtedly better but it is only wealth and abundance that have allowed us to take advantage of such 'sub-optimal' options.

Lukas writes:

Fantastic set of episodes surrounding food. Thank you Russ.

2) Haute cuisine does not exist in the same form as it did in the past. Laudan describes it as a cultural milestone for cultures being a part of an elite club. It's pretentious and unwelcoming. Modernist cuisine has taken the banner of high-end food, keeping the playful, experimental, scientific side of haute french cuisine but leaving its pushy, subjective nature behind. It's hard to be against that.

Modernist cuisine and slow-food went head to head on Freakonomics a few years ago in an interview with Nathan Myhrvold and Alice Waters. It is worth listening to if you enjoyed this talk.

4) Complete local food sourcing is certainly wrong. Food logistics is something I care deeply about since I have a stake in the food logistics game with my company.

The problem is, there is no single variable to optimize. Which do you care most about?

It is better for the environment to buy steak from Australian cattle than virtually anywhere else. The greenhouse gas emission of a local steak is higher than the total emission of an AU steak. (this is true for US and UK, but might not be true where you live). But genetic diversity is important for a stable ecosystem, so you don't want one type of cattle in one country to dominate.

If you buy steak at a farmer's market because of diversity, great. If you buy it because you think it's better for the environment, you are likely wrong.

Gregory McIsaac writes:

Am I an advocate of local foods? It is difficult to make generalizations about local foods because all agriculture varies with climate and soil. Some local foods may make good economic and environmental sense in some places; others not so much. I am more of an advocate of people being well informed about their food system (as well as other life support systems) and I think seeking out and trying local foods can play an important role in informing people about food production.

I currently live in the Corn Belt where locally produced foods for human consumption provide small bits of landscape and habitat diversity within millions of acres of corn and soybeans largely grown for animal feed and ethanol production. During the summer and fall I buy almost all my fresh fruits and vegetables at my local farmers’ market. I believe I and other consumers are getting a good deal economically. Besides superior freshness and flavor compared to similar non-local items available in supermarkets, shopping at the local farmers’ market also keeps me in touch with the progress of the growing season and the challenges farmers face due to variations in weather, weeds and insects. To me, an important aspect of inhabiting a place involves observing how the plants and animals (wild, feral and domesticated) change over a season and longer time scales. Is observation of natural cycles overly romantic or nostalgic? Perhaps it can be or can appear to be. I prefer to think of it as being interested in the drama of life and death that occurs around me, and agriculture is part of that.

In some situations, local food could provide opportunities to improve market efficiencies by reducing some packaging, transportation and energy costs (yes cutting out the middle people), which may also reduce negative environmental impacts of my food choices. I think that may be true for my local farmer’s market, but I have not studied it in detail.

In some places, there could be legitimate anti-fragility arguments in favor of local foods. The practices needed to efficiently grow crops and livestock vary with the type of crop, soils and climate. Local food producers can maintain and improve upon food production knowledge suited to their area, and that knowledge could increase in value after some unforeseen breakdown of one or more aspects of the national or global food system.

The criticisms of local food that focus on nostalgia or status seeking do not resonate with me, although I realize these can operate on a subconscious level. I and my like-minded friends unapologetically consume non-local foods (e.g., coffee, chocolate, citrus fruits) and use modern kitchen appliances, and consult the most recent studies on nutrition. Our interest in local foods does not seem to be about going backwards to some idyllic past or about achieving higher status. The main focus seems to be on experiencing a variety of good flavors and good nutrition, while also promoting good treatment of farm workers and good treatment of the land. Purchasing from a local source often allows greater access to information relevant to concerns about working conditions and land management. When we purchase non-local foods, we typically have little or no information relevant to these concerns.

Lukas writes:

Continuing off my earlier post, I have a question for all of you:
Do you see food as having a satiation limit?
That is, once your food quality gets beyond a certain level do you start to eat less? This happens in other areas of life, why not with food. Once the quality of life of a culture gets over a certain point, the number of children per household goes from 5+ to 2.5. I would love if meat consumption did the same. That would mean great food and little of it. Nice thought anyway.

Amy Willis writes:

@Jerm, love the comments on wine (and beer). That would make a great episode of its own!

@Bill, I was very interested in the story of grains, too. I recently read Michael Pollan's "Cooked." Also very interesting, and more great info/history on grains, so bedeviled today.

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