Friday, April 4, 2008

The Cost of Saffron

I will confess something to you right now; I am not a big Whole Foods fan. I understand the appeal and everything, don't get me wrong, but I only go there if I need something I absolutely can't get at a normal grocery store.

Every once in a while, I get tired of eating boxed foods or carryout meals and decide that I'm going to actually get off my ass and cook something. I then run over to my cook books, which collect dust on the shelf underneath my microwave, flip through the different recipes and pick something that (A) has an appetizing looking picture and (B) looks reasonably easy to make. I will then normally get distracted by something and end up ordering a delicious deep dish pizza.

Two nights ago I was bitten with this bug to actually cook real food myself. I ran over to my cook books, I picked out something with an appetizing picture that looked easy to make, I jotted down the ingredients and, resisting the urge to give up and order a delicious deep dish pizza. I headed off towards my local Jewel (one of the big chain grocery stores in Chicago).

I should have known while looking over the ingredients that this would require a trip to the Whole Foods store. I should have known Jewel wouldn't cut it because the recipe called from a spice other than dried parsley. I needed saffron.

Saffron, for those of you who don't know, is probably the most expensive food known to man. This is because saffron is the dried stigmas of the saffron flower. There are only three per flower, which makes it a pain in the ass to harvest. This information appears in the cookbook. I was fully aware of the rarity of the ingredient before I decided to cook this particular dish. I don't know why I thought I could find it at Jewel, but I tried anyway. No such luck. Every time I asked an employee, they thought I was looking for Spanish rice.

So, I bought everything else for the meal at reasonable human prices from the Jewel, dropped everything off at home, and then headed off on my pilgrimage to Foodie Mecca.

A couple of things I don't like about my local Whole Foods grocery store:

(1) It's expensive, presumably under the guise of being higher quality food than you can get elsewhere. I'm not completely convinced that this perceived higher value isn't just a function of different packaging than other grocery stores but I'll give them this much; they carry saffron.

(2) They are a claustrophobic's nightmare, at least any one that I've been to in the city. The aisles are tiny, packed with groceries and crowded with foodies and hippies. I have no problem with tight spaces, but even I start to feel like the aisles are closing in on me.

(3) Some of the workers kind of get on my nerves.

After wading through a sea of people buying exotic lentils and checking the freshness of vegetables I have never heard of before, I finally managed to find the saffron (it's like $8 for two teaspoons... remind me to order a pizza next time). I then fought my way past the cheeses, crawled through the prepared food section (underneath the salad bar, which is the only reasonable way to get through there during the post-work crowds) and finally battled my way to the checkout. I thought wistfully of the self-checkout lanes at Jewel, and of the impending feeling of relief once I finally make it home.

And I might have made it home sooner had the bag guy just let me go my merry way. Instead, he wanted to talk to me about my food purchase.

"Did you know that saffron is quite possibly the most expensive food in the known world?" he asked.

I was thrown off for a moment because I'm just not used to a bag guy saying anything more than hello and goodbye. They're normally not a very talkative bunch. Aparently, Whole Foods bag guys are not in the norm.

"Yes," I said, hoping that this would suffice. At that point, I was focused on paying and getting out.

"Do you know why, though?" he asked, obviously hell bent on striking up a friendly rapport with his customer.

"Because it says so on the packaging," I said.

"No," he said, almost hurt that I could make such a flippant remark about his beloved saffron. "It's because they're the little things from the middle of flowers - what do you call them - and there's only two or three for each flower so it's really hard harvesting them and that's why it's so expensive."

"Yes," I said, then turned to the cashier, "How much do I owe...."

"You know what else is an expensive food?"

"What's that?" asked the cashier.

"Truffles. You know where truffles come from?"

At that moment, I had a revelation. Some people apparently must like to talk about their food choices. Maybe they're at home and they're thinking, "God, I really want to talk Danish cheeses with someone," so they hop in their car and run to the nearest Whole Foods to debate the individual merits of different brands of Havarti. However, I am not that person. I am the person who was literally just a speed-dial away from a delicious deep dish pizza. In fact, I probably have absolutely no business even buying saffron. At that moment in time, all I wanted was to take my saffron and go home.

So I handed the cashier some money in the hopes that she would just cash me out and watched in horror as she, clutching the bills in hand, turned to the bag boy and started talking truffles.


Anonymous said...

God! What a long post !!

check this out!

Anonymous said...

hehe!! I love this part!!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Fun story. What did you make with the Saffron? -Mom