Rethinking our food priorities

Let’s hear it for egg ladies

March 31, 2009

It was the Union Square Greenmarket that convinced me I wasn’t cut out for New York.

I’d gone to New York to look for a job in publishing, unaware of two crucial facts about the industry: I had to type 85 words a minute with only three errors, and I had to accept a wage scale that presumed my parents were paying my rent.

In my case, neither was true. So I wound up working for a very small book packager run by the father of a college friend and living with a series of unpleasant roommates in a tiny railroad flat.

I was very, very poor. If I was vigilant, I had exactly enough money to pay my bills, pay my rent, and eat. My food budget was the only discretionary income I had, and I took to the challenge of learning to eat well on no money in New York City.

eggs in straw
How much are good eggs worth?

On weekends, I’d head south on Second Avenue in search of interesting finds. There was the tiny store on 10th or 11th that sold only fresh mozzarella and olives, nothing else. There was the big Italian bakery where I once had a very serious conversation about which biscotti in the 20-foot-long case would be just the perfect biscotti for the free performance of “Tosca” in Central Park.

But my real lifeline during those two desperately lonely years in New York was the Union Square Greenmarket. On Saturday mornings, I’d drag my wheelie cart over to the Greenmarket and wander in a daze among the tables.

It wasn’t the produce that I found hypnotizing, although that was lovely, especially the new vegetables I’d never seen. Nor was it the cooking advice freely dispensed by the voluble New Yorkers around me; the day I wondered aloud as to what one would do with cranberry beans, the lady next to me said, “You make pasta fazul!” as if anyone with any sense knew that already.

No, it was the people working behind the tables. I remember looking at them with envy, thinking, “They live where there’s dirt.”

I made it two years in New York before I left in search of dirt. Fifteen years later, I managed to purchase my own little patch of dirt in Montana, where I’ve been happily growing veggies — and buying what I can’t grow from as many of my neighbors as possible — ever since.

Our country is mired in some very tough economic times these days, and people are naturally turning to home cooking. Blogs and newspaper food sections are buzzing with articles about eating well on a budget. Fast-food chains are dropping their prices even lower, trying to lure the overworked and exhausted with the promise of quick, easy, and cheap meals.

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Running like an undercurrent through much of this chatter about food and prices and cooking is a sense that, well, organics were a nice luxury during the fat times, but they’re just an extravagance during the lean.

Most Culinate readers are familiar with the arguments about the false economies of fast food, the hidden costs of cheap industrial food, and the problematic quantity of petrochemical inputs necessary to support such a system. But we’re all feeling the squeeze.

It’s time to confess: I’ve cheated on my egg lady a little bit this winter, buying ranch eggs at my local health-food store from someone else because they were two dollars cheaper.

Isabelle’s eggs are expensive — nearly six bucks a dozen. So is her raw milk with cream on top — a gallon costs eight dollars. At the grocery store, I can buy a dozen local commercial eggs for two dollars, and a gallon of commercial milk is, what, three dollars?

But here’s the thing: Like Thoreau’s wood that warmed him twice, buying eggs and my weekly gallon of milk from Isabelle gives ancillary value.

Because I don’t drink a whole gallon of milk every week, I’ve learned to make delicious yogurt and ice cream from it. Because I learned to make yogurt in Mason jars, I’ve stopped adding plastic yogurt containers to the waste stream. Because I’m making my own ice cream, I’m eating ice cream that’s considerably better than store-bought ice cream, plus I know everything that went into it.

If I had kids, would I still be able to pay eight dollars a gallon for milk? I don’t know. I do know that I might try, especially since I know that Isabelle’s milk is absolutely devoid of growth hormones and antibiotics. Again, it’s an exercise in true and false economies: How much can you afford to protect your kids from a potential health danger no one really understands?

In the end, what did I gain by cheating on my egg lady? For two bucks less, I got a big load of guilt, and frankly, the eggs weren’t as good. But the thing that finally brought me to my senses was that, despite the fact that six dollars is a lot for a dozen eggs, the difference was only two dollars.

I found myself willing to sell out someone I know and like for two bucks. I know Isabelle; I know her three kids. They live on what they can make off of their ranch. They provide me with eggs that are darn near the Platonic ideal of what an egg should be: gorgeous eggs with marigold yolks that taste fresh and clean and eggy.

I’m a resourceful person. There has to be someplace else in my budget where I could shave off two bucks (um, wine?) in order to continue to support someone I know and like, to help keep people in town who contribute to our local community, who are our local community.

There’s a big opportunity in this downturn for those of us who really care about these things to take a stand. To prove that we know false economy when we see it. To refuse to trade the community we build by supporting farmers’ markets and family farms for the cheap sterility of the chain grocery stores.

There’s an opportunity here for us to demonstrate that there’s economy in learning to eat what the people near you can grow — whether that means figuring out what to do with veggies in your CSA box or, like me, learning to make yogurt.

There’s an opportunity here for us to demonstrate that clean food grown locally is indeed an economic value as well as a social value.

So as times get tough, let’s try to hang together. Let’s not forsake our farmers’ markets and CSAs and local food co-ops. Let’s instead demonstrate that we know real value, and that we’re ready to support it.

The author of the novel Place Last Seen, Charlotte Freeman blogs at LivingSmall. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she hikes and gardens and is learning to put up as much of her own food as possible.

There are 18 comments on this item
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1. by Lisa Catherine Harper on Mar 31, 2009 at 10:13 AM PDT

This is a really nice piece, Charlotte, and I’m wholeheartedly with you. I have 2 kids, & I only cheat on my egg lady when they don’t have eggs. i.e. in the dead of winter when they’re not laying. I do buy the expensive, local, organic milk (maybe $6 or $7 a gallon now...I don’t even look these days, it’s too depressing). I justify the eggs easily because a) they are that much better and b) they’re still a really cheap source of protein and c) the farmer needs my money more than the store.

2. by anonymous on Mar 31, 2009 at 11:37 AM PDT


3. by DawnHeather Simmons on Mar 31, 2009 at 11:43 AM PDT

Thank you for a thoughtful and beautifully-written piece!

4. by Kathryn H on Mar 31, 2009 at 12:08 PM PDT

Very thoughtful--thank you. I was just reading a comment elsewhere from a family facing some cuts in the household budget--they refused to give up buying local, organic food for the sake of their children’s health and had decided to cut some of their non-local charitable giving, figuring that supporting local farmers helped prevent those farm families from needing charity. Also a thought provoking idea.

5. by Laura Parisi on Mar 31, 2009 at 7:15 PM PDT

I love this piece! It’s inspiring at a time when I can use it. I bought my first farmer’s market eggs last weekend and nearly choked to death on the price: $7. However, they were fantastic. Still, at $5 more per dozen than my usual $2 eggs (which claim to be cage-free, of course, who knows what that really means), I don’t know if I can really afford the $7 eggs that often. But maybe I will try harder and cut something less important out of my life.

6. by CallieKoch on Mar 31, 2009 at 11:42 PM PDT

It is so true that the food I spent extra money on at the farmer’s market I go to greater measures to not waste. Maybe if everybody was forced to pay more for their food, we would be throwing away a lot less.

7. by CentreofNowhere on Apr 1, 2009 at 5:52 AM PDT

I recently started a relationship with a family who is selling eggs for $3/doz. I feel great that I’m helping their son start up a business, and that I had a place to recycle all of my paper egg cartons (from the big grocery store) collected over the winter.

Charlotte, what is your yogurt-making method? I have access to raw milk, and instead of purchasing the farmer’s plastic quarts of yogurt, I’d love to make my own. Of course, the farmer’s is pretty good too. Thanks!

8. by sj.breeze on Apr 1, 2009 at 10:59 AM PDT

I’m lucky that my greengrocer’s eggs (ok, the ones that no one knows about in the fridge around the back) are only $4.50/dozen. In order to afford them, I’ve cut back to making only two scrambled eggs for my partner and me every morning, instead of three, and rounding it out with my sourdough bread. That’s my solution for many expensive local food items. Eat less food in general, and you will save money.

9. by dgreenwood on Apr 1, 2009 at 11:44 AM PDT

Great piece! I wanted to second CallieKoch’s comment about paying more for food. Michael Pollan has repeatedly written that we do not currently pay the true cost of our food (once the subsidies are taken into account.) What we pay at the farmer’s market more accurately represents the real cost of the food. (And it is not making the farmer’s wealthy either.) Why have we become a nation that believes food should always be available for pennies? I read that 25 years ago the average American spent about 20% of their income on food. We now spend less than 10% on average. I agree that by paying a little more we become more conscious of the value of the food and less prone to throwing it away. If we can just follow this practice, the true cost of our food would would be offset by savings in other areas, like healthcare and energy consumption.

Charlotte - as a NYer I just wanted you to know that it is getting much easier to eat well here - this year the city will have over 80 CSAs along with the numerous farmer’s markets.

10. by Charlotte on Apr 2, 2009 at 12:23 PM PDT

Thanks for all the great comments --
Erin -- I use Prof. David Fankhauser’s yogurt recipe, you can find it here:
It’s completely foolproof (and has inspired me to try some more advanced cheeses).
And to dgreenwood -- it wasn’t the lack of local food that drove me out of NYC, it was the lack of dirt in which I could grow something. It was a terrific, if challenging couple of years, but I’ve never regretted leaving (plus, it’s so much fun to come back to visit).

11. by Rebecca T. of HonestMeat on Apr 3, 2009 at 10:05 AM PDT

Beautifully written- can I quote from it on my blog- HonestMeat? You put into words exactly what I have been thinking lately, and I love that you do it from a consumers perspective. We produce eggs and meat ourselves and I never know how to say to our customers that prioritizing good food over other things (like wine or lattes!) is important for so many reasons.

12. by Jane Finch-Howell on Apr 4, 2009 at 11:05 AM PDT

Thank you, Charlotte: I so appreciating your compelling argument for supporting real food producers. And you’ve inspired me to start making yoghurt again. Back in the 70s, I used to make it using a little plug-in machine. Somehow, I’m sure that’s not a necessary part of the process!

13. by CentreofNowhere on Apr 4, 2009 at 12:12 PM PDT

Thank you Charlotte, for the yogurt link. Looks like I have a nice project for the summer!

14. by candrese on Apr 6, 2009 at 4:36 PM PDT

I love this article. I was just beginning to contemplate a “cheat” on my egg guy, and this kept me from doing it. I got my priorities back on track.

15. by Leta Merrill on Apr 8, 2009 at 5:12 PM PDT

You are speaking to my soul with this blog entry. I too wander through the Union Square Greenmarket four times a week (I work across the street)and dream of a patch of dirt to call my own. I am also barely making ends meet in this incredibly expensive city and have decided I can live with “holy” shoes in exchange for trips to the greenmarket.
In these tough times, supporting local growers is even more important, as they will be the first to go if we all opt for cheaper eggs. I highly recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s new book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” as well as for some inspiration.

16. by Meredith on Apr 18, 2009 at 7:04 PM PDT

If you consider that the $8 gallon of milk you buy, could be turned into four of the regular 36oz containers of yogurt that cost $3-5 at the store - you’re breaking even if you turn just half of your milk into yogurt and you can drink the rest, or even better - turn it into that Ice Cream you mentioned!

So I totally agree with you, when you really run the numbers, spending more for the good stuff isn’t really spending more!

17. by Natalie James on Nov 6, 2009 at 9:31 PM PST

This a wonderful made me feel good about my decision to join a CSA this year, despite all the money issues. I’ve had to be creative, but I am healthier and happier for it. Great read!

18. by ellen on Jul 27, 2011 at 1:16 PM PDT

The Thoreau quote is one of my favorites and guides decisions I make about where and how to spend my money. Thanks you for such a lovely reminder of how 2$ can feed your family and another.

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