An economics professor at George Mason University, Tyler Cowen, said it was very commonly held that America was among the countries with the worst food."This is often wielded as a stick against capitalism."
Speaking before NYC Junto, a freemarket discussion group that meets the first Thursday of each month in Midtown, he said most food critics agreed that American food was bad from the early 20th century until the late 1970s or early 1980s. There were reasons for this, he said — and most of them came from the government.
The first was Prohibition. Mr. Cowen said fine restaurants earned a disproportionate share of profits from selling drinks. When America made it illegal to sell drinks, most of the top restaurants closed.
He said immigration restrictions were a second reason for bad food. After such restrictions in the 1920s, the sources for American food began to dry up, he said. And the cuisines we did have, such as Greek, Chinese, and Italian, tended to become blander, more homogenous, when not refreshed. By the 1960s Chinese food in America had been pretty much Americanized. But when immigration rules were changed in 1965, he said, American food began to pick up steam, so to speak.
He said a lot of the recent growth in American fine dining has been "fusion," sparked from ideas taken from Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere.
Mr. Cowen gave another reason why open immigration helps cuisine. "Who actually cooks the food in fine restaurants?" he asked. Most are Mexicans, he said.
A third reason that food became so bad was not due to government, but to family structure."There seems to be no country in the world where children are more spoiled than in America," he said. In America, children are treated more leniently, and more than elsewhere are given what they want. "This means, when it comes time for the family to go out to eat, whose food tastes are often catered to?"
Children often prefer greasy, soft, bland, sweet food. "Have you ever heard a 10-year-old complain that the sauce was not sufficiently complex?" he asked. "You have families going to places like McDonald's simply because the kids want them."
Victor Niederhoffer, who founded the discussion group, interjected to tell the audience, "We should not take it as given by any means that McDonald's does not produce a high-quality product.This is a socialist fallacy. Let us not denigrate the incredible contributions to the standard of living McDonald's has made."
Mr. Niederhoffer praised the lifesaving effects of McDonald's coffee, asking, "How many people have been saved from an accident by getting a perfectly packaged, hot coffee?"
When one audience member brought up the movie "Super Size Me," Mr. Cowen responded, "It's true, if you eat McDonald's food for 30 days in row, it may not be good for you. But if you eat foie gras and French cheese for 30 days in a row, it's probably not good for you either." He said good food consumption is about wisdom and moderation.
Mr. Cowen said food quality, measured by critical acclaim, in Anglo countries like Australia and America has risen during the last 30 years, compared with European countries. Mr. Cowen said in France, a lot of local farmers drive their food into farmers' markets. But they haven't made any progress on making that "horse and buggy" model any cheaper.
Meanwhile, technological changes such as refrigerated boxcars, lower airplane costs for shipping, the rise of the Internet (for example, food blogs where one can get recipes and order special ingredients), and cable television have contributed to closing the gap. So now America, the richest country in the world, does a better job at producing quality food.
When discussion turned to organic food, Mr. Cowen said, "A good rule of thumb is never be impressed by the label ‘organic.' The places that are really good often don't need the label; they stand on their own reputation." He added, "‘How was it transported and how was it or wasn't it refrigerated' are better questions to start with than ‘Is it organic?'"
Conversation ranged over other topics, such as the improved quality of food in American baseball parks; how some of the best desserts could be found in Calcutta, and how Hungarian food was still the best cuisine in Eastern Europe, partly because Hungary never really abolished the free market.
Mr. Cowen also dispenses other related advice on his popular online "ethnic dining guide," which covers the greater Washington area.
The Knickerbocker looked at it and learned that "the best ethnic restaurants are often found in suburban strip malls, where rents are lower and the degree of feasible experimentation is greater."