Saturday, May 12, 2012

The economics of food

Taking a drastic pay cut is a fascinating exercise on all fronts - especially when you’ve long been accustomed to certain careless luxuries - but the supermarket is for me the most challenging one. Suddenly, you can’t just fling things into the cart, a bit of Austrian goat cheese here, a spot of organic Darjeeling tea there, a bushel of Californian oranges, never knowing how much they cost, let alone counting that cost. In fact, you don’t have a cart at all, because you’re taking the train, not a cab, and can only carry one basketful at a time.

You’re that lady who looks at the price tags in the vegetable aisle. You’re that person who buys the milk that’s on promotion for 50 cents less – that’s a good portion of your train fare and you’ve learnt from experience that it’s not to be despised, especially in the last week of the month. You’re the crazy one who knows exactly how much small change you have at any given time. (You’re also the near-mythical being in the Ikea checkout line with just one thing in your hand.)

In doing so, I’ve discovered that responsible or healthy or just flavourful eating is expensive. Lean meat, wild-caught fish, cold-pressed oils, pure juices, the better kind of fruit and vegetable, whole grains, fresh herbs, low-fat dairy – they all cost significantly more than the other kind. Pretty much anything that’s organic or without additives is out of reach. This is wrong, but apparently it’s the way the world works. Something ought to be done, but I don’t know what.

Now I’m in Vietnam for three months, I’m rich again – but I’m staying in a hotel and don’t have the pleasure of buying groceries. On the other hand, the food is good everywhere. Vegetables and fruits taste like they've just been brought in from the farm. The seafood is fresh, the meat is tender. Every sprig of coriander, each quarter of lime and sliver of lemongrass is a burst of exuberant flavour. The very salt on the table seems youthful and sparkling. I've eaten food of this quality before - in the sort of restaurant where you pay fortunes for it. Here it's on every street corner for a few dollars. I think the reason the Vietnamese are generally in a good mood is because of their food.

(My boss here is going to Singapore for a few days and I suddenly felt homesickness for my flat. I miss my kitchen, my study, my lake and my 1000-thread-count cotton sheets. It's my two-week marker, it always happens on every long trip. From here on, I will drift steadily away from the old and when the time comes to leave, they'll have to drag me kicking and screaming to the airport.)


Anonymous said...

mina , How do I get a visa to vietnam ? I want to come and settle down there, the way you describe it its just short of paradise.

He who eats said...

It's not so much that organic is expensive, but that industrial food is unnaturally (and unsustainably) cheap. At least for the consumer. There are hidden costs borne upstream--environmental damage/less money for farmers etc.

The price of organic is more in line with what food should cost (or must cost). Meat and seafood have always been special menu items, it's only after the rise of industrial farming that these things become staples for regular people.

I guess Vietnam will be like India--small farmers who technically grow organic until something goes wrong, then they reach for the pesticide as required.

Gargoyle said...

I don't agree about meat and seafood being luxury items - it has always depended on where you lived. On the coast, seafood is a staple, not a luxury. And meat was cheap if you lived near a forest. In Whitefield when we were growing up, i remember beef was almost cheaper than vegetables - the reason for this was that it was "poor man's meat" that came from unwanted bull calves. My problem is that the whole system no longer seems to follow any rules. Or at least, it seems to follow just the one rule. The differences are exaggerated and overvalued, and at this point you can charge pretty much anything you want for organic.

Gargoyle said...

Vietnam is a lot like India from about 10 years ago, at the start of the consumer boom. You can see where its going and you can't stop it - in fact you know that they don't want you to stop it - so you just feel a bit sad about it all.

anutse said...

I think it is just that the organized sector has not been able to sink its teeth into Vietnam just yet, thank God. They do not understand how to get in here and of course once they get in here, they have to train the people to run their businesses, which is hard. Vietnam will go the SEA way - unless another huge innovation happens to change this tired course. And that could just be the internet! Here's to more open web in Vietnam, so people can make informed choices and not be led my profit hungry marketers, like sheep to the slaughterhouse!

Gargoyle said...

Actually, Puttu I think we're both saying the same thing

Gargoyle said...

Anu, your own research shows that people are going online more and more for their information so one hopes... :)

Gargoyle said...

Acha, you'll never be able to settle here - the traffic is exactly like in Bangalore and even less regulated. And there are even more bikes than there - just this morning I was watching them weaving in and out and thinking you would have burst a blood vessel by now, ha ha ha

He who eats said...

Is true about geography and special cases in different markets, but I was thinking luxury items in terms of energy input to gather per calorie of food--hunting and fishing take a lot of time and energy and aren't always successful.

The food must be amazing. Have you stumbled upon the green leaf that tastes like a rotting dish rag?

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