To dispense with the obvious: A chicken from Pete's Shur-Sav is not a chicken from your local farmers' market.
The first is a too-white, too-plump bird, injected with water to give an appearance of heft and to command a higher price (although, at 89 cents a pound, the price is still very affordable). The second is a more natural pinkish color, plump in the way that chickens are plump, nothing more. But at nearly $4 a pound — or $16 for the whole bird — it's a major stretch to say that this chicken is "affordable," particularly for a family on a tight budget.
Now is a time when the national conversation about how and what we eat — from "food miles" to "food deserts," from back-yard chicken farms to genetically modified salmon — is at its loudest and most interesting. But sometimes, it's important to take the debate out of the hypothetical and, well, onto the plate. What would happen if an identical menu was sourced from four different stores? How would the shopping experiences differ? How greatly would the costs vary? And, most important, how would everything taste — and what does that say about how and what we eat?
Local chef John Perkins, who has popularized the "underground restaurant" trend in St. Louis with his successful Entre:Underground series, designed the menu for an event that was one small part dinner party and one big part experiment. While Perkins' Entre:Underground menus are innovative and bold (think duck prosciutto, chanterelle pot pie, grilled peaches with blue-cheese ice cream), this menu was straightforward, designed around ingredients that could (in theory, at least) be sourced from four disparate locations. The evening's dinner would begin with a tomato-and-goat-cheese salad, followed by roasted chicken and potatoes, and finished with a gooey butter cake (for complete menu details and recipes, see below).
Shopping teams were dispatched to Pete's Shur-Sav, Whole Foods, the Hampton Village Schnucks and the Tower Grove Farmers' Market. Armed with identical lists, the shoppers were told to find every ingredient they could and make substitutions at their discretion. The shopping trips were a study in contrasts: the crush of harried Friday-evening shoppers at Whole Foods and Schnucks, the leisurely stroll though the Saturday-morning farmers' market, the pleasant exchange with the butcher at Pete's Shur-Sav, who offered a free length of his own twine for chicken-trussing.
All the ingredients were brought to the Steve Adams Studio, a gorgeous space with a commercial-grade kitchen and enough equipment to prepare a meal for several high school football teams. As the amateur chefs (more frequently referred to as "RFT writers and editors") unpacked the grocery bags, differences among the hauls were immediately apparent. Hours before the first fork was lifted, we could tell that the four iterations of the tomato-and-goat-cheese salad would be very, very different.
The tomatoes from the farmers' market were heirlooms, charmingly ugly tomatoes in varying shades of yellow and red, grown and picked at Silent Oaks Farm in Opdyke, Illinois, about two hours from St. Louis. The Pete's Shur-Sav tomatoes were a lovely red, firm but not too.
It was the Schnucks and Whole Foods tomatoes that gave pause — seemingly decent as they lay nestled inside the plastic produce bag, but revealed to be subpar with just one squeeze. Leaking and overripe, the tomatoes had not fared well in their journey from farm to table.
The variations among goat cheese were significant, too. From Schnucks and Whole Foods came slender logs of chèvre, tightly sealed and ready for slicing or crumbling. The farmers' market goat cheese, procured from central Missouri's Whetstone Farm, was packaged, creamy and fresh, in a small tub. The goat cheese from Pete's Shur-Sav met the letter of the law, if not the spirit; while the recipe called for chèvre, the only cheese-from-a-goat at Pete's was crumbled feta.
The dessert course leveled the playing field, thanks to standard ingredients like all-purpose flour and confectioner's sugar, which are similar across the board (and which caused the Tower Grove team to "cheat," since such items aren't exactly farmers' market staples). The main difference here was in the eggs: uniform white orbs from Pete's Shur-Sav and Schnucks, light-brown organic eggs from Whole Foods and, from the Tower Grove market, eggs in varying hues and sizes. Additionally, because Pete's Shur-Sav doesn't offer pine nuts, that team substituted slivered almonds.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the four locations' differences were evinced most clearly in the four chickens. All, it should be said, looked good on camera, particularly after the oven rendered the crisp skin a gorgeous caramel-brown. But looks can be deceiving. The farmers' market chicken was the least plump, yet by far the meatiest; the Whole Foods bird also had plenty of meat on the bone and didn't rely on the trickery of water weight. The Pete's Shur-Sav chicken (a "stewing hen," the only whole bird available), on the other hand, created an almost cartoonish sloosh of water upon being lifted out of its plastic bag. What appeared to be plump breast meat was actually the poultry version of serious water retention. The Schnucks chicken was similarly waterlogged, and pierced by a retro red pop-up timer.
The most egregious aspect of the Schnucks chicken, though, was its state of deterioration. At three days before its sell-by date, this bird's skin was taking on a sickly gray hue, and it smelled of decay. The team preparing the Schnucks menu had no choice but to run out for a "backup chicken."
This raised an uncomfortable question, one that echoed throughout the preparation and the meal itself: How can we all eat better when the superior products (vegetables and meat, in particular) are most readily available to those with more money and, in many cases, more time?
Somewhere, in the back of our minds, we wanted the less-expensive ingredients — the chicken from Pete's Shur-Sav, say, or the tomatoes from Schnucks — to be on par with their pricier brethren. This wasn't born of any desire to prove avowed foodies wrong or to fly in the face of the locavore movement. Quite the contrary. Those who care about their food and where it comes from are part of the solution, not part of the problem. But the hope was that maybe, maybe, the more affordable meat and vegetables wouldn't taste so different from the more expensive ones.
This was one experiment in which we all wanted to be proven wrong.
But as the cooks set to chopping, trussing, whisking and mixing, it quickly became apparent that the recipes — straightforward though they were — would produce varied results based on the ingredients' sources.
The tomatoes from Schnucks largely collapsed under pressure from the knife, their flesh pinkish and watery. The salad's goat cheese component, too, proved problematic for another team. Meant to be slathered on the tomato slices to form a lovely vertical salad presentation, the cheese was warmed in the microwave for ten seconds and then whisked with heavy cream. This worked nicely for the teams that actually had chèvre, but the crumbled feta from Pete's Shur-Sav didn't fare so well. In a desperate attempt to get the texture right, the Pete's team placed the feta-and-cream mixture in the stand-up mixer, with results that were described (optimistically) as "a feta milkshake" and (realistically) as "the worst thing my hungover self could see right now."
The final presentation reflected the discoveries made during the preparation. The Schnucks salad sagged with water weight, the tomatoes' excess fluid diluting an otherwise delicious honey vinaigrette. The Whole Foods salad looked pretty on the plate, while the Pete's Shur-Sav iteration was marred by the unfortunately chunky feta-cream mixture. The farmers' market version, buoyed by plump tomatoes and fluffy chèvre, was the poster child for a summer salad.
During the prep phase, all chickens appeared to be created equal; each was stuffed with onion and lemon, slathered with butter inside and out, trussed and sprinkled with salt and pepper. The accompanying potatoes — new potatoes from Whole Foods and Schnucks, red waxy potatoes from Pete's Shur-Sav, fingerlings from Tower Grove — were tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper, ready to sizzle alongside the chickens in the oven.
Gooey butter cake revealed a new kind of difference: not in ingredient quality, but in skill set. While most participants described their baking skills on a scale from "adequate" to "desperately bad," one team member was an absolute baking star. Her gooey butter cake — made with the haul from Schnucks, a collection of mid-priced, non-organic ingredients that could be found in nearly any American pantry — was stellar. The not-too-sweet shortbread crust was the perfect contrast to the decadent filling, and the golden-brown top was a thing of beauty.
Remarked one non-baker, who snuck a bite before the table had even been set: "This is so good that I almost need a cigarette, and I don't smoke."
Eating is not a numbers game, except when it is. When the menu ingredients sourced from Schnucks tally up to nearly $27 more than those purchased from Pete's Shur-Sav, it begs the question: Is this meal $27 better than its nearly identical counterpart? Is the $7.52 chicken better than the $3.99 chicken? (Not really, especially when you consider paying for a second chicken to replace one that reeked of decay.)
Place the Whole Foods receipt on the table and the stakes are even higher: The Pete's Shur-Sav ingredients were purchased for $65.46, while the Whole Foods ingredients came in at nearly twice that, with a total of $118.56.
What's going on here?
Pete's Shur-Sav provides the five food groups at across-the-board reasonable prices. For families on a tight budget — and that describes an enormous number of families these days — it's vital to have a place where food is not prohibitively expensive. This is particularly true when it comes to pantry staples and shelf-stable items: sugar, flour, salt, oil. All can be purchased at Pete's for good prices.
Move toward the produce aisles, though, and the value becomes questionable. The tomatoes from Pete's totaled $2.48; the heirlooms from the Tower Grove Market totaled $3. The differences in appearance, firmness and flavor would suggest a far greater price disparity.
But getting to the farmers' market is not a reality for every family, and that brings us to another tight economy — one of time.
The neatest solution would be to pick up basic items at stores that offer the fairest prices, and to pick up items whose quality depends greatly on growing and shipping conditions at a farmers' market or co-op. In theory at least, that could rein in the budget without sacrificing high nutritional value and plain old deliciousness.
But ours is not a nation where people walk from market to market; with few exceptions, we do not have time to drive to the bakery, the butcher, the roadside farm stand. Our experiment, in fact, proved just how difficult it can be to source everything from a farmers' market. The only chickens for sale at Tower Grove are frozen, complicating our plans to shop on Saturday morning for our Saturday evening meal. Our solution was to make a separate trip to the Maplewood Farmers' Market a few days before, giving the chicken plenty of time to thaw before Saturday. That worked beautifully — but how many families have energy for that kind of maneuvering, much less the time to plan ahead?
Indeed, most families probably rely on one-stop shopping for convenience's sake, a decision that comes with a cost. If that one place is somewhere like Schnucks, the "cost" might be subpar tomatoes. And if that place is Whole Foods, the cost is literal: We're paying $4.99 for a roll of kitchen twine and $6.99 for a box of salt.
Another part of our experiment suggested just how much foodies (or those simply pressed for time) may overpay for staples as a result.
Recall, for a moment, the perfectly baked Schnucks cake that sent one tester into a food reverie. Its ingredients cost $30.10, which included three extra pounds of sugar and a big bag of pine nuts for future recipes.
At Whole Foods, our shoppers were able to purchase much smaller portions. Yet the cake-related part of their grocery list alone rang up to $40.10, exactly $10 higher than Schnucks — even as their cake ended up nowhere near as good as the one from Schnucks.
For the baking portion of our meal, at least, cooking skill mattered more than the labels on the food. Which goes to show: You can spend all you like on sea salt and eggs fresh from the family farm. But if you don't know how to sift and you're making gooey butter cake, you're still in trouble.
The four meals made, the cooks — joined by significant others and a sixteen-month-old with an adventurous palate — sat around the dinner table to share food, wine and tasting notes.
As predicted during prep time, the salads made with Schnucks and Whole Foods ingredients both disappointed, owing to pedestrian tomatoes that lacked any real tang. The Pete's Shur-Sav salad was doomed by its ersatz goat-cheese concoction, which tasted about as good as it looked; after one or two experimental bites, these salads sat largely untouched.
Then there was the farmers' market salad, about which one diner said — as if experiencing a revelation — "these tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes!" That they did: juicy, tart tomatoes perfectly complemented by the chèvre and the vinaigrette. The side-by-side comparison threw the inadequacy of the supermarket tomatoes into high relief. Without the farmers' market tomatoes as a touchstone, the others would likely seem "fine," the kind of workmanlike tomatoes that you find atop a cheeseburger or nestled in a BLT.
The differences among the four roasted chickens were just as stark. All arrived at the table with the same lovely golden skin, appearing as though they would each be equally heavenly.
The first forkfuls put the lie to that.
According to one diner, the Pete's Shur-Sav bird was "the chicken of my childhood" — but that was not a nostalgic compliment. Rather, the diner explained, the chicken reminded him of the tough, dry birds he'd eaten as a kid. Even with all of the water injected into this chicken, and despite the butter massaged liberally into its skin, its factory-farmed, dry taste could not be overcome. The Schnucks chicken proved a bit better, although diners had to take care to eat around several unappetizing globules of fat. The moistness was there, but the flavor wasn't; this too was the bland chicken of our childhoods, better suited for a casserole than for whole-roasting.
Far more luscious was the Whole Foods chicken, with its crackling skin and plentiful meat, but the real star was the Maplewood Farmers' Market chicken, sourced from Farrar Out Farm, 90 miles south of St. Louis. This was the ideal specimen: completely fork-tender and tasting like chicken — earthy, juicy, perfect chicken. (The Farrar Out Farm chicken was a particular hit with the sixteen-month-old, who did what everyone else secretly wanted to do — dive into the plate face-first.)
For both the foodies and the novice gourmands in the room, the results of our little experiment were clear. Clear, and disappointing, in that we'd wanted to be proven wrong but weren't — locally sourced ingredients, farm-fresh and seasonally appropriate, simply taste best.
This was a foreseeable but wholly unsatisfying conclusion, because there remains that lingering question: How can we help everyone in our communities eat better? We cannot accept with a clear conscience that tasty tomatoes and non-rubbery chicken are available primarily to those with enough time to shop at various places and enough money to pay $4 per pound at the farmers' market.
The argument becomes not just one of taste, but of health and equality. When these inequities are immediately visible on the plate — and quickly confirmed by the palate — we know we have work to do.