Show Hide image

Expensive tastes can ruin your appetite

You aren't always getting what you've paid for when eating out.

The American economist Tyler Cowen is a man after my own heart. His latest book, An Economist Gets Lunch (Dutton, £17.23) is based on the principle that “a bad or mediocre meal is not just an unpleasant taste, it is an unnecessary negation of life’s pleasures”. As someone still reeling from a microwaved croque monsieur served with bad grace in an overpriced tourist trap in Bruges, I couldn’t agree more.

Although anyone who keeps an eye on the cost of their shopping basket will appreciate the relevance of economics to the food we eat, Cowen is keen to show that a basic understanding of its influence can reap rich rewards on the plate. “Food is a product of economic supply and demand,” he explains, “so try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative and the demanders are informed.” It may sound obvious – but the success of bland, overpriced chain restaurants suggests otherwise.

Many of us, however much we spend on food, assume that you get what you pay for when eating out. Cowen argues this is not necessarily the case: an informed assessment of the market and the locale within which it operates can yield bargains. Take Asian restaurants: Vietnamese or Korean establishments tend to be better value than their Chinese or Thai counterparts, because their cuisine has never really taken off in this country. A small number of restaurants cater for a clientele of expats and adventurous foodies, both of whom will tend to be more discriminating diners – and, in the case of the former, often more price-sensitive.

In the same way, he says, the more “aggressively religious” the decor in a curry house, the better the food is likely to be – the spartanly furnished, unlicensed Bangladeshi cafés of London’s Tower Hamlets turn out far more interesting and cheaper fare than you’ll find in boozy Brick Lane. (By contrast, Cowen warns, there is no such thing as bargain Japanese food, so steer clear.)

The book is also keen on the notion of cross-subsidies – whether circumstances have a positive or negative effect on business. For example, because film studios take a major chunk of their ticket revenue, most cinema chains use snacks to subsidise the films they show. To eat well at the movies, Cowen advises choosing an independent cinema, which keeps a higher proportion of ticket revenue and so is likely to offer better-value food. (Art-house cinemas attract a more mature audience and so cater accordingly – my local doesn’t offer hot dogs but it does a mean samosa.)

View finder

Equally, it should come as no surprise that a dining room with fabulous views doesn’t have much incentive for culinary innovation. He suggests seeking out shabbier places in cheaper areas, which won’t have such large overheads. Or look for the new wave of mobile food vans – free of any significant outlay on rent, they can afford to take a few creative risks with their cooking.

That said, the wise punter avoids fashionable places full of laughing customers probably there for the atmosphere rather than the food. Cowen claims, “in lots of restaurants it is a propitious omen if the diners are screaming at each other and appear to be fighting and pursuing blood feuds. It’s a sign they go there a lot.”

Although the book covers how economics can tackle everything from obesity to world hunger, a good piece of advice is far more quotidian: to eat well at expensive restaurants, order the least appetising thing on the menu. Cowen’s rationale: that at such places, everything’s on there for a reason, and “if it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good”. In other words, never order the cheese and ham toastie.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

Show Hide image

The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis