The agony of the food snob.

Commentary about business and finance.
April 29 2008 6:08 PM

The Agony of the Food Snob

Basque cheese at $22 per pound! Olive oil at $43 per liter! What's a gourmand to do?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The high cost of food is the topic du jour. Global growth, bad weather, high energy costs, investors flooding into the markets, and the failure of production to keep up with growing demand are creating a food crisis. (Check out the Washington Post's fine series.) It's having a serious impact on poor working families, who devote a disproportionate share of their income to food. And it's taking a heavy toll on another class, much less deserving of our sympathy, whose members also devote a disproportionate share of their incomes to food: food snobs.

You surely know some food snobs. You may even be one. (I am.) We food snobs buy dried Italian pasta rather than Mueller macaroni, artisanal fizzy lemonade from France, not Hi-C. And then we prattle on about it ad nauseam. Of course, our organic, imported, steel-cut, Meyer-lemon products taste better than their domestic, industrially processed analogues. But they're also important cultural markers. The foods we buy signal to others that we don't just subscribe to Gourmet;we ingest its message of seeking out the finest ingredients. Food snobs know that food isn't simply fuel to get you through the day: It's an expression of taste, refinement, and global consciousness. And thanks to the expansion of trade, the construction of superefficient supply chains, and the Internet, the opportunities for being precious about food have never been greater.

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Alas, the cost of being precious about food has also never been greater. Despite the vast advances in American food culture, the finest ingredients frequently must travel a great distance to arrive at your local Whole Foods: wines from Europe, California, and South America; Moroccan harissa and Thai fish sauce; South African guava juice; and pistachios from Turkey and Iran. (I know a place. …) The best smoked salmon—the only one that will e'er darken a bagel in my house—arrives on the banks of the Hudson from distant Scotland, not nearby Nova Scotia.

But with the dollar weakening, commodity prices rising, and energy costs (and hence transportation costs) soaring, the food snob's dollar doesn't fund nearly as many courses today as it did a year ago. At my local cheese shop, the Etorki, a delightful Basque sheep's milk cheese (from France's Basque region, mind you, not Spain's—what, you don't know about France's Basque cheeses? really?) now tips the scales at $22 a pound, up from $18 a pound a year ago. Eli's raisin crisps, perfect for holding the Basque cheese, have risen from $6.86 to $8.35. If you want to assemble an authentic Italian appetizer of prosciutto and melon, it'll cost you uno braccio e una gamba. At Balducci's this week, prosciutto di parma was $21.99 a pound ,while Tuscan melons ran $4.49.

For the truly wealthy, the gourmet inflation isn't a big deal. Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group probably has not cut back on his consumption of $40 stone-crab claws. But most food snobs aren't really rich. (I'd wager a pound of truffles that most of the members of the Forbes 400 don't know the difference between jamón ibérico and Oscar Mayer. And nowhere are the wine snobs more insufferable than in the comparatively low-income, tweedy precincts of university humanities departments.) For those for whom money remains an object—which is to say, most of us—the rising prices present a series of tough choices.

Some are trading down. Gourmands who swore by New York strip are now singing the praises of the more quotidian hanger steak. Having dinner the other night at an Italian restaurant, I noticed two couples ardently extolling the praises of the bottle of two-buck-chuck they had brought. Over the weekend, as I sat in the well-appointed kitchen of a double-income family whose annual earnings run deep into the six figures, my host proclaimed, with exasperation, that $4 for a dozen organic eggs was simply too much. She was switching back to conventional eggs; chemicals be damned.

But for many food snobs, trading down for everything is unacceptable. Any food snob worth his sel de mer can tick off a few products that he'd rather do without than switch to a cheaper alternative. Swapping the suddenly insanely expensive Italian buffalo mozzarella ($9.99 for 7 ounces) for the American stuff ($8.99 a pound) is like swapping front-row seats at the New York City Ballet for general admission to a community production of The Nutcracker. The reduction in quality is so significant that it renders the formerly sublime experience one not worth having at all. Every food snob has a few items for which he will pay any price, bear any burden. For me, it's cans of Callipo tuna from Italy (now a shocking $8.99 for two).

Some relief is available. I've noticed, for example, that our local paper now comes with $5-off coupons from Balducci's. In all my years as a practicing food snob, I've never seen anybody whip out a coupon at a pricey food emporium. Why? It could be because in the chichi neighborhoods in which such stores predominate, coupon-clipping is déclassé. It could also be that bringing in a $5-off coupon takes the fun out of it. When you journey to a food-snob haven—be it the local farmer's market, a wine store, or a Whole Foods—you've already decided that you're going to pay far more for foodstuffs than you would at the Stop & Shop across the street.

Once you start paying close attention, it's very hard to justify, in any economic climate, the prices of many food-snob essentials: $14.99 for a pound of wild ramps, $43 for a liter of Italian olive oil, etc. And since most food snobs are also good liberals who savor their expensive bounty while lingering over the Sunday Times, the contradiction can be sickening. We're spending obscene amounts on food we don't need at a time when so many others are genuinely struggling to pay for enough basic sustenance to get them through the day.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.