We are working but still can’t buy diddly squat

We are working but still can’t buy diddly squat

Sitting in the barber chair after a too-long pause between cuts, I watched the snippets of alarming gray fall into the folds of the cape. As is often the case, my longtime barber and I were talking about his livestock farm and how he expected the year to pan out.

I remarked with some drama that meat prices, in fact prices for any kind of food, had gotten to the point of wondering just how long it would be before a “food or gas” question arose. This piqued the attention of the three men in the chairs awaiting their turn.

“Just a few months ago,” I said, “I was buying eggs for under a dollar. Now they are north of $3 a dozen. And who can even afford meat?”

Then he took a break from snipping and came round to the front of the chair.

“Look for it to get a lot worse,” he said. “Most of the fertilizer we use in the U.S. comes from Ukraine.”

I’ve come to view all such information with something like jaded suspicion, as one must treat all casually dispensed views in the 21st century. It’s a slippery slope from “eggs are pricey because grain is being hoarded by the New Zealanders” to “Tom Hanks is eating children, you know.”

This is the world in which we find ourselves, where loony opinions are in more plentiful supply than tampons or baby formula.

As it happens, he was right. More than 20% of the stuff that goes into the fertilizers used in the United States comes from either Ukraine or Russia, meaning a significant source of what farmers need to grow our food is choked off by war.

If the absolute jackboot wickedness of Russia’s upsetting the longstanding European peace doesn’t make you angry, perhaps lettuce at $6 a salad’s worth might ignite a little proper anger and revulsion. Or a how would you like a $25 strawberry pie?

Meat prices continue to rise ahead of most other products that aren’t outright unavailable. Slaughtered steer prices are nearly 18% higher this year than in 2021. And this is where my barber comes in again.

“I assume farmers aren’t seeing any of this money from higher prices?” Sometimes I ask questions I know will make him really warm to the topic. The three waiting fellows gave me a “will you just be quiet please?” look. I was extending their wait time. Chatting meant the clippers were silent.

“Oh, no,” he said. “The couple of companies that own the whole food business are making plenty more money, but I don’t see any higher prices than any other time, and prices realized for livestock have been bad for years.”

I’ve been passing up racks of ribs or nice-looking steaks for a while now because I’m just a poor writer and a frugal one at that. The problem is finding something to pass on to as an alternative. Lunch meat is stupid expensive, a package of hot dogs costs as much as a whole chicken and even a bag of potato chips requires cost cutting somewhere else, and there is nowhere to cut.

My friend who makes his home in Harvard Square, not far from Julia Child’s home, reminded me of the basic lesson from economics class: employment and inflation have an inverted relationship. So when inflation is running high, as now, unemployment is low. And we are seeing the lowest unemployment rates since the 1970s. I present this as an unpalatable silver lining. We are working but still can’t buy diddly squat. I’m betting your 401K is in the toilet, as a kind of cherry on the sundae.

Prices for beef, remarkably, aren’t causing a dip in purchasing. Sources report Americans are still shelling out whatever it costs for ribeye and sirloin while prices are expected to rise a further 6% in 2022, meaning by the time we get to Christmas, $30-a-pound filet mignon will be even higher.

You know what’s still pretty cheap? Mussels. Mussels keep breeding, and the Russians be damned. I have often suggested you put some clams on the grill for the July 4 holiday as a snack while you cook, with a little bowl of melted butter at the ready. This year swap out some mussels while you grill the only other somewhat affordable thing around — potatoes. I’ve been baking a lot of them for dinner at 40 cents each.

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