The Big Deals

SO THERE YOU ARE, a Brahmin in the mid-19th century, and you’ve got a problem: In spite of all Dad’s tirades about ostentation and frivolous spending, you’ve somehow developed a soft spot for cassia, that rare and deep-flavored spice those blasted Forbes boys keep bringing back from their voyages to China. You desperately want to quit the habit, but the flavoring’s aromatic effects on your morning porridge have you emptying your wallet again and again. And every time you do, you tell yourself this: Some foods are just worth the sacrifice — of money, of course, but also of that whole Yankee frugality thing Father keeps going on about. What you have no way of knowing is that a century and a half later, this argument will continue to live at the center of your descendants’ hearts, minds, and stomachs.

[sidebar]Now, as much as in the 1840s, we worship the concept of value — of paying not a penny more than what something is worth. Admittedly, that’s an elusive and subjective notion — one that extends beyond food and into every area of our lives. Then again, food just may be the only thing we care about enough (with the possible exception of sports) to throw caution to the wind. But the question of which foods are worth our money is a lot more complicated now than it was for our ancestors.

Back in the day, they didn’t have nearly the number of incredible restaurants or the bountiful selection of retail foods (local and otherwise) that we do now. Which means our temptation to spend has skyrocketed — whether on a world-class $250 prix fixe that changes our life, or a fantastic $7 burrito that makes our day a little better.

So yes, times have certainly changed. But in the frugality realm? Not so much. Our good old Yankee thrift still lingers — a constant dread that if we pay even a few dollars too much for something, we’ll have been taken for chumps.

But what we’re concerning ourselves with here is value — not parsimony. “Cheap eats” —  that Ross-and-Rachel throwback concept — too often amounts to how to spend as little as possible. McDonald’s may be a bargain, but few of us see it as a temple of value; around here we don’t eat crappy, inexpensive food to survive. We want food that at the end of the day thrills us. Jolts us alive. Makes us happy. And we’ll pay for it.