So how did American food fall to the depths of 1960? In Cowen’s view, it wasn’t the doing of greedy agribusiness in league with the Mad Men. Three great tsunamis wrecked the American palate: Prohibition, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the rise of TV and the empire of children. When I first arrived at Michigan State University back in 1971, I noticed that the faculty club was far from campus—in fact, just outside the city limit. Why? Because East Lansing, where beer pong now reigns on weekends, was dry until 1968 (that’s four years after the Beatles invaded). Even today, we learn from Cowen, about 18 million Americans live in dry communities in states like Kentucky, Arkansas, and Texas. The Eighteenth Amendment put good restaurants out of business or drove them into the grip of gangsters and corrupt officials, and opened the legitimate restaurants that remained to children and their childish tastes. The Great Depression and the Second World War then extended the culinary hangover for another 20 years after Prohibition’s repeal in 1930.
Far less than Europeans and Asians, American parents “parent,” which means, Cowen says, giving in to their kids’ whims and demands. Kids like to eat things that are soft, smooth, and sweet: hence the ubiquitous Big Mac. So it wasn’t the producers (i.e., agribusiness) that ruined American food. Cowen concedes that TV advertising made it possible for them to appeal profitably to mass audiences and thus mass taste. But the producers didn’t create that taste, which was long in the making from the effects of public policy and social forces. Along with producing an abundance that wiped out hunger and malnutrition in the United States and elsewhere (our problem today is obesity, not starvation), the producers catered to an America that knew almost nothing about the wonders of good food.
“Food Rules!” by Jerry Weinberger, City Journal, May 18, 2012 (review of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, by Tyler Cowen.)