Putting Prices on the Plate: The Industrial Revolution and its Impact on Traditional Cuisine in Three European Regions

55 Pages Posted: 16 Oct 2013

See all articles by Jens Holte

Jens Holte

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)

Date Written: September 1, 2011


Food traditions have been surveyed by many social scientists, but rarely from a purely economic viewpoint. This paper aims at introducing the economic logic of relative scarcities to the food table in order to explain the emergence and resilience of regional food traditions. The argument is straightforward. Traditional regional cuisine has its roots in the local least-cost diet. Rational choice theory implies that this least-cost diet seamlessly adapts to relative food prices. But since we still eat dishes which no longer are least-cost, the proposition needs some qualification. By incorporating the Becker-Stigler extended utility function, the concept of personal capital is added. Past consumption is assumed to influence present consumption, as preferences are accumulated in the individual’s personal capital. Consequently, food choice will not perfectly reflect relative prices and food traditions will change slower than relative prices otherwise suggest. Case studies of Lancashire in England, Piedmont in Italy and Western Norway are presented to explore the theoretical framework. Optimal least-cost diets both before and after each region’s industrial transition are quantified in a linear optimisation model. The pre-transition least-cost diets fairly well match the qualitative description of traditional regional cuisine. The post-transition diets in Lancashire and Piedmont clearly adapt to the relative price changes induced by industrialisation, particularly to the relative decline of wheat prices. The least-cost diet in Western Norway, however, remains static. The outcomes suggest that the modelled least-cost diets are relevant descriptions of the pre-industrial cuisines found in the three regions.

Keywords: rational choice theory, food traditions, traditional cuisine, Italy, Norway, United Kingdom, industrialisation

JEL Classification: N00, N30, N33, N50, N52

Suggested Citation

Holte, Jens, Putting Prices on the Plate: The Industrial Revolution and its Impact on Traditional Cuisine in Three European Regions (September 1, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2242856 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2242856

Jens Holte (Contact Author)

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) ( email )

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