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What Price Dinner?

We just got back from a week’s vacation on Cape Ann. Since the advent of, cooking while on vacation has become way more fun than cooking at home. And it’s easy to justify scallops one night, lobster another, tuna on yet another, all accompanied by farm-fresh salads and gourmet cheeses and good bread and nice wine and a lazy gin-and-tonic as a aperitif. After all, we’re on vacation!

And since we’re on vacation, running down to Lula’s Gourmet Shop and buying tarragon mustard, estate-bottled olive oil, rosemary shortbread, lime curd, French green lentils, Spanish saffron and Mexican chocolate all seems allowable—extravagant, yes, but allowable since, you know, it’s vacation.

Then the ritual pilgrimage to Trader Joe’s on the way back home is another kind of allowable indulgence. How often to we get to Trader Joe’s? Once a year. And the prices are higher than Hannaford but cheaper than Lula’s, so it’s really a bargain. Sort of.

Therefore we are not abstemious when we make our pilgrimage. We load up the cart. We have to buy extra cloth shopping bags since, between the leftovers from the cottage, Lula’s high-priced provisions and this haul at Trader Joe’s, we’ve run out of all our other cloth bags.

But back home in the real world of Price Choppers and Hannafords, it’s a different story. Eating just costs way too much.

And ironically, we have made the decision to start buying as much organic food as possible at a time when food prices in general are rising like floodwaters. A further irony is that we made that decision after I returned from a local farmers market sticker-shocked by the price of organic beef, chicken and vegetables.

There’s no excuse for my naivety. I’ve been buying organic milk now for a couple of years and though my daughter goes through it the way some kids go through soda, I’ve always felt OK about the high cost: I’d heard that hormone-free milk was the most important dietary change you could make for your kids. I’ve been buying cage-free eggs—not the really expensive entirely organic kind, but not the normal kind of egg, either—ever since I found out how chickens are treated in order to lay those normal kind of eggs.

But unless you’ve been living under a rock you can’t escape the knowledge that our health and the health of the planet depends a whole lot on what we eat. Drinking hormone-free milk and buying cage-free eggs doesn’t go real far in eliminating additives or salving a social conscience.

On the other hand, unless you’ve been living under a rock you can’t escape the knowledge that food prices are skyrocketing. Most days when I’m buying what we need for dinner I wonder if maybe we’d save more money by going to a restaurant. And truly, if we visited our local Taco Bell or Wendy’s we would.

So even though we’ve made this decision to “go organic,” I’m the one who does the grocery shopping and I’m the one whose jaw drops at the price difference between a head of romaine which was chemically doctored and one which was not.

In spite of our decision, most of the time I keep on buying the cheaper stuff. And I still can’t believe how much everything costs.

Each trip to the market becomes a series of mini-moral dilemmas. Should I spend the money we said we would spend to eat the kind of food that is the healthiest and most environmentally-sensitive? Should I feel guilty that there is the money to spend on food that costs so much? Should I not spend the money on organic food out of a sense of solidarity with those who have less money? Should I feed my family less healthy food because I’m a) making a social statement, b) cheap c) feeling guilty. Or should I blithely and guiltlessly feed them healthy food?

M.F.K. Fisher, the dead author I would most want to go out to dinner with, published How To Cook a Wolf in 1942 as a culinary guide for housewives stymied by rationing, food shortages and little money. Her argument was that it’s possible to eat well and keep a cool head during war time—and afterward.

She writes, “I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable to assert, then re-assert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all skill, delicacy and ever-increasing enjoyment.”

In chapters with titles like ”How to Keep Alive,” “How to Be Cheerful Though Starving” and “How To Comfort Sorrow,” she writes with her customary brio, offering a variety of recipes ranging from war cake and mock duck, to mouthwash and home-made vodka. In some ways How to Cook a Wolf is a very classy guide to accepting less and making more of it.

And I think that’s the only approach I’ll be able to take with this splurge-on-health decision we have come to. We’re not on vacation anymore; we’re back in the real world. And since we live in a world in which healthy food costs more, we will learn to live with less—but less made with “skill, delicacy and ever-increasing enjoyment.”

—Jo Page

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