Sunday, 10 May 2015

Solanum cinereum

(")Norm(") is a gentleman of great taste. For one, he has made one of the most impressive mix CDs I have ever received, which I am still floundering about trying to respond to over a year later. Sorry, Norm.

A few months ago he started a personal finance blog which I have been observing with interest, as he's very open in outlining all his expenses - and it's been interesting to compare costs. Not just on the macro level (i.e. I don't have to deal with a single snow-related expense) but also on the micro level (i.e. vegetable oil is identically priced in Melbourne and Small City, NY).

While the vegetable oil statistic is comforting, the idea that Norm bought an entire house for US$130,000 is anything but. Excellent work, Norm.

I decided to try to replicate one of his Cost Per Serving posts, where he makes a meal, and then calculates the cost of each serving. Was I desperately interested in how much the figures differed? No. Nor was I that excited about speculating on whether the differences were based on our different countries, or levels of urbanity. I was, as ever, primarily interested in getting things wrong.

So I chose Norm's February 19, 2015 winter treat, Eggplant Dirty Rice, and I used the same recipe from international superconglomerate Time Inc.

I wanted to make sure I could calculate a correct cost-per-serving, so I had to buy products I actually already owned, just so I could work out a cost metric. This meant forgoing our preferred soy sauce (of which there is plenty in the pantry) and buying a cheaper supermarket version which was flavoured sweetly for Chinese cooking. We do a lot more Japanese cooking than Chinese cooking, so the only benefit here was that it will bring the cost-per-serving down by a fraction of a cent. (Three months later - because that's how long it took me to get around to typing this - the new soy sauce is still sitting around.)

Then there was the problem that the recipe and Norm's page gave Imperial measurements, which I translated into metric, but then had to estimate as best I could when measuring the ingredients: e.g. 1.5 cups medium grain white rice is fine if you have cup measures, but oh dear there is no 354.88 millilitre line on my measuring cup.

I also had to have faith that, while I know that what I call a green capsicum is called a green pepper in the US, the general size of said fruit would be roughly the same in the two countries. Actually I had no faith that this was the case, but would continue with my horrendous brew.

So on 24 February I popped down to my local monopoly and bought - well, here you go:

So, a nice round AU$20.15 (US$15.98, that is, taking no account for exchange rate variance between February and May). This isn't the total cost of the meal though, because while I have bought a tiny tin of tomato paste I am clearly only going to use a skerrick of it. Let me try to work out how much it cost to buy the ingredients which were actually used in the recipe (I'll use US$ for all figures to allow easy comparison, with Norm's cost in bold and mine in red):

1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil: 0.15 0.14
Celery (3 stalks): 0.36 0.84
Green peppers (1lb): 1.99 1.86
Onion (1): 0.40 0.36
Eggplant (1lb) 1.99 2.51 is what I should have spent had I not bought too small an eggplant
Dried thyme (1tbsp): 0.91 0.26
Garlic (3 cloves): 0.27 0.22
Tomato paste (1tbsp): 0.15 0.30
Soy sauce (1tbsp): 0.07 0.18
Rice (1.5 cups): 0.45 0.77
Broth (2 cubes): 0.14 0.21

Total cost of ingredients in USA 6.88
Total cost of ingredients in AUS 7.65
Total cost per serving in USA 1.37
Total cost per serving in AUS 1.53

The mighty USA wins by a not inconsiderable US$0.16 per serving!

Apart from my terrible kitchencraft, lazy measuring skills and general disinterest in food unless I can convert it into calculator fun, what are the variables here?

Obviously it was the end of winter in February in the Northern Hemisphere but the end of summer here, but I can't see any clear influence that would have had on the cost of fresh food. With a smaller population to pay for the same costs of transportation, it makes sense that fresh food is more expensive in Australia. The cost of rice is probably because I bought a tiny one-kilo package of rice so I could get a precise cost-to-weight ratio, whereas Norm sensibly has decanted his rice into a storage jar, presumably from a forty-pound sack. His soy sauce also doesn't come in the world's dinkiest container, the wobbly design being paid for by muggins here. I don't understand why his thyme is so pricey - though it's clear I will be welcomed as a god if I start distributing cheap thyme across the United States.

And how delicious was it? I'm glad you asked! It was fucking awful. I only had a shallow casserole dish, the rice didn't soften, which meant I had to add a new step to the recipe involving five hours in the slow cooker. The next morning it was nice and soft, but the salt from the stock which would otherwise have steamed away had all been retained under the cooker lid. It was eventually made edible with the addition of a lot more rice.

Tune in to my cooking blog next week when I set my hair on fire while making cornflakes.