Billfold Book Review: Katrine Marçal’s ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?’

Economics needs to check its privilege.

Photo credit: Ben Hussman, CC BY 2.0.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” —Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

“Adam Smith only succeeded in answering half of the fundamental question of economics. He didn’t get his dinner only because the tradesmen served their own self-interests through trade. Adam Smith got his dinner because his mother made sure it was on the table every evening.” —Katrine Marçal, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?


I received an advance copy of the new edition of Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? which, as it says on the cover, is “a story of women and economics,” but it’s more about how the economic principles we accept as truth have very little to do with both women and men’s actual lives.

In other words: people do not act as simply and “rationally” as economists like Adam Smith and his successors claim—and part of that is because Adam Smith, back in 1776, left his mother’s labor out of his economic equation.


Economists might argue that Adam Smith’s mother, Margaret Douglas, did in fact act just as rationally as the butcher, the brewer, and the baker. As Marçal explains:

She is a widow at twenty-eight and at the age of two Adam Smith inherits his father’s estate. His mother can only lay claim to one third of the inheritance. From this point onwards, she’s essentially dependent on her son for money.

So Adam Smith’s mother cooks his dinner “in regard to her own interest” of not being cast into the street, perhaps. (Not that Adam Smith would ever do a thing like that.) Maybe she cooks his dinner “in regard to her own interest” of making the household budget stretch. There are all kinds of ways to present Margaret Douglas as a rational economic actor.


Now let’s finish Marçal’s thought:

She is a widow at twenty-eight and at the age of two Adam Smith inherits his father’s estate. His mother can only lay claim to one third of the inheritance. From this point onwards, she’s essentially dependent on her son for money.
He also remains dependent on her until her death.

That’s the part that economics leaves out, both in Adam Smith’s day and—it is assumed from reading the book; I am not an economic scholar—in the present. The butcher, the brewer, the baker, and Adam Smith can only run their businesses and write their economic treatises because they have wives and sisters and mothers cooking their dinners and keeping their homes.

Economics doesn’t work, Marçal tells us, because it assumes we are all independent actors who think only of our own self-interest. We are in fact dependent actors, connected to other people in complicated and unique ways.

Or, in her own words:

In reality we are not rational, selfish individuals. Men as well as women, children as well as adults, young as well as old. We are often thoughtful. Often confused. Often selfless. Often worried. Often illogical. And above all, not one of us is an island.

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is a dense read, and it assumes you’re already at least somewhat familiar with everything from Bernie Madoff to Betty Friedan; the ski lifts in Dubai and the sub-prime housing loans in the United States; even Adam Smith himself.

Like many critical analyses it acknowledges that there is a whole ‘nother economy going on if you’re low-income, but doesn’t touch on what that economy might be except for a few thoughts on domestic workers in middle-class homes, an acknowledgement that minimum wage is too low, and the reminder that in other parts of the world women are still walking around barefoot with a baby on one hip and a bucket of water on the other.

There’s also a lot of gender binary in this book, including some weirdness comparing men and women to culture/nature, action/emotion, mind/body, and so on. There is no discussion of queer households, and not even an asterisk denoting that the statement “but what differentiates the female body from the male body is that it can become pregnant and give birth” isn’t strictly true.


Have any of you read Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? There are earlier editions out there, so I’m curious if you’ve run across this book before. If you have, let’s have a longer conversation in the comments—and if you haven’t, it’s an interesting and thoughtful (if not fully intersectional) read.

I’m mostly curious if this topic has come up before in economic discussions; it seems like there should be a theory of economics that views people as dependent and connected actors, but I’m not an economist so I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So let me know what you think of my review—and let me know what I should read next.