The illusion of food prices
We assume that if food is expensive, it will be better-tasting and higher-quality food. But in reality, this is artifice of the mind.
The American food system is unique in its desire and ability to provide taste, quality, diversity and affordability. However, that distinctive relationship is skewed by another U.S. phenomenon: the obsession with higher prices and higher quality.
Serendipity 3 in Georgetown offers more than frozen hot chocolate, legions of tourists and cutesy décor. The hot fudge sundae with Malagasy and Tahitian vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce made of white cocoa beans, chunks of Chuao, Venezuelan chocolate, Parisian candied fruits, truffles and marzipan cherries at Serendipity 3 create perhaps the greatest dessert experience in the world. The only catch is the $1,000 price tag.
It is hard to think about the price of the sundae with words like Malagasy, Tahitian, marzipan and Chuao, Venezuelan chocolate. A similar technique is used to describe the tagliatelle noodles and white truffles of $95 mac ‘n’ cheese.
Starbucks recently announced the introduction of the Costa Rica Finca Palmilera. A grande cup of the most exotic, rare, exclusive, reserved coffee Starbucks offers is an exorbitant $7.
The $7 coffee pales in comparison to Kopi Luwak, coffee made from coffee berries from Sumatra. This coffee is almost $20 per ounce as compared to $5 per ounce of the Starbucks coffee. The taste: described as “Folgers. Stale. Lifeless. Petrified dinosaur dropping steeped in bathtub water” by The Washington Post’s food writer Tim Carman.
A wide range of research has shown that people can rarely distinguish the difference between an expensive food and cheap food. The human brain registers greater levels of pleasure from wine that was labeled as more expensive when compared to the same wine at a cheaper price. Jimmy Kimmel recreated a similar test with Starbucks coffee where two cups of the same cheap pot of coffee were put into Starbucks cups, and participants were told that one was the exclusive Costa Rica Finca Palmilera. Participant after participant ridiculously noted the “smoothness” and “boldness” of one cup of coffee over the other.
Pricey food is not a new phenomenon. Expensive wine auctions, opulent 30-course dinners and high-priced bluefin tuna have all been widespread for much of the last century. This food is put on a pedestal of luxury that is beyond the typical fine dining experience.
Price bypasses the tongue and instead rewires the human brain. On the flipside, Chef David Chang of Momufuku in New York has made delicious gnocchi by using instant ramen. High-priced foods are often an abstract idea rather than a tangible reality of better taste. The $7 Starbucks coffee is just as much of an illusion as the $95 mac ‘n’ cheese and the $1,000 sundae.
Sam Mendelson is a sophomore in the School of International Service.