Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The tasting menu

Only buy what you really want, even if it's more expensive, and spend less. Only eat what you really enjoy, and lose weight. These suggestions appear every so often, and are appealing for the obvious reasons. Who among us wouldn't want to buy a $1,000 wheel of Parmesan and end up with the body and bank account of Gisele?

Carl Richards asks us to spend more on goods (bikes, or "maybe a watch, clothes, a new car or even a house") and, in doing so, to spend less on junk: "It’s tempting to tell ourselves this little story about being frugal as we buy garbage from WalMart instead of the quality stuff that we want. Stuff that lasts. Stuff that we can own for a long time."

We at WWPD have seen this argument, and shot it down, before. In terms of Richards's specific claim, it's by no means a given that "we," whoever we are, want "quality." "We" also want what's pretty, what's been advertised to us, and not because "we" are necessarily shallow, but because "we" do not research our every purchase. (Cars, yes. Bikes, maybe. Shirts, no.) We may take better care of things we really like, and save money that way, but the idea that there's this thing called Quality and its pursuit is a noble one makes no sense.

"Quality," whatever it is, isn't durability. Think $400 cream-colored silk blouses. $900 stilettos. They may look better and be made with finer materials than their cheapo equivalents, but the slightest damage and they're gone. "Investing" in clothes is a mistake, because sizes fluctuate, styles change. Keep this in mind when you consider the cost-per-wear of $200 jeans.

Also a mistake: confusing "quality" with "that which one receives in exchange for a higher price." Maybe you're getting something better, or maybe you're paying for a logo, a shop's high rent and clever displays. I have yet to notice any quality difference (durability or design) between the Made in China of Uniqlo and that of far pricier J.Crew.

Much as we might want to be the smug person with only a few high-end items, and not wallowing in a sea of 'it was on sale,' paying more, even if you have reason to believe the higher-end item is better, remains a dangerous proposition. 'It was an investment' is - as Richards himself has written elsewhere! - what people tell themselves when they buy expensive things that they don't need. It only matters that a pair of shoes will last for years, will go with everything, if this is your actual plan for these shoes. If you have 300 pairs all of which can be justified the same way, the excuse itself falls flat.

People who imagine they'll buy this one expensive thing and then be done with shopping forever are, we might imagine, fooling themselves. (And where to begin with 'I'll pass it down to my grandchildren'? The idea that by buying yourself something luxe, you're actually - nobly! - saving your progeny the trouble of buying their own luxury watches is, needless to say, the concept of certain insufferable watch ads.) If we separate out environmental and financial concerns, remember that one super-expensive handbag will cost more than if you buy every single H&M one that strikes your fancy for your entire life. The boring answer to how to spend less? Buy just one handbag, and buy it cheap.


Quality-over-quantity might, however, make sense when it comes to food. Every variety of the Frenchwoman or Mediterranean diet follows this principle: you'd be happier eating a small amount of Excellent than a bucket-full of Lite. Peter Kaminsky offers us not cost-per-wear, but "flavor per calorie." It has a certain ring to it.

Kaminsky, for all his originality, leaves us with women's-magazine clichés: snack on roasted almonds (Kei - didn't you once write something about this?), and eat a square of dark chocolate after meals. Wouldn't you rather a small amount of high-quality cacao than a giant saran-wrapped deli brownie? Oh, you'd prefer the brownie? The trough full of bland?

Flavor-per-calorie assumes that you get pleasure from "umami," that sort of thing, and that the foods you like are ones that go for $30/lb at the gourmet shop. Because this isn't exactly just about flavor. It isn't about anchovies. It's about salt-packed anchovies from an Italian market"Otherwise," writes David Tanis, "for better quality oil-packed anchovies, opt for the pricier ones from Catalonia or the southern French coast — they are generally superior." Of course. If that's you, if that's your outlook on food, then this might work for you, although it's probably how you're eating already.

Still, even if we like intense flavors and the story behind interesting ingredients, we eat not only for flavor, but also to feel full, not-hungry, satiated, etc. A treat to let yourself know you're not depriving yourself might work in the realm of Sephora (or, as I suggest above, might not), but will it do the same at the supermarket?

While my concern since moving to the woods (although this may change, what with the car) has more been eating enough than eating too much, I suppose I subscribe to a food philosophy along these lines when it comes to spending - I'll get a quarter pound of a cheese I really like (Humboldt Fog's conspiracy to bankrupt me...), rather than a pound of one that costs a quarter the amount - but without the pasta to go with, I have not eaten. I'm not sure how this would help a dieter, who'd be left hungry, and trying to come up with what they could eat that would be filling but not fattening. 


kei said...

I'm not sure I've written about almonds as snacks, but I know I have thought about it (maybe it was a tweet?) before. I like them, but to take them seriously as snacks seems strange or funny to me. I'm sure they really do boost energy or whatever, but snacking on them feels like I'm a rabbit or a bird, and that I'm not really eating, so this might not be unlike your point about not eating enough, even if they are good quality or just taste good. I also think of them as skinny girl snacks, mostly because Rumi Neely seems to swear by them. And as is obvious, I often wonder if her bird-like diet is enough, though she seems to have all kinds of reasons and principles regarding what she consumes (no bottled water, no meat, extreme Whole Foods diet, etc.).

Personally, I've found myself no longer buying lots of cheap clothes, but not necessarily to "invest" in more expensive/quality clothes. I may have said this before, but that money isn't really "saved" so much as rerouted into other things as I get older and my interests change. Dog, gardening, house, etc. I'm not sure how hobby-changes due to new developments in life would factor in to this recommendation of quality everything. But obviously I can't be spending on quality for everything! Unless Carl Richards and Ina Garten want to help fund my search for quality products for everything! Just a little help would do.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I feel like this did come up in terms of Ms. Fashion Toast. Sounds familiar. But yes, the snack of almonds is absolutely a cliché, something models claim they do, I guess because it's more socially acceptable than admitting to using cigarettes as weight-control. The square of dark chocolate is, I think, about seeming more sophisticated than those who eat milk chocolate (children) or those who gorge on "lo-fat" artificial-chocolate-flavored biscuits (fat Americans).

This brings up another topic, which is the lengths various fashion-types (not thinking of Neely in particular) go to claim that their extreme thinness is not only effortless, but somehow noble, the inadvertent result of a virtuous lifestyle/a suspiciously convenient food intolerance, perhaps an aversion to carbs. Then, meanwhile, they're making money, even careers off their own physiques, without which they wouldn't be sent quite so many clothes, invites, etc., making it difficult to believe that they're built as they are despite their darndest efforts to bulk up. But there, there isn't generally so much emphasis on the almonds as enjoyable.

"I'm not sure how hobby-changes due to new developments in life would factor in to this recommendation of quality everything."

Not sure, either! Same idea here (dog, car), and while this (along with not living in NYC anymore) cuts into my Uniqlo stops, I haven't switched over to "quality." What has changed is, I probably spend less time contemplating a purchase. This means I'll spend more than I used to on an individual purchase (say, the Frye boots I got in the fall) and will get more use out of it. But is that, to stick with this example, because Frye boots are good quality? They're awfully worn-out by now, but poodle-walks will do that...

Britta said...

Yeah, I don't consider anything a meal if there's no carbs. I also find a non-carb meal isn't particularly filling, or satisfying in that "I can finish eating now" sort of way. While I know people with actual Celiac disease or diagnosed gluten intolerance, I feel like 90% of people with "gluten intolerance" are just looking for a way to avoid carbs without having to overtly admit to dieting.

Also, almonds are only a snack if you pair it with an apple (sweet + nutty) and/or crackers (I discovered almonds and Ritz crackers taste nice together.)

Oh, also, I feel like the "eat small amounts of great foods" is just a much more upscale version of "lose weight by drinking milkshakes!!" sort of diet scam. Foie gras, brie, pork belly are objectively not healthy and if you eat more than small quantities of them, they will make you fat, just like Ding Dongs will. Eaten in small quantities as part of a 'balanced diet' they probably are fine, but then so are Cheetos. The idea that gourmands are all skinny Audrey Tatou types is certainly a recent but seemingly persistent stereotype based on magical thinking.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Exactly. There are people with real allergies, celiac, etc. In the interest of getting along, it's best not to ask for a doctor's note if you suspect (or are near-certain) someone you know is just on a diet (which really does seem to have become something no women of a certain class would admit to). But if we're speaking in general terms, it's quite clear that some people, especially the ones who aren't even claiming any specific medical condition, are just trying to fit into their jeans from college.

"Oh, also, I feel like the 'eat small amounts of great foods' is just a much more upscale version of 'lose weight by drinking milkshakes!!' sort of diet scam."

Indeed! The idea is, if you only eat what you get the most pleasure from, you cut calories by avoiding filler. Which might work, except that even the milkshake-lover will want sandwich, and no matter how "umami"-ful, high-end Provençal olives aren't dinner.