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Aug 8, 2005 1:03 pm

The Economics and Culture of Food

Over at his wonderful blog, the economic anthropologist Grant McCracken has had several posts about the economics and culture of food. He poses the apparent contradiction between the growth in high-end, sophisticated tastes in food and the growth in fast food consumption, wondering how both might be true.  He argues, in part:

But there is another, more interesting, possibility: that good food and bad food are happening to the same people. In this view, Americans are growing more sophisticated in their knowledge of food. They are stocking better kitchens with better food. But by and large, they are eating prepared food.

There was a time when we would have hunted out the “cognitive dissonance” this sort of thing causes. But not anymore. I think we may be looking at a “virtual consumption” as a result of which people “consume” the knowledge and image of good food and the stuff and substance of bad food. They eat what they eat: food that is prepared out of the house, often by fast food suppliers. But they consume what they read in magazines and cook books and watch on TV.

This approach would help explain how it is people can spend so much on kitchens, cook books, and cooking shows and so little time on cooking itself. This is what is going on in the Martha Stewart phenomenon, when people watch the show with pleasure without ever making or thinking to make the dining room center piece. In a sense, Martha’s making it for us. Martha’s making it so we don’t have to. Martha’s making it because, let’s be honest, we don’t have the time.

I'd like to propose an alternative hypothesis:

From an economic perspective, this isn't that odd. It may be that higher incomes have enabled us to indulge in the Martha Stewart fantasy and sometimes even live it out - we can afford to purchase the fine wines, fancy olive oils, and fresh exotic vegetables to make those slow cooked meals in our remodelled kitchens. At the same time, the "substitution effect" of the various pressures on our time pushes us to consume fast food, or even fast casual, on a more frequent basis.

In my own house, we tend to eat "fast" in various ways during the week, but indulge ourselves either eating out more fancy or cooking more slowly on the weekends, or between semesters, or on days when neither my wife nor I have late afternoon work commitments, all of which are when we have the time.

So it may be true that we are "virtually" consuming the concept of the high-end kitchen stocked with top-flight stuff, but it also may be true that we use it as our time permits.  If higher incomes are associated with more valuable time, the apparent paradox of the Martha Stewart kitchen in which McDonald's is being consumed may vanish a bit.

McCracken also uses sushi as an example of the changes in American eating habits:

In the words of Darrell Corti:

Ten years ago, to eat sushi you had to go to specialized restaurants and even in big cities you’d find only a few. Today sushi is an industrial commodity. (87)

I live in a town of 7000 in a rural county in NY state. As of December, we now have an Asian buffet with very good sushi. It's both an economic and cultural phenomenon - costs are lower and people are more aware of sushi as an enjoyable meal. Adam Smith had it right - the division of labor is indeed limited by the extent of the market, and that "extent" continues to grow as costs fall and cultures intermingle.  The lower costs of production make getting sushi to the middle of nowhere more possible, and precisely the sort of cultural awareness prompted by the rise of the Food Network and other media attention to creating the "good food image" McCracken talkls about, have altered the "extent of the market."  And those of us in the boonies are all the better for it.

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