Friday, September 23, 2022

An economist's thoughts about English food


It seems that economist Paul Krugman penned some thoughts about English food following a visit to that sceptered isle some years ago.  A reader sent me a link to his comments, and after I stopped laughing, I thought you might enjoy them too.

Supply, Demand, and English Food

We Americans like to boast about our economic turnaround in the '90s, but you could argue that England--where I've spent the past few weeks--is the real comeback story of the advanced world. When I first started going there regularly in the early '80s, London was a shabby and depressed city, and the country's old industrial regions were a Full Monty-esque wasteland of closing factories and unemployment lines. These days, however, London positively buzzes with prosperity and with the multilingual chatter of thousands of young Europeans-- French especially--who have crossed the Channel in search of the jobs they can no longer find at home. How this turnaround was achieved is a fascinating question; whether the new Labour government can sustain it is another.

But I'm not going to try answering either question, because I've been thinking about food. Marcel Proust I'm not (what the hell is a madeleine, anyway?), but the change in English eating habits is enough to get even an economist meditating on life, the universe, and the nature of consumer society.

For someone who remembers the old days, the food is the most startling thing about modern England. English food used to be deservedly famous for its awfulness--greasy fish and chips, gelatinous pork pies, and dishwater coffee. Now it is not only easy to do much better, but traditionally terrible English meals have even become hard to find. What happened?

Maybe the first question is how English cooking got to be so bad in the first place. A good guess is that the country's early industrialization and urbanization was the culprit. Millions of people moved rapidly off the land and away from access to traditional ingredients. Worse, they did so at a time when the technology of urban food supply was still primitive: Victorian London already had well over a million people, but most of its food came in by horse-drawn barge. And so ordinary people, and even the middle classes, were forced into a cuisine based on canned goods (mushy peas!), preserved meats (hence those pies), and root vegetables that didn't need refrigeration (e.g. potatoes, which explain the chips).

But why did the food stay so bad after refrigerated railroad cars and ships, frozen foods (better than canned, anyway), and eventually air-freight deliveries of fresh fish and vegetables had become available? Now we're talking about economics--and about the limits of conventional economic theory. For the answer is surely that by the time it became possible for urban Britons to eat decently, they no longer knew the difference. The appreciation of good food is, quite literally, an acquired taste--but because your typical Englishman, circa, say, 1975, had never had a really good meal, he didn't demand one. And because consumers didn't demand good food, they didn't get it. Even then there were surely some people who would have liked better, just not enough to provide a critical mass.

And then things changed. Partly this may have been the result of immigration. (Although earlier waves of immigrants simply adapted to English standards--I remember visiting one fairly expensive London Italian restaurant in 1983 that advised diners to call in advance if they wanted their pasta freshly cooked.) Growing affluence and the overseas vacations it made possible may have been more important--how can you keep them eating bangers once they've had foie gras? But at a certain point the process became self-reinforcing: Enough people knew what good food tasted like that stores and restaurants began providing it--and that allowed even more people to acquire civilized taste buds.

So what does all this have to do with economics? Well, the whole point of a market system is supposed to be that it serves consumers, providing us with what we want and thereby maximizing our collective welfare. But the history of English food suggests that even on so basic a matter as eating, a free-market economy can get trapped for an extended period in a bad equilibrium in which good things are not demanded because they have never been supplied, and are not supplied because not enough people demand them.

And conversely, a good equilibrium may unravel. Suppose a country with fine food is invaded by purveyors of a cheap cuisine that caters to cruder tastes. You may say that people have the right to eat what they want, but by thinning the market for traditional fare, their choices may make it harder to find--and thus harder to learn to appreciate--and everyone may end up worse off. The English are often amused by the hysteria of their nearest neighbors, who are terrified by the spread of doughnuts at the expense of croissants. Great was the mirth when the horrified French realized that McDonald's was the official food of the World Cup. But France's concern is not entirely silly. (Silly, yes, but not entirely so.)

Compared with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the plunging yen, such issues are small potatoes. But they do provide, well, frites for thought.

Krugman's thoughts are particularly amusing to me because I was born and raised in a household where both parents had been through the Great Depression in Britain in the pre-World-War-II years.  My mother's cooking had improved remarkably by the time I was born, because she'd been exposed to Canadian, American and South African cooking by then, but she still instinctively adopted some British habits in her cooking style, and taught them to her children.  (I well remember my [American] wife's disgust the first time she saw me trying to brown meat in a frying-pan.  "You're not browning it - you're boiling it!"  She soon saw to it that my culinary habits improved.)

I have no idea whether Krugman's ideas on how British cooking came to be so bad are correct or not.  However, I will note that between my first visit to England in 1973, and my second during the late 1990's, the food did seem to have improved an awful lot.  Nevertheless, I'll still vote for some good old-fashioned English stodge on my plate now and then.  Long live spotted dick, sausage rolls and steak and kidney pie!



Fredrick said...

Krugman at his best:

" London positively buzzes with prosperity and with the multilingual chatter of thousands of young Europeans-- French especially--who have crossed the Channel in search of the jobs they can no longer find at home. "

Prosperous London, which brought in thousands for the jobs the English no longer......
BTW wasn't he against Brexit?

Ed P said...

For a while, immigrants brought new cuisines and dishes with them to the UK - a positive aspect of incomers.
But now the global corporate entities have stitched up the food businesses - it's all unhealthy pap, mainly delivered to your dwelling. There are still, of course, decent restaurants for the better-off, but the majority don't prepare their own meals anymore, relying on takeaway crap which is slowly killing them with obesity, diabetes and heart problems.
I watch land whales wobbling around shops, loading their trolleys with poisonous rubbish, wondering where it all went wrong. Educational dumbing-down (no teaching about diet & health), ghastly TV programs, poor dietary advice (from medics who should know better), the list goes on.
We're doomed!

Mind your own business said...

When I spent several months in Cornwall around 1984 and 1985, the engineers I worked with often took me out to a local pub for steaks. It wasn't the greatest beef, but it was tolerable.

On my first extended visit, I stayed in an apartment of someone who was on holiday. I did some grocery shopping to feed myself, and did my own cooking, but my recollection is that it was mostly frozen pre-cooked entrees. I ate a lot of chocolate bars and cheese.

The second visit I stayed on the worksite in a visitors trailer, and they had someone fix me breakfast. Apparently, the Cornish don't believe in cooking eggs very much; I could barely gag down those runny egg whites. But the sausage was fine.

On my way home after the second visit, I stayed overnight in London before catching my flight at Heathrow. There was a Burger King near where I stayed, and I was overjoyed to have some familiar American food for a change.

Ritchie said...

" economist Paul Krugman"
Karl Marx thought he was an economist, too.
Now our head economist is a white-haired little
old lady who should have stuck with knitting.

Aesop said...

In heaven, the policemen are English, the lovers are French, the bankers are Swiss, the doctors are German, and the chefs are Italian.
In Hell, the policemen are German, the lovers are Swiss, the bankers are Italian, the doctors are French, and the chefs are English.

PeterW said...

It’s a fallacy that people’s lives got worse when they moved to the cities during the industrial revolution. The number of rural people still living in the European equivalent of an African mud-hut, shared with animals for the additional warmth, at that time, would surprise most. Cooking was done on an open hearth, so everything was boiled or braised. Food was very plain and only “fresh” in season. Because no refrigeration.
Much of what Krugman regards as “good” cooking is dependant on spices and sugars which - even when available - are far out of reach of poor folk.

His definition of “good” seems to be entirely dependent on his personal preferences and his belief that food = entertainment, rather than fuel.

...... and like some other posters here, I’d like to see a health-comparison between those eating that traditional “bad” food, and the moderns with almost unlimited choices on the supermarket shelves.

Dave said...

Look, I've been to London. Yes, the food can be somewhat dull. But I wouldn't trust Krugman to tell me what the weather was if he was standing outside. *snort*

Dov Sar said...

Heaven is when the Brits are the police, the French are the cooks, and the Germans run the trains.

Hell is where the Brits are the cooks, the French run the trains, and the Germans are the police.

Old NFO said...


PeterW said...

I recently heard another economist comment that Krugman would indicate the right direction, by always going in the wrong one.

tsquared said...

I had a satellite earth station install about an hour NW of London. I was there for 10 weeks. The English food was bad. The breakfast was tolerable but forget lunch and supper. If it hadn't been for the Chinese/Thai restaurant I would have starved. The only Brit food I remotely liked was the fish and chips. BTW: fish and chips at the Atlanta airport are better.

SiGraybeard said...

What PeterW said. If Paul Krugman told me the sun was going to rise in the east in the morning, I'd be looking west.

PeterW said...


Well given his record, that is rather unlikely.
You work it out.

I eat plain. VERY plain.
If plain food doesn’t taste good, then you aren’t hungry.
Krugman isn’t eating because he is hungry, but because he is addicted to flavours that aren’t found in plain food. If you want to treat food like a drug, go right ahead (I grow food and am happy to sell it to you), but don’t tell me that something isn’t “good” just because it doesn’t fit your tastes.

Mike Hendrix said...

What Aesop said. Any nation that boils bacon--I only wish I was kidding, they really, really do that--condemns itself to eventual third-rate power status for their unforgivable sin. Which is only meet and just, far as I'm concerned. If English "cuisine" has improved since I was last there, it's only because they have American fast-food-burger joints there now. As I said on the band's first trip over there to play: these people eat the parts of the cow everybody else throws away! Blood pudding, for God's sake? No. Just...NO.

John Prigent said...

Hmmm. I'm disabled and on a restricted diet, and have many meals cooked for me. But I prospect around for good recipes, print them out, and get my cook to make them for me. I'm still mobile enough to cook some things for myself, so I can experiment with recipes too. What counts in good food is the taste of the eater, and I'm sure that many readers would be horrified that my main meat choice is minced beef - but it's what I can eat without becoming ill, and I have a big store of herbs and spices as well as many hundred recipes to choose from. It might surprise Yankee readers that there can be so many easy variations on the simple beefburger or other dish - I don't think I've yet repeated a sungle meal!

Amahl_Shukup said...

Calling Klugman an economist is like calling Charlie Manson a euginisist. Has Klugman ever been right about anything regarding economics?

PeterW said...

Meh.... it seems that he did criticise Modern Monetary Theory as not accounting for its effect on boosting inflation,
Stopped clocks and all that.

Unknown said...

You mean you don't realize that the English participation in the Age of Exploration was to look for decent food, decent teeth, and women with decent legs?

Philip Sells said...

I was just talking to a couple of folks at church today about something similar. They were commenting on how their Greek grandmothers used to boil a lot of things - that was what that generation knew, so when my companions were children, vegetables were awful because they'd been routinely boiled to death. In more recent times, techniques and things improved, to the point at which they were telling me about their more recent Brussels sprouts recipes, for example, which are worlds better than how they would have turned out in the hands of a Greek chef fifty or a hundred years ago.

Douglas2 said...

". . .how can you keep them eating bangers once they've had foie gras?"

For me it's the bangers I miss. The USA has a wide variety of sausages from many different cultures, but there's nothing commonly available that approximates the supermarket store-brand bangers I was accustomed to in Blighty.

Readers should bear in mind that this is the sensible circa 1998 Paul Krugman in an article for Fortune magazine. In a 2010 profile in "The New Yorker" it was said that the 2000 presidential election campaign radicalized him, but from reading that article I'm thinking that the change really came when he dumped his 1st wife to marry one of the students in his department at MIT. She became an uncredited silent co-author on most of his editorials and NYT columns, until he grew into the outrage and blame that she brought to the writing partnership and incorporated it into his own style.