[Paleopsych] George Mason; (Tyler Cowen) Off the Clock: For Mason Economics Professor, Good Ethnic Meals Make the Grade
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Off the Clock: For Mason Economics Professor, Good Ethnic Meals Make the
The Daily Gazette - George Mason University
Tuesday, December 21st, 2004
[We're talked with him many times at GMU get togethers.]
By Tara Laskowski
For 14 years, economics professor Tyler Cowen has eaten his way to
local fame. Hidden among the nooks and crannies of the George Mason
web server is his tasty treatthe most extensive ethnic restaurant
guide in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.
Cowen's 70-page ethnic food guide is updated every six months and
covers more than 70 cuisines. In it, you'll find short,
straightforward, and sometimes blunt reviews of hundreds of
Cowen isn't afraid to mince words. In his review of Thanh Son Tofu in
Falls Church, he writes, "They serve one main dish, tofu. That's
right, just slabs of tofu, done three main ways. Five for a dollar.
The best tofu around, period. Tofu to die for. Tofu. Wonderful tofu.
The Vietnamese love this place. By the way, you'd better be in the
mood for tofu."
Cowen knows where to find the best shrimp, the tastiest curry, and the
spiciest Kung Pao chicken. He doesn't speak Chinese, but he orders off
menus that only the Chinese customers know about. He does speak
German, but writes, "There are no German places in this area worth
eating at. Don't even think about it, as they say."
He likes places with atmosphereloud locals, loud music, or the owner's
grandmother sitting in the back booth knitting. The best places to
eat, he says, are often in ugly strip malls where immigrants can
afford the rent to start a restaurant. He doesn't like expensive meals
that aren't worth their salt. And he'll try most anything.
The list of foods he's tried runs longer than the
restaurantseverything from jellyfish to brains, but for Cowen it's the
taste that's most important. "I've tried insectsthey're not that
interesting. They taste mostly like potato chips. I don't eat potato
chips, so why would I eat insects?"
But even an obsessed food fan like Cowen has his limits. "Everyone has
a line, and I draw mine at worms," he says.
What he does like are the basicspork, fish, beef, chicken. He likes it
when food surprises him, and he loves to try to figure out what
ingredients are in the meal or how it was prepared. His three criteria
for a good restaurant are that it has good food, it makes you think
about food and eating in a different way, and that it gets better with
memory. "You can have many great meals that are ultimately
forgettable. The best ones develop their own history in your life and
make you look forward to going back."
His food research has brought him local and international fame. The
Washington Post profiled him a few years ago as "The Lone Critic."
He's even been a keynote speaker for the Association of International
Culinary Professionals. And Cowen gets at least one e-mail a day from
local readers of his guide. "A friend says that Taco Jalisco down on
Rt. 1 near Ft. Belvoir was good and authentic," begins a recent
e-mail. Or, "Thank you for your recommendation of the Lebanese place
near the intersection of Lee Highway and Hillwoodwe went last night
and had a great meal." Whether it's to suggest a restaurant or a meal,
to comment on a review, or to give a review of their own, Cowen's
loyal readers have helped spread the word.
The director of the Mercatus Center at Mason, Cowen does extensive
research on the economics of the arts and the globalization of world's
culturesincluding how globalization changes the way the world eats. He
earned his BS in Economics from Mason in 1983, then went on to get his
PhD at Harvard University. He returned to Mason to teach in 1989.
A self-taught cook, Cowen has traveled to about 65 countries and has
sampled hundreds of dishes. He frequently brings his wife or
stepdaughter with him to eat, but isn't afraid to go alone and start a
conversation with the people around him. His parents were very
conservative about food when Cowen was growing up, so Cowen thinks his
passion for food comes from traveling. "It's tragic that I can only
live in one place," says Cowen. "I travel for both work and pleasure,
but really it's the food I look forward to."
Sometimes his love of food can get him in trouble, though. Just a few
weeks ago, Cowen was out to dinner with his wife to celebrate their
second anniversary, and she asked him if he remembered what they had
talked about the night he had proposed. "No," Cowen answered, not at
all to his wife's surprise. "But I remember what you ordered."
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