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.