The Real Cost

I’m more than slightly irritated that a salad recently cost me over $15.

It was a nice salad, as salads go. It was not the supermodel of salads, but it certainly was more than just spring mix and a couple of lashings of manufactured dressing, haphazardly topped with a few pale cherry tomato halves.  A complimentary mixture of exotic-sounding lettuces, adorned by about a dozen pieces of bacon crumbles, a well-poached egg with a slightly oversalted vinaigrette, it was a perfectly good late afternoon lunch.

And it cost over $15.

Which is probably what the restaurant needs to charge for it.

Because of high rent in this city.

Because of high labor costs.

Because THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CHEAP FOOD.

And that’s more than fair.

So why am I irritated?

Because I could take a similar salad, remove its fancy French name, put it on a menu in an “ethnic” restaurant, and watch people revolt at the price.

Yes, “ethnic” food in quotes. Because in a Eurocentric world, anything not European based is “ethnic”. (Excuse me while I go bang my head against the wall.)

Why do we do that? Why do we think Asian, Indian, Mexican (insert your favorite non-European heritage food here) has to be cheap?

These restaurants face the same challenges as any other restaurant: rising rent, a competitive labor market, and challenging food costs. Add to the equation utility bills, insurance, taxes, marketing budgets, internet presence, and on and on. The advent of delivery services take their cut. Competition is fierce and unrelenting.

And let’s not even bring up what online reviews can mean for a business. (The biggest most common complaint everywhere seems to be prices are too high. The flip side is the praise of cheap food at these establishments, perpetuating the cycle.)

Fine. I brought up the effects of online reviews.

Smaller restaurants, especially those “mom and pop” models run by newly-arrived immigrants more often than not make everything from scratch. There is no big semi-truck pulling up to the back door, off-loading premade frozen chicken fingers, boxes of fries, already-decorated giant mudslide brownies and so on.  There are no auto-timed deep-fryers and ovens to “cook” the food for workers to assemble, wrap and bag up.

What you will see are hard-working people taking raw ingredients and turning them into delicious food.  What you will see is real cooking.  Flour becomes bread. Tough cuts of meats and underrated vegetables turn into flavor-packed dishes. Herbs and spices are used with a generous hand to bring out the best side of often humble ingredients. Beans and rice attain almost deity status. Magic happens. As it does in kitchens around the world.

So why would you expect to pay less?

These people are sharing with us centuries of cooking traditions, years of memories, and for some, the only way they know to immediately find work in their new homeland, by creating jobs for themselves. For some, for many, their university degrees are invalid here in the States. They open restaurants and small stores to support themselves, create welcoming environments for fellow emigres, and to be a part of the community.

Do you still think you should pay less?

One of the things that I have learned over the years around this globe is that cooking techniques are cooking techniques.  They may not be codified according to Careme or Escoffier, but that does not make them any less valid or legitimate than lessons to be had in a formal French kitchen. We should respect that.

For example, to make a good keay wat, an Ethiopian beef stew, T minced and caramelized sixteen onions and a cup each of fresh ginger and garlic. For ten pounds of beef.  By hand. No food processor, she WAS the chopping machine.

A good chicken stew, she says, takes TWENTY-FIVE onions, minced and caramelized, for TWO chickens. If you’ve ever chopped onions, garlic and ginger finely, you know: mad respect.

Yes, I still look twice when I see something priced over the decade mark on a menu in an “ethnic” restaurant. And then I have to slap myself upside the head for falling prey once again to the same mentality I have been railing against in the above paragraphs.  Because it is so ingrained in us, this idea that these cuisines should be cheap.

Also, please, can someone help me come up with a better descriptor than “ethnic” food, because in China, India, Mexico, Turkey et al, it’s just food.  Speaking of which, I wonder if French cuisine in China is considered “ethnic”?

Bottom line, again, there IS NO SUCH THING AS CHEAP FOOD. Even if the menu prices are low, there are hidden costs: the long-term effects on your health, the lasting effects on the environment, the conditions under which our food is grown or raised and harvested,  and the way it is processed. The safety of our food is fragile as we turn to processing factories to keep up with demand. The diversity is diminishing in the gene pool as we selectively breed for faster growth and bigger yield.  You may not see that reflected in the dollar amount on the menu, but somewhere you are paying for it, invisibly, and unknowingly. Make no mistake.

In such a culturally rich and diverse part of the country, where we strive to be welcoming to all, maybe it’s time to change our ideas of food, specifically where its origins are and what it should cost because of that.  I, for one, am tired of slapping myself upside the head.

 

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