In last week’s podcast, I asked whether we should distinguish food poverty from poverty, pure and simple. Following up, this week’s newsletter is largely about the cost of food.
As I write this, dawn is breaking on a day when Americans are predicted to eat 1.42 billion chicken wings, which this year are set to cost somewhere between 14% and 20% more than last year. What does that do to the price of 1.42 billion chicken legs? How about whole chickens with wings and legs intact?
Professor Tim Lang has a long essay on food poverty in the UK, triggered by Jack Monroe’s successful provocation for a new measure of food price inflation that takes into account the cheaper brands that poor people often rely on. Lang’s conclusion is that “inequality not poverty is the problem”. He adduces evidence showing that inequality has indeed increased, with the richest 1% increasing their share of national income in 2011–2020 by 18%. “In 2018,” Lang writes, “the richest fifth of people in the UK had an income more than 12 times the amount earned by the poorest fifth.”
Is inequality really the problem? Surely what matters more is how much poorer people have to spend relative to what they need to buy. I don’t really care if fools wish to eat steaks coated in gold leaf, as long as ordinary people can afford to eat at least decently. I agree with Lang that cracking down on tax fraud and avoidance by the rich (which might dent their enthusiasm for those steaks) would help create more money for the government to spend on, say, supporting people in poverty. I also agree that “the answer to food poverty is … higher incomes to enable everyone to live decently and eat a sustainable diet”. That seems to me to be all about poverty, not inequality. Like Lang, though, “I’m not holding my breath”.
Well, almost everything. And only in the US. But still.
Purdue University — a powerhouse in such ag-economics — has launched a new dashboard that promises hours of endless amusement for those of us who are easily amused. The Food Price Dashboard lets you select one or more foods and see how prices have changed over roughly the past decade, in three different ways. There’s the price, the inflation adjusted price and — my favourite — the time-price, which is the amount of food you can buy for an hour’s work at average wages. (There are problems with this, because income distribution is skewed, with the median often around half the mean, but it is still relatively interesting.)
You can uncover all sorts of nuggets, like the fact that if you buy large bottles of soft drink, an hour’s work will get you almost 1.5 times more soda than if you buy cans. Cheaper per calorie, and probably more calories drunk overall.
I took a more detailed look at chicken, and because I do not have a good grasp of industrial chicken economics, have more questions than answers. Chicken breast, for example, is more than twice the price of both whole chickens and chicken legs (bone-in), while whole birds and legs are usually more or less equal in price. Is the convenience of a breast really worth it, when a whole chicken can provide breasts really easily and a lot more besides? And why are legs relatively so cheap? I understand that poultry processors can make more profit by dividing a bird up into parts, but I’d love to know more about how they ensure that all the parts sell.
Way back in the dim and distant past I played about a bit with koji, the fungus that is the basis of so many Asian fermented foods. If I had the space, I would do so again, and if I were to do that, I would definitely be dropping in on Kojicon 2022. It takes place online for two weeks from 21 February and promises an amazing array of presentations tapping into all things Aspergillus.
A fun read digs into the colonial history of the stew named after a town in Bengal.
Burdwan Stew is a hearty dish of roasted (or parboiled) meat, ideally game, stewed with onions, wine and, depending upon the recipe, a quirky potpourri of condiments and seasonings ranging from the juice of Seville oranges to the essence of anchovies, a piquant sauce made of fermented anchovies.
Along the way, Priyadarshini Chatterjee examines the origin of some fusion dishes and how, possibly, this strange stew was a response to the need to reheat cooked meats under less than ideal, jungly circumstances. Despite prodigious research, the question whether there was a single canonical recipe remains, as does the identity of “corach escavecke,” an ingredient in one recipe. Escavecke is clearly the same as escabeche, so something pickled or cooked in an acid or vinegar liquid. But what might “corach” be? In any case, I see no obvious reason for substituting it “with a dash of the hot Habanero sauce”.