First snow of the season = first pot of split-pea soup. I’ve been planning this for a couple of weeks, so the timing is strictly a coincidence. I bought the ham but kept forgetting the split peas, then remembered when I was getting hummus from the gourmet-y market down the street. I found not the plain, unadorned bag of split peas that Kroger sells, but an everything-you-need soup-assembly kit, which translated to two cups of split peas plus a seasoning bundle.
Price: $5.99. No, I am not kidding.
I think I did one of those cough-explosions you do when someone tells you the thing you thought would cost a dime is actually $20,000. That’s roughly the disproportion here, as split peas are among the humblest and cheapest foods on the planet. For a long time I’d pay 69 cents a pound, but lately it’s around 84 cents, which I figure is skyrocketing energy prices asserting themselves. Or perhaps that six-buck soup kit reflected the true cost of what I’ve long believed is the truth about split peas — that they’re painstakingly split on a long, Tim Burton-style assembly line:
An army of workers arrives and take their seats on the line, hammer and chisel in hand. As the factory whistle blows, a single pea is released down a chute to land in front of each worker. A small vise is tightened, the worker places the chisel, taps it once, and the pea separates into equal hemispheres, each rolling down to a collection bin. A tap of a foot lever releases the next pea, and the process starts all over again.
Well, that’s how it should go.
More likely, the peas were “organic,” a designation that requires a lot of faith in the purchaser. I buy organic food when the price differential isn’t insulting, but figure the designation is a crapshoot and, perhaps, a fairy tale. (Also, at the midcentury mark, I figure all my filtering organs have already been poisoned by the chemicals of half a lifetime, so why lose sleep over it now?) Organic is hot, “green” is hot, and the marketplace is cashing in. The $5.15 difference in what I pay for split peas at Kroger and what I’d pay for the soup kit at Fancypants Market isn’t for the extra tablespoon of dried herbs; it’s for a complicated mix of overhead, packaging, advertising, distribution and a harder-to-quantify factor I guess you could call specialness. (This is the sort of thing I think about on bike rides. If only I could make it pay somehow.)
I realize discussion of what things cost is about as interesting to some of you as shoveling snow, but it seems to be a theme of late. My health-care news farming last night harvested a lengthy NYT report on how global “free trade zones” abet prescription-drug counterfeiters. (There’s money in heroin, but there’s also money — and fewer automatic weapons — in fake and otherwise squirrelly erectile-dysfunction drugs. Even Tony Soprano was getting in on it in the last season. Remember his meeting with Bobby and the Canadian gangsters? They were discussing bulk pricing on expired Fosamax.) It’s an interesting story, because it illustrates what happens when one country — that would be us — makes health care so complicated for people living at the margins of affordability. If it were just a bunch of boner drugs being faked and sold on the black and grey markets, it would be a problem for the patent holders and the people who gamble on swallowing them. But alas, it’s more complicated than that:
…An examination of the case reveals its link to a complex supply chain of fake drugs that ran from China through Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Britain and the Bahamas, ultimately leading to an Internet pharmacy whose American customers believed they were buying medicine from Canada, according to interviews with regulators and drug company investigators in six countries. …These were not just lifestyle drugs; this medicine was supposed to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis and acid reflux, among other ailments.
…In the Bahamas, investigators had also made an important discovery. The computers at Personal Touch Pharmacy were connected to a server hosting a Canadian Internet pharmacy Web site.
The site belonged to RxNorth, described by one trade association as the world’s first major online pharmacy.
A founder, Andrew Strempler, had been the subject of numerous profiles, including one in The New York Times in 2005 that described how at the age of 30 he had two Dodge Vipers, a Jaguar and a yellow Lamborghini with a license plate that reads “RX Boss.”
The article reported that Mr. Strempler’s innovation “created a whole new Canadian industry that has plugged a niche in America’s troubled health care system almost overnight, providing about $800 million worth of low-cost drugs a year to two million uninsured and underinsured Americans, many elderly.” Drugs have traditionally been cheaper in Canada because of its health care system.
One of the counterfeits of a name-brand blood thinner was found to contain cement powder. And that’s what some geezer was taking to head off a stroke. Ah, free enterprise.
But I don’t want to bring you down on what promises to be a lovely day. We got another dusting of fresh snow overnight, and the world is white and beautiful. We’re promised enough sunshine to make glacier glasses a necessity today, so I’m bucking up. Besides, we have a special sub-category of bloggage today: NN.C Readers in the News!
First, John Ritter — who I think comments here as just plain John — writes an op-ed in his hometown paper, The Day. The headline is typical of op-ed pages everywhere, in that it states an obvious, inoffensive truth with a lot of capital letters:
An Understanding Of American History makes Us Better Appreciate Who We Are
That’s too bad, because John was reacting to a previous letter to the editor, in which the writer stated Daniel Boone died at the Alamo, a rather major fact-boner that either skated under the editors’ noses, or was thought harmless enough to pass unchallenged. I think John gets at, but does not explicitly state, the reason for the confusion here:
Yes, Daniel Boone was a big man and yes, he did fight for America to make it free. He did quite a few things in his life but one thing he didn’t do was die at the Alamo. He had died a peaceful death on Sept. 20, 1820, only 15 1/2 years before Davy Crockett perished at the Alamo. Davy Crockett is another larger than life American legend. But he was not Daniel Boone, although the actor Fess Parker did portray both of them very well.
Fess Parker played them both! You can see why we get these things mixed up.
On the other side of the world, communist bomb-throwing college professor Ashley Morris does his best to bolster jihad on his way home from a two-week teaching stint in the Persian Gulf:
I have been in Bahrain for two weeks and I am quite happy to report that as a New Orleanian, I feel vindicated. I travel around the world, and people ask where I am from. I do not say, “America”, I say “New Orleans”. After the complete and utter abandonment of the city and people of New Orleans by the American government, I do not feel like an “American” anymore. Being in the Arabian Gulf has made me realise that most people here understand the feeling.
As I commented on Ashley’s own blog: Enjoy your next strip search, professor.
Less personal bloggage:
You’ve heard of a turducken? Or a tofucken? Meet the…turdugoosquapartsquab…en. Or something. Make up your own name. It sounds vile, but then, I’ve always considered goose to be the white-people version of chitlins. Sure, it has a long history — very Dickens and all — but you don’t have to live in the past, and anyone who would eat one of those greasy beasts when a nice tender chicken or turkey was available is simply nuts. Of course, the percentage of goose in this thing is pretty low. Still.
Off to find my glacier glasses (although the sun is still behind a cloud bank somewhere). Have a swell day, all.
John said on December 17, 2007 at 9:54 am
Aw shucks Nance, you’re embarrassing me! And I need to put in a big plug for the Op-Ed editor, Ann Baldelli, who whipped my chicken scratch into something presentable. It truly makes me appreciate what you and Alan do.
alex said on December 17, 2007 at 12:13 pm
Indiana’s declaring open season on Canada geese one of these days soon to thin the population. Anyway, at a party over the weekend, I overheard some avid hunters talking about trying it and hearing that it’s actually pretty tasty compared to duck or pheasant. Turns my stomach to think about it, but whatever.
Not sure I want to eat anything that has “turd” in the name either.
The difference in the price of beans is about the same as the difference in the price of Vodka. One of my instructors in an advertising class had a vodka taste test and no one could tell the difference between the ten-dollar rotgut and the thirty-five-dollar smell-me brand. Which is precisely the point. You’re paying for packaging and advertising and believing you’re getting a fat promotion in social status. I have a friend who keeps his upscale liquor bottles and fills them with discount booze and none of his guests, besides me, has ever been the wiser.
Sue said on December 17, 2007 at 1:26 pm
I still try to buy organic or free range if I can, because I keep wanting so desperately to believe I am supporting small farms and helping animals not to hurt so much. It’s likely I’m being snookered, though. I don’t buy organic produce too much; it usually looks awful in the store where I shop, about 15 minutes away from exploding. As for not being able to distinguish between brands, I don’t know… I won’t buy generic canned veggies and fruits because I keep finding things in there, like pits and ends and things. I feel sorry for people who have to use a food pantry, not just because they’re in that position, but because they have to go home with a bag full of off-brand mac & cheese and peanut butter and canned stuff.
Jeff said on December 17, 2007 at 2:01 pm
As i recall from college econ classes (Krannert School of Mgmt., Undue Purversity!), the classic model was Chivas Regal, which in the 1960’s did nothing more than up the price and add embossing to the label, and not only doubled profits, but quadrupled market share.
The scotch inside, of course, was unchanged.
Some profs teach the coda, where Crown Royal did the same, plus added a blue velvet bag — distillery formulas untouched — and matched Chivas’ fiscal leap.
Now the “Chivas effect: has extended across all consumer goods platforms, to the logical conclusion — the HeadOn/ActivOn/WhateverOn series of, i kid you not, wax sticks. Price what glue sticks cost during post back-to-school sales in Sept. (call it 25 cents apiece, tops), and cut the cost of product from that in half. Put the right small print on the packaging, and then — piece de la resistance — put a guy in a white coat in your ads, without even trying to claim he’s a doctor, saying “we will give you your money back.” Then watch your money roll in.
I do not mock: i drink Starbucks coffee, which is itself entirely the triumph of market positioning over actual quality beans. But their staff is so friendly i buy the dang stuff in the grocery store to make at home . . . hoping, perhaps, to make myself nicer to myself as i pour my own self a cup o’ flipping charred joe.
Velvet Goldmine said on December 17, 2007 at 2:24 pm
Well done, John! By the way, The Day is my hometown paper, which I only get to read now when visiting my parents in Ledyard (I’m still a fellow nutmegger, but now in Litchfield County).
It was a pretty humble paper when I was growing up, but I noticed last time I went to a New England press association conference that it was scooping up a ton of awards — well deserved. Well-reasoned and researched pieces like yours aren’t found in the local penny savers, that’s fo sho.
nancy said on December 17, 2007 at 2:34 pm
I do not mock: i drink Starbucks coffee, which is itself entirely the triumph of market positioning over actual quality beans.
Well, it’s not entirely marketing. Just grinding the beans yourself and making the stuff fresh is a huge improvement over Folger’s. I buy the unlabeled Starbucks at Costco — the Kirkland stuff in the green bag is S’bucks house blend, pretty cheap.
As for buying organic, Sue, I should probably clarify: I’m a big supporter of farmer’s markets, and happily shop there year-round. I don’t care if they’re organic or not, though. I think I learned my lesson about labeling when I learned the truth about “Amish” chicken. It may be raised by Amish people, etc., but they do so pretty much exactly the same as the corporate farm down the road, if on a somewhat smaller scale. It’s not a flock of hens scratching around the barnyard while apple-cheeked children throw feed from tin pails.
If the organic farmer is price-competitive, I’ll overlook the spots on the apples. But finally, obsessing too much over food just seems like one more obsession to me.
alex said on December 17, 2007 at 2:48 pm
So what exactly do those apple-cheeked Amish children do nowadays anyway? Stone out under the apple tree with their iPods?
MichaelG said on December 17, 2007 at 2:49 pm
Farmers markets in Sacto are wonderful. Great quality, great variety — in season which now ain’t. When living in Berkeley many years ago I dated a young woman who was some kind of bio chem grad student at Cal. She used to bring home from the lab a 50/50 mix of distilled water and pure alcohol. She’d pour it into a Smirnoff bottle. I sure couldn’t tell.
del said on December 17, 2007 at 3:11 pm
Sounds like a fun date Mikhail.
LAMary said on December 17, 2007 at 3:20 pm
I buy coffee beans either at Costco or at Trader Joes. The Organic Breakfast Blend is no more expensive than most of their other varieties and it’s really good. The non-organic Bay Blend it excellent as well. Trader Joes has lots of organic foods that are actually less expensive than the non-organic supermarket variety.
MichaelG said on December 17, 2007 at 4:07 pm
I buy Peet’s French Roast. About 11 bucks per pound but then it’s just me and just weekends. On work days I suck off the pot at the office which is the Kirkland/Starbuck coffee. Not bad but not Peet’s. Anybody outside of the Bay Area familiar with Peet’s?
Mindy said on December 17, 2007 at 4:11 pm
I buy organic whenever possible with milk being the only organic must-have. Regular milk now tastes watered down to me and often has an odd aftertaste. My friend grew up on a dairy farm that her brother now has as one of the few organic farms in the area. I’ve bought raw milk from him, which is wonderful. Couldn’t buy it after he began selling to the Organic Valley label since they won’t allow their farmers to sell milk outright themselves. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of the commercial dairy horror stories that he’s told me.
Julie Robinson said on December 17, 2007 at 5:34 pm
Here in the Fort we are lucky enough to have Old Crown, which buys fair exchange coffee and roasts it themselves. I don’t drink the stuff myself, but the hubby lurvs it.
When we were first married he had a generic jar of instant. Now he gets the fresh roasted, grinds it himself, and has a coffee maker with a thermal carafe so it doesn’t keep cooking and get bitter, or whatever happens to coffee. A pretty good picture of our financial status can be inferred there.
Note, however, that he does not go to Starbucks or other pricey places for his brew away from home. All those years when we were completely broke have trained him well. He genuinely likes the McDonald’s variety, and was vindicated when Consumer Reports agreed with him!
Jolene said on December 17, 2007 at 5:51 pm
Peet’s coffee is occasionally served in restaurants around the country. I’ve had it in several places, although no specific examples come to mind at the moment. It is, indeed, very good.
Danny said on December 17, 2007 at 5:56 pm
We get our coffee at Costco too. Jose’s Vanilla Nut. Love it.
We go organic a good bit, but are by no means anal about it. It’s probably easier here in CA with year-round produce.
Julie Robinson said on December 17, 2007 at 6:43 pm
Here in the Fort we are not lucky enough to have a Costco, only the horrible Sam’s.
LAMary said on December 17, 2007 at 6:49 pm
We’ve got several Peet’s outposts here, and they sell Peets in the supermarkets as well. Good stuff.
basset said on December 17, 2007 at 9:21 pm
I remember rooming near some kind of science major (IU, Willkie Co-Op, about 1975) who would bring lab-made alcohol back to the dorm and share.
he’d pour it out of a pint liquor bottle… one night I saw a Q-tip floating in there and asked what that was about.
“I use it to clean the heads on my tape recorder, too.”
Dave said on December 18, 2007 at 4:39 am
The more I learn about Costco, the more I wish we had one.
Mindy said on December 18, 2007 at 6:49 am
Peet’s coffee is my splurge. I like the Major Dickason’s blend so much that I pay for shipping in order to get it delivered to my door. And I’m with Julie’s husband, McCoffee is the choice for drive-thru. Much better than Starbucks.
John C said on December 18, 2007 at 6:59 am
When I was a reporter in Chicago I used to joke that I knew every McDonalds in the city and the North, Northwest and West suburbs – for coffee in the morning and Diet Coke in the afternoon. It was a joke. But not far from the truth.
And Starbucks’ “product innovation” was, I believe, dark roasted coffee. They weren’t the first, of course. Just the first to mass market it. Now they are everywhere. I used to have three within a short walk from my office. (One of my favorite Onion headlines was: “New Starbucks Opens in Starbucks restroom”
No one is sticking up for Cafe du Monde – chicory coffee. Mmmmm.
nancy said on December 18, 2007 at 8:33 am
If you have it in your area, let me also put in a plug for Tim Horton’s — excellent fast-food coffee, and unlike Mickey D’s, you can get it with a donut.
Dorothy said on December 18, 2007 at 9:10 am
I must be the one and only non-coffee drinker who hangs out at nn.c! I am strictly tea, with an affinity for Early Gray. My husband, though, would have coffee injected intravenously if he could. He likes to stock up on good coffee when we are in Pittsburgh in the Strip District. He calls it “weekend coffee” because that’s when he treats himself to the more expensive stuff.
A new Tim Horton’s is opening here in Mount Vernon very soon. If only it were a Panera…!
brian stouder said on December 18, 2007 at 12:04 pm
Dorothy, I love the aroma of coffee – but I cannot drink that stuff, and (despite being from a family of coffee drinkers) never have.
My swill-of-choice is Diet Coke
ashley said on December 18, 2007 at 12:52 pm
Chicory coffee is nectar of the gods.
And if you’re an Earl Grey fan, might I recommend Rishi brand, if you can’t get Hediard.
LA Mary said on December 18, 2007 at 8:08 pm
Chicory coffee is excellent stuff. Also, cooking.com has great Italian coffee beans that are pricey but wonderful.
I’ve been on jury duty all day today, and I need some coffee. Now.