Pomegranate Juice, $9.99; Truffle Oil, $25.99 ...
Shopping for the most expensive possible dinner for two at Whole Foods.
With the economy still limping along, articles about eating cheaply, making dinner for less than $10, or fashioning a meal for seven out of Elmer's glue, a single banana, and a pinch of nutmeg have proliferated. Even this very Slate column was temporarily given over to the art of coupon clipping. I'm no stranger to miserly grocery shopping. (Oatmeal for supper, anyone?) But I'm getting sick of reading such dutiful advice, and I don't get a rush out of saving 20 cents (at least, not yet). So I thought I'd try something different—simulating what grocery-store visits might be like if I had unlimited money to throw around. You've heard of high-end food writers waxing poetic about la cucina povera? Well, here's a low-end shopper trying out la cucina rico—seeing how the other half lives, if you will. I went to Whole Foods, that upscale paradise, and attempted to find the most expensive possible combination of groceries to create a dinner for two. Not a single penny was spent in pursuit of this particular fantasy. You've gotta spend money to make money, but not to make an imaginary dinner.
I paused over a $39.99, melon-sized New Jersey ostrich egg nestled unexpected in the produce section, and pondered how big a deviled egg could get. But, no, an ostrich's egg is actually more cost-efficient than one might think: the equivalent of 10 chicken eggs or so. Instead, I selected a few smaller options: Medjool dates for nibbling, a quarter-pound purchased at $8.99/lb; the same dose of spicy Marcona almonds at $16.99/lb; and a couple of pre-prepared New Jersey crab cakes at $6.99 apiece, with a touch of paprika for garnish ($5.99). I searched high and low for expensive crackers (like much in the carb family, it's nearly impossible to find something truly unreasonable in this category—I'd like to think that's because grain hails from the Midwest) and finally settled for some Ener-G wheat-free crackers, presented in rather unappetizing 1970s-ish packaging. They had the advantage of being $6.99 for a rather tiny box, though, so I grabbed two.
Next, the cheese department to find a suitable pairing for my cardboard crackers. I sidled up to a gent named Joe and inquired after their most expensive product. Joe took in my men's mesh shorts, torn tank top, and post-gym hair. "Inexpensive?" he asked. Clearly, I wasn't giving off an Ivana vibe. Once we'd cleared up that I was prepared to drop plenty of (theoretical) cheddar on my fromage, he and a colleague walked me through some options. At first, they seemed troubled by my indifference to flavor, texture, and provenance—such questions are why cheese-department guys exist. But faced with the fun of pure conspicuous consumption, their existential crises fell by the wayside and they got into the spirit of things, pulling up the cash register to check whether a $34.99/lb Roquefort was outclassed by a Forsterkase at $8.75 per quarter-pound; scoffing at a $28/lb Pecorino Ginepro as not quite up to my make-believe standards. It turned out that the most expensive hunk was, in fact, a babe: the "Sophie" ($9.99 per quarter pound), a creamy, soft cheese from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Course total: $50.09
The Whole Foods where I shopped doesn't stock liquor, so I went looking for the most precious (in more ways than one) mocktail. (An appropriate way to toast my imaginary shopping, I think.) I scooped up some tonic water, packaged in extremely wasteful and extremely cute undersized bottles, labeled simply "Q Tonic" ($7.99 for four, made with "handpicked quinine and organic agave"), and the priciest juice I could spot, Pomegranate Acai Tart Cherry juice for $9.99, or, if you break it down, a bargain at just $3.33 per trendy flavor.
Then I turned my attention to the beer fridge, which is, of course, full of unique craft brews that all look the same to me. Normally choosing from among such options, made ever more fraught by the increasing number of beer snobs, causes me distress—will I look like a girly idiot for ordering a raspberry framboise? Why did that bartender raise his eyebrows when I asked for an oatmeal stout in August? Is ordering a pony keg for a two-person dinner not OK?—and so here more than elsewhere I was grateful that money would substitute for knowledge. And I was delighted to discover that it wasn't the Dogfish Head red-and-white or the parodic-sounding De Proef Slaapmutske Tripel that was the most expensive per gallon but an enticingly frou-frou light ale, Southern Tier's Cuvee 1 ("qualities of toasted coconut, almond biscotti and toasted almonds with a taste of honeysuckle") I might have ordered, anyway—at $13.99 per bottle. Two, please.
Course total: $45.96
I grabbed some bell peppers—orange and yellow for color—straight from Holland at $5.99 a pound; some Chanterelle mushrooms (a quarter-pound at $29.99 per pound), and a quarter-pound of arugula at $1.79 per pound (not precisely the most expensive green, but, dahling, it's got such a reputation) mixed with a quarter-pound of locally sourced frisée at $12.77/lb. Conventional cheapskate wisdom holds that prepackaged salad dressings are sold at a massive markup and that making your own is always money-saving. Not, however, if you decide to toss together a bit of Badia a Coltibuono olive oil ($41.99 per jar) with some $49.99 balsamic vinegar and a bit of Dr. Gonzo's Moose Piney Adirondack Black Fly Mustard, $5.69.
I wanted a little protein for texture, and I figured the seafood department might be a conveniently cost-inefficient place to find it. A nice gentleman named Jose guided me through some of the options, explaining to me that to the degree Whole Foods is expensive, it's because of the "sourceability, sustainability, yada, yada, yada." He told me, "We're pushing a lifestyle." And so Jose pushed me toward a lifestyle that would include a half-pound of tuna steak, at $22.99/lb, seared in Wild Forest Black Truffle Oil ($25.99).
Jose, by the way, also specified that the seafood department has a money-back guarantee. I'm fairly certain that being taken for someone who would return used seafood for cash is confirmation my lifestyle is more canned-tuna than tuna-steak.
Course total: $152.26
The Main Course
The meat department was where I expected my bill to spiral out of control. But, in fact, nothing really cost an arm and leg. (The latter appendage, formerly attached to lamb, was a scant $9.99/lb.) A top loin steak marinated in sauce from the famous Peter Luger steakhouse was going for just $16.99/lb. Veal cutlets for a mere $19.00. There were Chateaubrand center cut tenderloins, filet mignons, and New York state tenderloin steaks all for the same price, $29.99/lb. Nothing, at least when I was there, cracked the $30 mark, so I decided to grab a pound of that New York tenderloin. For seasoning, I went with the Wild Forest White Truffle Oil (as opposed to the black variety I used for the tuna, $25.99), and saffron ($3,196/lb, or $7.99 a jar).
Course total: $63.97
I was torn. Should I go with the chocolate-dipped orange peel at $25.00/lb? A handful of tiny chocolate pyramids from Christopher Norman at $4.00 each? My eyes alighted on a box of Knipschidt chocolates, promisingly labeled "71 percent diamonds." Was it possible some ingenious chocolatier had figured out how to make and market precious metals as desert? Alas—and this I should have realized from the bargain price of $19.99 for six—the percentage refers to cacao; the treats themselves are diamond-shaped. Disconsolate at the lack of edible precious gems, I decided to let myself eat cake, settling on a lovely 6-inch, $18.99 gateau au chocolat. I paired it with some Mariebelle hot chocolate for sipping, ($24.99 a tin), and a smattering of the aforementioned bonbons. One must have options. Even if they are all variations on the same flavor.
Course total: $74.23
I was shocked (but I must admit, also oddly delighted) to see that a pound of coffee from the very neighborhood coffee shop where I get my morning brew, Gimme! Coffee, was priced at a gouging $13.99/lb. I was about to throw it in my virtual cart when I realized that it was in fact edged out by some crazy-leftist-sounding outfit, the Asobagri Coop, which had prized its Brazil-Daterra Sunrise at a trophy-winning $15.99/lb. And in case my dining companion should be the weak sort who prefers tea, I added Rishi Tea's, $9.99 for herb-ginger, along with some honey (from New Zealand, guaranteed "kiwi kosher parve," $30.99) for sweetening the pot.
Course total: $56.97
Grand Total: $443.48
So for the same price as this homemade dinner for two, I could have dined at one of New York's most expensive establishments. This is, of course, not even a vaguely realistic price tag: I purposely padded the bill, at the cost of enjoyment. The dinner I wound up with sounds, frankly, a little disgusting. I'd almost certainly feel queasy after just the grab-bag appetizer. Of course, plenty of people regularly sacrifice taste for cost—only in the opposite direction.
The surprising thing to me, in completing this little exercise, was that much of the final dollar amount came not from the items that contained most of the calories, like the meat, or even from the produce—which aren't much more at Whole Foods than the same sorts of (sourceable, sustainable, yada yada yada) items would be at most grocery stores. It came from the sauces and the spices, and the extras like the hot chocolate and the honey.
Did I really need to ogle $443.48 of groceries to come around to the shocking conclusion that it's the luxuries in life that are expensive? Probably not, but no one needs to cook with truffle oil, either. Sometimes the pointlessness is the point.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer for the New Republic.