There’s a pricey chunk of pecorino romano in the cheese bin of my fridge, waiting for bunches of basil that will never arrive.
Every year, I buy basil in bulk at the farmers’ market so I can mix up several batches of blender pesto. I began the tradition back in the 1990s, when Gina Brisgone, a former reporter here, gave me her Italian family’s prized pesto recipe. It’s the best pesto I’ve ever had. I keep some in the refrigerator and freeze the rest for those nasty winter days when you long for a taste of summer.
This year, I’ll have to find something else to do with the pecorino romano. Why? Because $2 is over my limit.
This year, those tiny bunches of basil at the farmers’ market jumped to $2 a bunch. In case you hadn’t been keeping track, that’s a 100 percent price increase from just a couple of years ago.
Maybe I’ve lived in Maine too long and have taken on too many Yankee tendencies when it comes to parting with my cash. After all, it’s just two bucks, right?
Well, not exactly. The recipe calls for two cups of tightly packed basil per batch, so I’d have to spend a bundle to make enough pesto to get me through to next summer. Add in the cost of the olive oil, the pine nuts, the cheese and a budget that’s tighter than it’s ever been, and it’s clear that pesto is not recession-proof.
The first time I noticed the price of basil had gone up again, I’ll admit it was a little frustrating. I used to be able to make the rounds at the farmers’ market and fill a large tote bag full of produce for just $20. (I also remember when those $8 to $10 flower bunches were just $3.50.) It was one of the pleasures of buying directly from the farmer at the weekly market – cut out the middle man, get some bargains.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that hardworking farmers deserve to be paid what their product is worth. My grandparents were hardscrabble farmers who used mules and a plow to till their land for most of their working lives. I have many fond memories of watching the vegetables grow, feeding the chickens and making butter by hand with my grandmother, using milk straight from the cow. (Her old butter churn is now one of my prized possessions.)
I will pay more for local food. I usually don’t eat cantaloupe, for example, but the melons sold at the farmers’ market every summer are so incredibly flavorful and delicious, I would probably fork over $10 for one. And I’m one of those people who only buy eggs with the certified humane label, which means I’m often paying around $4 a dozen for eggs.
Occasionally, I will pay a little more for things I just want to try too. God help me, I almost spent $2.79 for just 6 ounces of Icelandic yogurt the other day at Whole Foods.
But the seemingly yearly increase in the price of basil has me flummoxed.
In subsequent weeks at the farmers’ market, I noticed that some farmers were selling much larger bunches of basil for $2 that would have satisfied my needs just fine without making me feel like I was paying too much, but by then I found I was caught up in comparing other prices.
Did it seem like everyone was charging $2 a pound for squash this year? I’m not saying that’s too much, I just noticed in the heart of the summer that almost everyone was charging the same price. It almost didn’t matter who you bought your squash from, because it all looked great and cost the same.
There has been a lot of debate over whether farmers’ markets are too expensive. Actually, overall, the market is still a great bargain, and I think most people just never bother to compare prices. Organic carrots and broccoli sold at Whole Foods cost about the same as at the farmers’ market, and conventionally-grown local field tomatoes cost about the same as well.
The broccoli from Presque Isle sold at Hannaford is just $1.29 a pound compared with $3 a pound at Whole Foods and the farmers’ market, but the $3-a-pound broccoli is usually organically grown.
I watched an elderly woman try to buy a pork roast at the farmers’ market the other day. When the vendor told her it would be $24, her hands flew to her face like Macaulay Culkin and she walked away. Tell a farmer that story, and he will say that food in the grocery store is far too cheap because it is subsidized. Maybe the woman should eat that good local pork, then eat less meat the rest of the week – just skip the cheap store-bought stuff altogether.
I get that. But here’s the thing: maybe she’s already doing that. Just because someone doesn’t want to pay $24 for a 4-pound roast doesn’t mean they’re chowing down on the cheap stuff the rest of the week. There are plenty of people out there who aren’t on food stamps but are still caught in a financial squeeze and have to make hard choices about how they spend their money.
Sometimes, the $24 roast loses. Don’t take it personally – we all know farmers don’t make a lot of money either – or assume that everyone who doesn’t want to spend that kind of money on meat (or basil) doesn’t believe in the benefits of buying local food.
Peoples’ budgets are their budgets. You can tell me, as many activists will, to spend less on iPods and other gadgets and spend more on local food – it’s all about priorities, right? Well, yes, if my vintage iPod worked. I can’t afford to get it fixed right now or replace it. And I’m apparently one of the few people left on the planet who can’t afford a smart phone, so please don’t tell me to spend less on technology.
As for my pesto, I suppose I’ll just have to find something else to do with that pecorino romano (which I bought on sale, by the way). A couple of farmers have suggested to me that next year, I ask them directly to bring me a whole lot of basil and we can work out a price.
This winter, I guess I’ll just have to settle for pesto from a jar.