Friday, December 09, 2005

The Politics of Guacamole

As a big believer in making food from fresh, scratch ingredients, I am often taken aback by Americans' alienation from their kitchens. I'll be the first to admit that I don't cook for myself nearly enough, but I do my best, and it's always rewarding.

[shit, that reminds me i need to soak the lentils. be right back]

One of the most illuminating experiences I ever had was the first time I made pancakes from scratch. If you've never done it you won't believe me, but here it is - pancakes from scratch is no harder than making them out of the box. The difference in quality isn't mind-blowing, but it's significant. And you can make them out of ingredients you probably stock at all times.

There's a different but unrelated strain of curmudgeonliness that I also suffer from, and that is my somewhat agrarian-minded offense at the market's overwhelming preference for extremely storable, shippable foods.

This is one of those areas that free-market enthusiasts like to pretend don't exist. The preference of the market for storable, shippable food is a direct consequence of the industrial export system, not the result of any set of consumer tastes. I could go off on the Red Delicious apple here, but I will restrain myself. Suffice it to say that no one, or almost no one anyway, actually prefers this abomination to a real eating apple, yet it's the biggest-selling apple on the market despite not being significantly cheaper than the much better apples. According to free-marketeers, this cannot happen.

Instead I will sing the praises of a food that flies in the face of every market reality, that should without any question have dropped off the face of the planet decades ago but which endures and grows in popularity even today because it is just so fucking good.

Yes, I'm talking about guacamole.

Guacamole is literally impossible to ship or store. Many, many attempts at creating shippable, storable pseudoguacamoles have been made; all have failed utterly. If you try to store real guacamole you'll find that the absolute longest you can store the stuff in the refigerator and have it still be edible when you take it out is about 12 hours, and you'll only achieve that after you've been working with the stuff for probably years. Your first several attempts to store guac in the fridge will probably buy you about an hour before the stuff turns brown.

[In case you're interested, here's the secret - you have to put the pits of the avocados in the guac, and the container must be exactly big enough to hold all the guacamole. If there's an air gap between the top of the guac and the top of the container, you might as well not cover it at all.]

As I said, it's always rewarding to cook for yourself. But when you make yourself a really good soup or curry or something, you know in your heart that there's a can or a box out there that could do a passable version of the same dish in about a tenth of the time.

When you make guacamole, you eat it with the knowledge that there is no other place in the world that you can buy or steal anything like it, other than your own kitchen, with your own hands.

And nothing is quite so delicious as that.


Uncle Kevin said...

The red delicious apple, McDonalds, and a wide variety of other examples demonstrate my theory of the "tyranny of the plurality". The markets will tend towards the largest single population, even if it is not a majority by any measure. I am struck regularly by the quality, or lack thereof, of prepared foods in grocery stores. You have professionals with research budgets and what they create is the frito, basically MSG on corn. Taste is a widely varying quantity and what we end up with is nothing approximating "best" but merely the infamous "lowest common denominator". There's probably some witty relationship here to the democrats, but it's Monday with a vengance and I'm not grasping it.

The Greatness said...

I feel your pain. The superior taste of commodities that don't ship well is something I am continually reminded of when I go visit my in-laws and eat from their "back-40 grocery" of heritage produce, painstakingly cultivated for maximum flavor. Still, even they will admit it doesn't pay to grow some things. In Nova Scotia nobody picks fresh fruit in January, so they have to can or freeze their surplus. Just as a lark, I asked them to grow some orange peppers this year. Even after greenhousing them for six weeks of the winter, they still didn't get enough heat to ripen in our tepid growing season. For this part of the world at least, we have to rely on grocery stores for variety, and that means buying food whose only advantage is that it "ships well". I fear that if such goods were not the mainstay of the grocery, a lot of local markets would be stuck with whatever meager foodstuffs they could grow. The North, islands in the Pacific, etc. would be in dire nutritional straits.

I agree that many times the import market makes no sense to the consumer. I bought some pickles the other day that were a product of India. Who the hell fills glass bottles with cucumbers and brine and floats them umpteenth-thousand miles at a profit?! A loss-leader, maybe, packaged in a deal with other commodities? Is the glass the most expensive part of the product? It's mind-boggling.

Ethridge said...

Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't understand the Red Delicious problem. I mean, I don't buy Red Delicious apples when I hit the grocery store, I leans towards Granny Smith . But obviously somebody (many bodies) are buying them. The whole point of the free market is that, if no one wants them, they won't sell. People are buying Red Delicious, and I don't think I've ever been to a grocery store where another option wasn't available (unless it was a weird season thing or something). So where in this rather anecdotal and seemingly strange analogy do we actually find a problem with the free market?

Adam P. Short said...

Actually, in the specific case of apples the problem is much less than it once was, for a variety of reasons.

The consumer preference now for Red Delicious is real, but it's largely a relic from the days when in fact you couldn't get other kinds of apples easily in most locations.

The reason this situation existed at the time was that the industrial export model relies upon large, central production that is then shipped out over long distances. Again, that's an inherent feature of the system, not the result of any consumer preference.

So the result was that in an area where, for example, Jonah Gold apples could be grown without difficulty, Red Delicious apples from hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away were all that was available.

This is the result of this fanatical obsession with converting absolutely every available acre of land to industrial export agriculture, and preserving none of the land for local agrarian and subsistence use. It has nothing at all to do with consumer preference.

Much more serious and dangerous situations prevail today in places like South America, where something like 800 different varieties of potatoes can be grown and are part of the traditional diets of the populations there. As more and more of those countries are converted to industrial export agriculture, more and more the only potato you can consistently find is the Russet potato, the big, easily shippable, easily storable baking potato preferred by the American consumer market.

Now, this is not proof that the industrial export system is not the best. But it is a major drawback of the system, and one which the free market faithful simply refuse to see.

Ethridge said...

Okay, I'm following. But I think that you are confusing two different types of consumer preference. There is the type of consumer preference where the consumer prefers one type of something (apples, for example) to another. And then there is the type of consumer preference where the consumer prefers an easy, inexpensive, non-difficult option compared to a more costly, more difficult/or time intensive process of acquiring the same goods. (And of course, there is a particularly American cultural aspect of this discussion that I will ignore for the moment - just be aware that on that facet, you and I are probably completely in agreement).

Let's look at the potatoes. Okay, 800 varieties can grow in one place. Why wouldn't various companies do this? Why would they move production (growing, whatever) hundreds of miles away if they could do it right there for about the same costs.

The answer, of course, is that it isn't the same costs. Multiple orchards require more resources, both human and financial. Multiple packaging facilities, same story.

So they move production away. They find the most storable, shippable potato and start shipping that. The shipping costs don't even begin to reach the costs of maintaining other facilities.

So here's what the free market demands at this point: The consumer has to say no. The consumer has to refuse the Russet potato, tell the grocer he wants the local variety. Or he'll stop buying from the grocers. And other consumers have to do the same. The consumer has a choice. Take the new option the grocer is providing, or refuse and go elsewhere. If everybody in my annoying little suburb went to the produce market instead of the Kroger for produce because Kroger didn't care their type of potato, I guarantee you Kroger would start to carry that potato. It might be more expensive, because that type isn't as easily shippable or storable, or it might be cheaper because someone realizes there's a profit to be made buy growing them locally and selling them to Kroger. Maybe the company shipping the potatoes sees the loss of sales and moves the production back. That depends on the demand for that particular potato. But the consumer has to make a choice to reject the change.

Which brings us to the real problem (which in my mind is cultural, and has little to do with the free market). People would rather have the option of doing all their shopping in one place, in as little time as possible, then to fight for a particular type of potato. Time is more important than fighting for a specific type of potato. If they want a nice meal with different varieties, they might head out to a local restaurant. They certainly aren't going to take the time to grow it in the backyard.

And that, of course, is the subject of a very good Wendell Berry essay which has been referenced on this blog before.

But, cultural leanings aside, the consumer did make a choice, and they chose the convenience over the type of product.

I get the impression that a lot of the problems most people have with the free market are more closely related to the choices people in that free market make that they don't like. And in many instances, I don't like them either. But the free market works exactly as it supposed to in this situation. The outcome may not be desirable to us, but that just means we chose differently than most people.

I would suggest that if your concern is that people should demand more enjoyable, less shippable or storable apples, that you concentrate on convincing everyone to ask their grocer for a different kind of apple. Or you can try and get one more stupid law passed, using government force to require grocers to carry the product you prefer over the product that the public has, in fact, chosen, because you don't like that choice. Cause certainly, both of those options are equally ethical.

Interestingly, a good portion of my political philosophy can be found in that last paragraph.

And for my epilogue, I will point out that Wal-Mart exists for two reasons. They have low prices (though not always the lowest), but more importantly, you can buy EVERYTHING there. A consumer can literally make one trip and get most daily needs at one single place. And there's a lot of value in that for a lot of people, which is why they continue to do so well, and to piss off a whole bunch of people.

Adam P. Short said...

I hate to be an ass about this, but this is infuriating stuff. What you're saying makes sense internally. But it's made up. You don't have the first clue how what you're describing actually happens, which is why you are able to describe it in this way which is nonfactual.

If you really believe in your libertarian beliefs, go find out how this stuff actually happens. You'll be surprised.

What you're doing is simply describing the process in whatever terms make it fit into your ideological framework. As a result, you're mostly wrong.

Ethridge said...

Well, with stunning rebuttles like that, it's hard to see how Gresham could ever translate to the public discourse.

How about this for infuriating? I explained a process of how the free market works, in a way that I, and many others, understand it to work. You disagree. However, instead of explaining how you believe the system to work, your response is basically, "That's not how it works. You don't know anything. Go learn something and come back when you know something, because you are just wrong. No, I'm not going to explaining my point of view because it is self-evident to anyone with a brain." Granted, that last sentence was merely derived from implication, so it might actually be in there, but it certainly came across that way.

You want to really have a discussion about this? Stop rolling your eyes, step to the keyboard, act like a man who knows what Einstein had to say about teaching, and explain how the system works in your view in such a manner that backs up your original argument about the apples (i.e. the apple situation that "cannot happen" according to free-marketers).

Your other option is to sit back and continue wonder why the poor, assumed ignorant southerners are so angry. Cause really, the answer isn't sitting right in front of you or anything.

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Anonymous said...

Hey man, is that true? You really can't ship guacamole? Is there ANY way at all to do this? Don't stores carry not great guacamole in jars on the shelf? I swear I've seen this. -SS

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