Like other necessities of life, food is subject to the subtle and sometimes inscrutable workings of market forces. Yet food, while a necessity, is also much more: Our experience of it is both sensual and highly symbolic, a rich crossroads of history, culture, family and memory. And even as, in much of the developed world, the daily struggle for food has faded into the background, with overconsumption rather than underconsumption the more pressing concern, food remains a contentious issue. Writers like Michael Pollan have raised questions about the influence of large agribusiness, and the call to support local, organic, sustainable food production has become the rallying cry for both a “locavore” food movement and a broader cultural stance critiquing our very way of life.

Tyler Cowen’s new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, brings a set of simple economic principles to the everyday choices made by people who care about food. It presents a clear-eyed picture of how to go about finding good food value (both in terms of quality and price), one that dispels simple comparisons between local, artisanal traditions and the mass production methods of contemporary consumer society. The book is at its best when, in keeping with its title, it sticks with a highly personal, anecdotal approach.

Every Meal Counts

Cowen is a foodie, albeit a very particular kind of foodie. While he doesn’t mind spending money on good food, he eschews various forms of food snobbery, especially those that equate cost with quality and automatically assume the superiority of food made from local ingredients. He feels there is no excuse for a bad meal, and believes that the best food values are usually found off the well-beaten path. Excessive routine and excessive regulation are both culinary culprits in his view. Essentially, he stakes out a position as a populist foodie with conservative leanings.

An anecdote in the opening chapter about the author’s search for a few good meals in Nicaragua sets the tone for the best of what is to follow — a kind of personal journey through food, informed equally by economics and informed hunches. While Nicaragua is not known for having great food, the author pays attention to local patterns, gets advice from cab drivers and finds his way to a handful of cheap but satisfying meals. From this experience he distills his central “rules” for common-sense foodies:

1. Every meal counts. Good, affordable food can be found anywhere; it’s just a matter of deciphering local “codes” and “signals.”

2. Good food is often cheap food. This is not to be confused with junk food.

3. Be innovative as a consumer. Cowen believes that a fundamental shift in eating habits starts with individual consumers, not with political or food elites, and that such a shift can make the world a better place. The author asserts that readers can best innovate as consumers by applying basic principles of supply and demand to their daily food choices: “Try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.”

In Defense of Agribusiness … Sort of

One of the author’s central ideological tenets is that large agribusiness is not the villain it has been portrayed to be by authors such as Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation). Such critics tend to blame agribusiness for the prevalence of highly processed and packaged food in the American diet — everything from Velveeta and Hostess Twinkies to McDonald’s and TV dinners. Cowen contends that contemporary agribusiness is a neutral platform not necessarily biased toward inferior products. Just as we don’t blame the modern printing press for the existence of bad novels, we shouldn’t blame agribusiness for the low points of the American culinary scene.

Cowen does acknowledge that American cuisine went through an extended period of mediocrity and blandness, but presents an alternative history of how this came to be. The first culprit was Prohibition — the 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages. There has long been a synergy in the restaurant business between food and drink, and the sudden disruption of that equation had a disastrous effect on many of the nation’s best restaurants. Chefs trained in classical French cuisine could no longer even use wine in their sauces. One commentator characterized Prohibition as a “gastronomic holocaust.” Though the period of formal Prohibition lasted only a decade, individual counties and states had been going dry since the 1880s, and many states were slow to restore pre-Prohibition access to alcohol: Texas, for example, didn’t allow the sale of alcohol in restaurants until 1971. Thus, Prohibition has cast a longer shadow over the American food scene than many realize.

Other historical factors include World War II — which placed a premium on convenient, pre-packaged food, often of low quality — and severe restrictions on immigration imposed in the early 1920s and not fully relaxed until 1965. Demographic shifts in the 1950s, like the rise in suburban commuting and in dual-income households, only further reinforced the trend toward a “least common denominator” cuisine in which quickness and convenience trumped quality. Finally, the author notes cultural considerations such as the prevalence of TV and the child-centered nature of American family life. In traditional European culture, children are expected to adapt to adult tastes; the more permissive American approach to childrearing in a sense encouraged the opposite.

Rules for Eating Out

American food has rebounded from its mid-20th-century doldrums in a big way, and nowhere is this more evident than in a thriving (if uneven) restaurant scene. There, the author finds considerable cause for optimism in the ongoing American genius for innovating, and for assimilating and combining new influences. Yet just as, in the absence of consumer demand for something better, the American system of food supply and production once tilted toward the mediocre and the predictable, that same system continues to have built-in strengths and weaknesses. The informed consumer needs to understand what the American system does well and to look for telltale signs of innovation and value.

The strength of the American system, according to the author, is in its long and efficient supply lines. While fresh raw ingredients (particularly produce and seafood) are not always easy to find or are available only at a premium, the American system takes “sufficiently good” raw ingredients and combines them in interesting and innovative ways. Thus (with numerous local exceptions, of course) the consumer in search of value is advised to seek out dishes that are composition-intensive as opposed to ingredients-intensive. “Grilled sardines on bread are amazing in Portugal — and pretty cheap — but in Peoria, you should look for something else.”

Armed with this general caveat, the adventurous eater can employ a number of other simple economic principles to the search for good restaurant value. Synergy with other businesses can be bad in the case of hospital cafeterias, but positive in the case of casinos, where house restaurants (particularly those behind the gaming floor) are essentially cross-subsidized by the main source of income, gambling. Labor is a major source of restaurant cost, so extra value can be found in family-run ethnic establishments. Most of all, restaurants with a built-in supply of ready customers simply have less incentive to innovate and provide real value, so, in general, avoid city centers and popular tourist areas, and pick alleys and narrow streets as opposed to broad and well-traveled avenues. Similarly, avoid well-traveled routes within an individual menu: A popular-sounding dish is likely to be below the restaurant’s standards, whereas an unusual or even unappealing-sounding dish is likely to surprise.

Cowen is a big fan of seeking out restaurants in low-rent areas, particularly those with access to high-rent customers. In economic terms, low-rent venues have the freedom to be innovative at relatively low risk. Conversely, high-rent venues such as shopping mall restaurants require a large, steady stream of customers, which usually means more predictable and mainstream food, and less risk-taking. Seek out rundown strip malls, urban fringes and food trucks, the author advises.

Follow the Informed, Committed Customer

The author saves his most original piece of advice for the very end of his chapter on eating out: “Quality customers are often more important for a restaurant than is a quality chef.” Though he doesn’t initially elaborate on this point, the principle comes into sharper focus in a later chapter on the Asian dining scene in America that is one of the highlights of the book. Because Asian countries hold a disproportionate amount of the world’s population and because food is such an integral part of Asian culture, much of the world’s cuisine is Asian or Asian-influenced. That pattern holds true in the United States, and an examination of how simple economics dictates quality and innovation in the Asian dining market is instructive.

The chapter’s most revealing contrast is between Indian and Pakistani restaurants. The two nations were unified for most of their long history, up until a divisive and bitter partition along largely religious lines in 1947. The two cuisines share a great deal of common ground and many common core dishes. Yet the two cultures carry very different associations in the American market. India is billed as the world’s largest democracy and is linked in the American mind with “safe” images, like Gandhi. Predominantly Muslim Pakistan, on the other hand, is a battleground in the war against terrorism and calls to mind images of Osama Bin Laden and the gruesome execution of journalist Daniel Pearl.

What does this mean for the adventurous American diner? While there are certainly many fine Indian restaurants, the perception of Indian cuisine as safe and accessible means that many popular Indian restaurants will cast a wide net appealing to a broad, mainstream audience — often resulting in less distinctive food. By contrast, the more mixed perception of Pakistani culture effectively filters out “uncommitted” customers seeking a safe, predictable dining experience. The largely Pakistani clientele that remains is more informed and committed, a plus for the diner seeking value and quality and innovation.

A small but important measure of how the two dining experiences differ concerns bread. Mainstream American customers expect bread to be served soon after being seated, and this has therefore become the norm at most Indian restaurants. Pakistani customers expect the bread to be made to order, and don’t mind the extra wait. In general, Cowen argues, any factor that might deter the uncommitted mainstream diner — such as explicitly religious décor, the absence of alcohol or difficult-to-read menus — is good news for those seeking an authentic, distinctive meal. Specialization is also usually a good sign. If you’re set on going Indian, pick a restaurant that focuses on a particular regional cuisine.

Barbeque: America’s Original Slow Food

Another highlight of the book is a long chapter on barbeque, which has roots in a number of different cultures but has since become a local tradition in several regions of the United States. The economic indicators of value and quality in barbeque play out in ways that reinforce a number of the author’s previous points.

Cowen opens the chapter with a survey of the range of barbeque techniques — from the historic open pit to the classic brick pit to the more modern mechanized pit — as well as the myriad regional variations in America, which often revolve around differences in sauces and sides. All this history makes for interesting reading, but the heart of the chapter is how barbeque illustrates the author’s earlier distinction between ingredients-intensive and composition-intensive cuisine. Barbeque is a highly regional tradition, yet one that is not particularly tied to fresh local ingredients. Even the meat needn’t necessarily be high quality — indeed, the long cooking methods and rich sauces are, in some cases, a way of adapting to tougher or inferior cuts. Barbeque, the author contends, is a distinctly American hybrid combining regional artisanal techniques with the long, efficient food supply lines that are the strength of American agribusiness.

The sauces that often distinguish regional variations are a perfect example of this hybrid quality. They are composed of the kind of humble, mass-produced ingredients that in some circles give the American system a bad name: mustard, ketchup, vinegar, dried spices. Yet these same sauces are assembled artisanally in small batches that are difficult to replicate or market on a national level. They are local, and yet not local.

Barbeque also exhibits some of the self-selecting dynamics Cowen notes elsewhere. While he seems to have a preference for the classic fire pit over modern gas pits, to some extent the point isn’t one of fire or gas, but the “selection effects” of the older, more artisanal approach. A classic pit restaurant requires skilled labor (including a pit operator willing to work long overnight hours), and will be more likely to have an on-site proprietor — all of which bodes well for overall quality. The artisanal approach also necessarily attracts a different kind of customer in a different kind of setting. The slow methods of a classic pit can’t accommodate surges in demand, and thus tend to thrive in rural settings where committed customers are willing to show up early in the morning for the most prized products, and aren’t surprised if the restaurant runs out shortly after noon. Such rural settings have the added benefit of being low in rent and lax in regulation. A later chapter on why Mexican food tastes better in Mexico observes a similar dynamic in which modern food supply networks and rural artisanal traditions come together in a productive synergy.

Green Revolutions

The book is at its best when its ambitions are modest and the author’s approach personal and anecdotal. In later chapters tackling broader questions of food policy, Cowen overreaches and lapses into didactic, oversimplified arguments. As part of his defense of American agribusiness and his critique of what he views as the backward-looking food snobbery of “locavores” (a term closely associated with the work of Pollan and other liberal food activists), the author wades into the dicey waters of the debate around GMO (genetically modified organism) foods, which he characterizes as the key to the next green revolution.

Cowen makes a number of fair points. Innovations in machinery and the introduction of new hybrids and fertilizers produced dramatic gains in crop productivity in the decades after World War II, forestalling predictions of widespread starvation as the world’s population ballooned. Those gains have since fallen off, and the world is in the midst of a new food crunch, one complicated by the diversion of corn for biofuel and by manufacturing gains in the developing world (and thus in lifestyle and diet) that far outstrip agricultural gains. Moreover, restrictive bans on GMO products in Europe have discouraged African farmers, for example, from taking advantage of the productivity gains they might offer. Despite these valid points, however, Cowen’s treatment of this complicated and contentious issue is too cursory to be convincing.

A chapter entitled, “Eating Your Way to a Greener Planet,” overreaches as well. Again, the author raises some valid issues. An unquestioning embrace of local food production ignores the fact that transportation is a relatively small part of food’s total energy cost (according to Cowen, about 14%) and that overall per-unit energy costs may well be higher for small local farmers. “Locavore” activists should be more careful in distinguishing between products that are flown in at high-energy costs versus those that are shipped in at relatively low cost.

Yet the author’s attempts to link shifts in individual consumer behavior and pressing global issues, like malnutrition and the environment, are quickly and poorly drawn. He opens the book with the bold declaration that “American food is in crisis” (a claim never fully developed), and then goes on to assert that “constructing a better eating experience” is the best single step toward feeding the nine billion worldwide facing malnutrition — but he never quite connects the dots. Cowen is at his best when he stays simple and sticks with his own experiences as both a foodie and an economist.