Sunday, June 29, 2014

Overpriced produce, Blue Ginger, and Ronnie Lott

You'll pay almost 3x as much to buy identical sprouts directly from the farmer.
Does $8 per pound for organic brussels sprouts seem like a lot to you? That’s how much a woman is charging at our local farmers’ market. Meanwhile, non-organic sprouts cost $1.99 per pound at Safeway and organic sprouts at the Community Market (a store) were $2.99 a pound on Friday. 


I think it’s reasonable to expect to pay more for organic, locally produced food at a farmers' market. But how much more? Slightly more? Twice as much? Three times as much? Four times as much? I might (might) be able to see the rationale for a 400% mark-up if you’re talking about a fragile, highly perishable, super-delicious peach. But a brussels sprout? You’ve lost me there.

Prices seem increasingly out of whack at the farmers' markets around here. I have a theory about what's going on and it's very simple and obvious, but for some reason it's deemed tasteless and cynical to question the prices farmers put on their wares. So I'll be tasteless and cynical: While it's true that people don't become farmers in order to get rich, farmers are not saints and they're not stupid. When they see a river of Michael Pollan readers streaming into the market, people who consider it a moral obligation to pay more for their food, it's only natural to figure out exactly how much more they're willing to pay. The farmers will take whatever they can get. Wouldn't you? 

So the prices keep going up and up and up, buoyed, I guess, by a very thin tranche of very rich, well-meaning shoppers. While I suppose this is good for the vendors in the short run, in the long run it hurts the whole farmers' market cause. Eight-dollars-per-pound brussels sprouts give farmers' markets a bad name and loyal, long-standing customers will eventually get annoyed and stop going. I know this, because I'm one of them. 

In fact, I'm writing this on a sunny Sunday morning in June when, historically, I would almost always be at the San Rafael Civic Center farmers' market. But I'm going to do my shopping later today at the store. 

Ok, back to the cookbooks at hand. Ming Tsai, author of Blue Ginger, went to Yale and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Joanne Chang, author of Flour, went to Harvard and graduated with a degree in applied mathematics and economics. Make of this what you will.

Blue Ginger has been a success so far. Tsai's recipes draw from different Asian cultures and I made a Japanese grilled fish, a Thai soup, and a Chinese stir-fry this past week. All quick and easy.

-Tsai’s salmon teriyaki involved marinating the fish in soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, and orange juice before grilling it. Very tasty, but not sweet enough for my taste in teriyaki and I’d give the recipe a B. Commenters on the Food Network site were more enthusiastic.

-Tsai’s stir-fried beef and asparagus was terrific. I’d give this recipe an A-. 

-But my favorite meal was his Thai spiced soup with mussels. You spike chicken broth with chili peppers, ginger, kaffir lime leaf, and fish sauce, then add mussels and shredded leeks.  This recipe gets an A. Sadly, I was the only person who got to taste the delicious soup. The first night I was going to make it, Mark had a migraine. The next night was the NBA draft, which meant he had to work late, and I ate alone in front of the TV.

An interesting report card had come in the mail, one that necessitated a sedative beer.
I decided to use this opportunity to watch something from the Netflix queue that Mark wouldn't be into, which turned out to be Bridegroom, an interesting, moving, somewhat syrupy documentary about a young gay man mourning the death of his lover. There was too much on-camera weeping, but I liked the film. The trailer will give you an idea whether this is your cup of tea. It wouldn't have been Mark's.

We're very different, Mark and I. I couldn't name a single player in the NBA draft and he wouldn't buy a brussels sprout at any price or appreciate a movie like Bridegroom. Last night, I dragged him to the Central Kitchen in San Francisco, a newish restaurant where everything is made in house, from the seaweed pasta to the crackers. When the waiter brought the jam jar of chicken liver mousse, he let us know that we were allowed to swipe it out with our fingers. Yuck. No thanks! Mark is usually sarcastic about playful, trendy restaurants and as he sat down, said, "Oh my God." I thought he was launching his schtick before even glancing at the menu, but what he'd seen was Ronnie Lott at the next table. He was so star-struck and distracted that he couldn't be bothered to mock the restaurant and actually praised the food. We spent the whole meal trying to figure out if anyone else in the dining room recognized Ronnie Lott. The answer appeared to be no. A great evening. I think Mark actually ended up liking Central Kitchen more than I did.

My progress in Flour will have to wait until the next post. 

24 comments:

  1. I could not agree more w/your assessment of farmers' markets. I began scaling back my shopping at one in Santa Cruz, when I realized that I was spending more, sometimes significantly more, to buy the same items from the same farms that I could buy at my local, family-owned market (Shopper's Market--one of the best grocery stores in California). Theoretically, if farmers' markets become more common and widespread, that could ultimately drive down the prices of some items, but many shoppers where I live seem price-conscious in the opposite way--the more something costs, the more willing they seem to be to buy it. Sounds like brussels sprouts lady has figured this out! I will venture to say that not all markets are like this. I've been to the Sacramento farmers' markets with my parents and they are much more competitive price-wise. Clare

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've been to farmers' markets that seemed very fair -- the old Civic Center farmers' market in San Francisco, to name one. This one particular market is very expensive, I think because it is so incredibly small -- there's no competition.

      Delete
  2. Once when Trader Joe was selling stalks of very fresh Brussels sprouts for $2.99 (non organic) Rainbow wanted $12 for a stalk of yellowed ones that were way past prime. I like Rainbow, just not their produce. I want a Monterey Mkt and Berkeley Bowl in SF (rumor is BB is coming to SF).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would move to Berkeley for the Berkeley Bowl. Once the kids are out of high school. . . .

      Delete
  3. You are a marvelously gifted writer!

    ReplyDelete
  4. My husband and I are significantly different in our interests as well, but it seems to work for us. I learn things from him, he learns things from me, and a good bit of the time I leave the room when he is watching sports- LOL! I had to look up who Ronnie Lott is.
    I agree completely with your assessment of the pricing in farmer's markets. I do go when the fruit comes into season that I like, but the rest of the produce is generally overpriced and available elsewhere. I also don't buy organic when it is a crop that doesn't warrant it. I would think that brussels sprouts would fall into this category. I could be wrong, but since they are in the cabbage family, I would think the exposure would be minimal. I try to buy only organic produce that warrants it. Buying some organic produce is a waste of money. I want to sustain the farmers, but I don't want to spend money foolishly. I think the government should subsidize healthy produce, instead of King Corn. I guess the interesting report card is for someone who shall not be named? You are very accomplished at covering a multitude of thought provoking subjects in a blog post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The report card has been filed away and "we" are turning over a new leaf.

      Delete
  5. There are a lot of children in college working hard to fulfill their parents' dreams. Could this be true for the two chefs you mention? I wonder if it helps, hurts, or that's just the way it is.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a big leap from applied math to baking chocolate chip cookies. I wonder how this went over with Chang's parents. And I wonder how they felt after she became a big success. Anyway, they're both very successful, if not on the paths they started out on.

      Delete
    2. In Tsai's case, the degree seems to have been parentally motivated:
      http://www.improper.com/features/its-the-real-ming/

      Chang worked as a consultant for a few years before getting into the food business. I think a financial cushion would make taking the plunge easier. People have suggested to me that I could bake professionally, but it just seems like such hard work for such a small and uncertain return. (Also, I like making what I feel like making, not what's on a menu.)

      Delete
  6. I just came from my local neighborhood market in NYC and they were selling apricots for $6.99 a pound. {I did not buy any.} I haven't experienced that kind of gouging at my local greenmarket, but I must say that after working one summer for one of the farmers, she deserves whatever she can get {and she charges very fair prices, although people do complain that they can get strawberries cheaper at the supermarket}. OMG farming and selling at the greenmarket is such incredibly hard work. I was exhausted and aching from just standing there, but in addition to what I did, she had gotten up at 3, loaded up the truck, driven three hours to Manhattan, unloaded, dealt with customers all day, packed back up, and then had to make her restaurant deliveries before she could even think of heading back upstate. When she is not at the market she is directing her farm team and out in the fields herself. I do not know how she does it. She cleans houses in the winter, too, so she's not making a killing.

    Her fruits and vegetables are amazingly delicious. I'd pay whatever she charged.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It has to be exhausting to be a small farmer who works the farmers' market. I could never do it.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've basically given up on farmer's markets, unless I KNOW I'm getting a superior product or something I can't find elsewhere. Most of my vegetable shopping is done at Sigona's - it's cheaper, the quality is just as good, you can buy local if you want it and it's one stop shopping w/o the annoying crowds.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, one-stop shopping! The joy of one-stop shopping is why, heaven forbid, I could conceivably end up buying $8-per-pound brussels sprouts. Just to save a trip to the grocery store.

      Delete
  9. I loved Ronnie Lott when he played for the 49ers. We had season tickets so I would have reacted just like Mark! Sorry to hear about the Civic Center FM. That used to be really reasonable. I see our local prices inching up but I attribute that to the higher cost of fuel. Some of these farmers drive 2-3 hrs to sell. I'd rather skip the high priced items or shop elsewhere too.Oh how I miss Monterey Market. Happy 4th!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Pat! Happy 4th to you too! The CC market is still pretty good -- there's a lot of competition so the prices are kept in check. You pay more than at the store (which I'm ok with), but usually not the outrageous amounts you end up paying at the tiny Tam Valley market, which started up since you left.

      Delete
  10. I would charge at least $8/lb for organic brussels sprouts, IF I succeeded in actually growing any. We tried years ago, but eventually we succumbed to the aphids. I don't think I have ever seen so many on one plant, and I've seen plenty of aphids. The next year, someone was selling organic brussels sprouts at our farmers market. They looked good, so I figured our sprouts has suffered from our amateurism and bought the professionally grown ones. When I got home and peeled back the outer leaves, they too were awash in aphids.

    Generally, I think the more farmers are selling a particular item, the lower the price will be. This is why I tend to eat a lot of chard and not as much brussels sprouts (also less asparagus, broccoli, etc.).

    Apropos of nothing, have you read An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler? Just read it and was wondering what you thought. I found it exhilarating in the way manifestos tend to be, although I'm not sure I'm 100% converted.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I've pretty much given up on fruits and veggies from my local farmer's market. There are a few vendors with fair prices and quality product that I will still buy from, but I find roadside stands to be better, quality and price-wise. We mainly go for the most amazing baked goods from two local bakeries, goat's milk soap, and whole wheat soft pretzels, bigger than your head, made on site. And sometimes the pizza wagon is there with samples!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Before I moved to Southern California, I spent over a decade in Kansas. I was hugely disappointed by the farmers' market in the town where I lived. There we were, in the middle of America's breadbasket, and the produce was insanely expensive -- adjusting for inflation, easily rivaling the prices you quote here. Please note that produce was already very expensive in the grocery stores as well, and most supermarkets didn't sell any organic produce; only toward the end of my time there did one supermarket start selling produce labeled as "local".

    So the thing about the cost of living being so much higher in California than in the Midwest? Aside from the crazy housing prices, I actually spend less here because food is so much cheaper -- and better. All that to say: please come and visit, my farmers' market here would never dream of selling $8/lb brussels sprouts, yikes!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Love the anecdote about Mark spotting Ronnie Lott. Classic. You need to come over to the city and try the Alemany Market!

    ReplyDelete
  14. We buy almost all our produce at the farmer's market. However, I've recently decided that some things I just don't like enough to pay that price for. Cauliflower, for example. Great vegetable, but worth $5 for a head? Not to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cauliflower is just broccoli with a college education.

      Delete
  15. The prices at our local organic farm can be obscene: $2.25 for a bunch of 6 radishes. Something about 25cents per radish makes me angry. How can anyone afford to have a salad? It alone would cost at least $10.00. Especially if you consider the low wages most unskilled Vermonters make. (I'm not saying most Vermonters are unskilled, but many in my county are and it's hard to find a job.). I see way too many young children with pale, pinched faces and often over-weight. It seems that farmer's markets and most organic farms hereabouts cater to the rich Summer folk, with their second and third homes. Yes, farmers have a right to make a living, but something is awry. In looking for a solution, for food security, I think that if at all possible, one should grow a garden. Even in a small space, one can harvest an abundance of greens, herbs,chard, and kale. Two or three tomato and pepper plants would be great. My small garden makes a huge difference in the quality of the food I eat. I don't want to sound like a nag. This topic has become a kind of mission for me. One last note: the State of Vermont publishes weekly recommended prices for produce--and, those prices are charged at just about every farmer's market. You either pay up or do without.

    ReplyDelete