How much would you pay for a dozen eggs? How about $48? That’s the price some in a certain well-to-do Sydney community are prepared to pay for a dozen biodynamic (evidently gold-plated) eggs, or so I’ve heard on a reliable grapevine. No? I thought not. What about $8 then? That’s what I pay for a dozen eggs from a colleague’s little farm. When I crack the evocatively dirt-smeared shells and poach my 66 cent egg for breakfast I picture his happy hens pecking around in the South Coast sunshine hoovering up the family scraps and pecking up a worm here or there.
I threw the question out on Twitter and the consensus seems to be that between $6 and $10 for a dozen free-range eggs is about right. “Six dollar no more,” said @jonathaningram3. “Around $8 but don't trust many labels,” said@dimityp. “I pay $10.99 for ‘open range’ eggs … don't buy mass market free range because the definition is too lazy” — that from@RachaelLonergan. (Woolworths ‘Select Free Range Eggs’ are $4.49 for a dozen.) “$10? I would do without now rather than buy cage eggs again,” according to @stinginthetail. “$7 for organic free range at Galluzzo in Glebe. Even the King Island eggs are only $9,” said@SimonThomsen. (Lucky those living in the country: “The going rate at farm gates our way is anywhere from $3.50 to $5,” relayed @royalmailhotel from Dunkeld in Victoria.)
The price of food, and what people are prepared to pay for it, has been a recurring theme in my conversations lately. I love the story that a friend shared after her recent trip to Daylesford: “An old lady in an antique shop was telling the owner that she couldn’t believe how much the butcher had wanted for six lamb chops — ‘They were $10 — I told him to put them back!’, she said.” (When the owner asked the woman what she liked to cook, she apparently replied, “Trevor likes my seafood bolognese”.)
During an interview for my recent article for the(sydney)magazine on the changing face of Redfern, local activist Ross Smith talked about the effect gentrification has on prices and services. “You can go down to Mick the butcher, been there for donkeys, and for $8 or $9 a kilo you can buy the meat that if you go to the (new) upmarket butcher you can buy for $14 or $15 a kilo; a lamb’s a lamb,” said Smith, who was behind the campaign to get an Aldi supermarket into the area so the public housing community has access to reasonably priced groceries. (Aldi opened on the corner of Bourke and Danks Street earlier this year.)
Meanwhile, my mother and I nearly came to blows over the subject on the weekend. We were the ones in an inner-city butcher’s shop on Sunday afternoon hissing fiercely under our breaths at each other. “Did you hear that?,” she said, jabbing me in the ribs, “rump steak for $9.99 a kilo”. I dragged my attention away from the sausages to see a butcher spruiking his steak at the entrance to the shop. Great bloody slabs of the stuff. I turned back to the sausages. My mother nudged me again: “It looks good to me.” My concentration on the important issue of whether my nieces and nephew would prefer chicken and leek or pork and fennel for dinner was shattered. I glanced at the steak. For a start, I had some moral grounds for my lack of interest. For a while now, rightly or wrongly, I’ve been trying to buy only organic, free-range, grass-fed beef. (This primarily for environmental reasons although, during a recent interview with environmentalist Tim Flannery for a piece I’ve written on the paleo diet for this weekend’s Good Weekend magazine, I discovered that some Australian feedlots lay claim to having practices that result in their product having less environmental impact than the pastured equivalent.) Besides, rump is not a cut I chase — give me something marbled, please.
My mother, a sensible, frugal, budget-conscious woman, was in my ear again: “You didn’t even look at it!” She was right, I wasn’t interested in the rump steak. At $9.99 a kilo, it seemed inconceivable to me that that meat could be worth my interest. How could it possibly be any good? And how had the beast from whence it came been treated? How had it died? How had its flesh been processed? Cheap food has a back story. The Michael Pollan/Ruth Ozeki/Food Inc. messages rattle around in my privileged, middle-class mind.
I don’t tell my mother that the organic, free-range, grass-fed eye fillet I buy from my regular butcher is $69.95/kg. I’d never hear the end of it. (Although she might spare me some of her Depression-era wrath if I told her how I treat my organic, free-range, grass-fed eye fillet: When I cook a steak for myself at home, and it’s certainly not every night, it’s a very, very small steak — around 200g. A $14 steak. A treasured $14 steak. Not cheap by any stretch, but nor is it the $49 I’d pay for a 220g piece of Scotch fillet at Rockpool Bar & Grill.)
Business advisor and commentator Bernard Salt is fond of using the acronymPUMCINstodescribe people like me: “professional urban middle class in nice suburbs … ensconced inside the goat’s cheese curtain” which is, apparently, as much political as it is edible and geographical (yes, it is true, there is goat’s cheese in my fridge right now). PUMCINs, says Salt, are the aspirational, alfresco, foodie artsy-fartsy types; the people who live in the “chichi inner suburbs” as opposed to “the dreary middle and outer suburbs in metropolitan Australia”.
PUMCINs like me clearly can afford $8 for a dozen eggs and $69.95/kg for steak and all those other pricey free-range, seasonal, biodynamic, organic, artisanal, local, line-caught, heirloom ingredients. But what about the rest of the country? There’s a huge gulf between us and them. Those who won’t settle for less and those who couldn’t care less. Those who can afford and those who can’t.
I suspect that, despite her countryside address, Alla Wolf-Tasker, owner of the Lake House restaurant in Daylesford in country Victoria and a fierce critic of cheap food, might have a bit of PUMCIN in her too. When I spoke to her earlier this year, she had a bit to say on the subject: “When you go to a real food-culture country ... people will spend money on food; it’s at the top of the pyramid. At the top of our pyramid is holidays to Bali and having ... 2.3 plasmas per family, two cars in the garage,” she said. “Whereas when you travel in a country that has a real food culture, people will walk across to the other side of the market because they know that particular stall holder has better ham, not because he’s got cheaper ham, but because he’s got better ham and ... you buy a little bit of the best rather than a whole lot of the cheapest.”
Wolf-Tasker continues: “Should we be prepared to pay for quality? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ (but) then you get tipped into the bucket with ‘you don’t care about the poor people’. Well, let me tell you that the poor people in food-culture countries care about the quality of their food, they will pay for it. I don’t put up with that argument. A blue-collar worker in France will tell you about the tiny little piece of Reblochon (cheese) they’ve bought and will go on about it for hours and they’ll sit and look at it the piece of veal they’ve bought and think about how they’re going to cook it.”
And here’s Wolf-Tasker on the subject of the humble chook: “If you buy a $6 chicken in the supermarket you would have to ask why is it $6, because someone has to grow it, pluck it, process it, wholesale it, truck it, and then retail it, and (at) all of those steps people have to make some money, so why’s it only six bucks? Well we know the answer, it’s a battery hen … it’s badly processed, there are issues with the way it’s cleaned, it gets dunked in chlorine afterwards to make sure that it doesn’t have any traces of the bad processing — that’s cheap food.”
Wolf-Tasker’s argument is that there’s no such thing as cheap food because at some point down the line, there’s a price to pay for cheap food in terms of the toll on our health, the environment, animal welfare, communities, our food culture. “I mean, the thing is, if you’ve got an expensive car and someone offers you two bottles of oil to use and one’s the ‘no-brand, look, we’re not sure where it comes from, but it’s half the price and it should do the job’ and then they give you the other brand and it’s BP Petroleum and you’ve known it for years and it’s used by Choice magazine or whatever; you’re not going put the shoddy oil into your car.”
I’m not sure my mother, who has eaten well but extremely frugally all her life and who, at 76, is in fighting-fit form, would agree. She’s a persistent woman and on Sunday afternoon we left the butcher with a two-kilogram bag of $9.99 rump steak. It went on the barbecue next to the sausages. I ate it, fighting back irritable words. It was edible. I’d say no more than that about it.
I won’t be paying $48 any time soon for a dozen eggs but now that my mother’s visit is over, I will be ducking back to my favourite butcher for that grass-fed eye fillet — once I’ve gone through that pile of wretched rump steak in the freezer.
Is fresh food becoming too expensive? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.