Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ignorant Consumption

Yesterday I went to the thrift store and bought four recent copies of The New Yorker that someone had donated, and read them while doing laundry.  Two of the articles were related, and worthy of discussion.  One was about authentication scandals and controversies in the art world, and another was about the business of selling fancy food to the upscale Las Vegas restaurants.

Most people know that the art world is full of crooks.  There are always forgeries, and rip-offs, and everybody seems to be suing everybody else.  This is the inevitable outcome of a process where the opinion of an expert can change the value of something by thousands or even millions of dollars.  Anyone who gets involved in this murky world by buying something as an 'investment' is probably going to end up losing money and getting mad.*

But it surprised me to learn that the fancy food industry has many of these same features.  Different food suppliers are always accusing each other of selling fake or adulterated food.  For example, one guy claimed that the saffron most of his competitors were selling was just random junk dyed red, and he offered to prove it with chemical analysis.  He also said that you could run a quick test by putting it in water; apparently the real stuff will not turn the water red but the fake dyed stuff will.  And from what I read, the chefs took him seriously.

If I had thought about the issue, I would have assumed that it would be impossible to sell fake spices to a good chef.  I would think that culinary schools and/or experience would teach them how to identify good ingredients by smell or taste.  And even if you could not tell the raw form apart, the difference should show up in the final dish.  It seems logical that, if you use a fake or adulterated spice, then the food will not be as good and someone in the kitchen will know why.  I would think that anyone who supplied bad ingredients would be quickly revealed as a fraud and driven out of business.  I would also assume that the chefs would react indignantly to anyone who suggested that they had been buying fakes.  But the article never quoted them saying anything like  "I know what real saffron tastes like and I know that I have been using the good stuff, so go away."

Apparently in the food world, just like the art world, only a few experts can tell the difference between real stuff and fakes.  Even the world-renowned chefs just have to take it on faith that their suppliers are honest.  This makes me wonder why they even bother spending the money on that kind of stuff.  If they cannot tell the difference, and they know that suppliers often cheat, why are they even buying it?

This is probably because fancy food is about image, not taste.  Numerous tests have shown that you can fool people by serving junky food in a fancy setting.  The chefs buy the fancy spices not because of what they taste like, but because it allows the waiter to give an impressive-sounding speech about the food.  People want to believe that they are eating the best food in the world, just like they want to believe that they have something from a world-famous artist.  It is all about status and image.

One good rule to follow in life is to always do whatever you can to avoid purchasing anything where you need an expert to tell you the identity or quality of what you are buying.  This includes almost anything that rich people play with, like fancy food and wine and art, as well as things like car repairs and medical treatment.  All of these things are full of fraud and waste; markets only work well when consumers are reasonably well informed.  Sometimes you have no choice, of course, but it is easy to avoid the former group.

* The only way you should buy art is to get it directly from a living artist, and only get something that you would like to see hanging up on a wall in your house.  Pay a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars, know that you are actually supporting the artist, and then get the lifelong benefits of making your home more attractive.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Richard; I really enjoyed these last two articles. Your so eclectic in what you comment on, it's always a pleasure to read. Dad