Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Green Peas & Toasters: Where Quality and Thrift Collide

Where do quality and thrift collide, you ask? For me, it's at green peas and toasters.

Let me tell you this saga.

I love green peas, frozen, not canned. I have fond childhood memories of simmering them in water until their skins puff up and they are just tender, neither too hard nor at all mushy, then sprinkled with a grind of black pepper. Even now, I can eat a huge plate of them in one sitting. But a couple years ago, my green pea experience started being tough and tasteless. I would start to dig into a serving, and find myself unable to eat them. Bleh! I was baffled and disappointed. My lovely peas! I just could not eat them. I thought this might be leftover food sensitivity from my pregnancy, but the tasteless peas lingered. I finally gave up on ever eating greens peas again. If I was just going to keep throwing away plates of peas, what was the point?

I mentioned the sad situation to one of my foodie friends. She said - "Oh, they are probably irradiated. The heat makes them tougher."

Now, I had not heard of irradiation toughening vegetables. After all, it's supposed to help increase shelf life, not decrease quality, right? But whatever the cause of it, I realized that it wasn't me; it was indeed the peas. It was a sad, sad day. I love peas!

But anyway, I started looking for alternatives. I tried different varieties. I tried I don't know how many different brands in hope of retrieving my earlier experience, but nothing really lived up to my ideal. Damn tasteless peas!

The only brand that came close was an organic label from Oregon, sold in small expensive bags at my local food co-op. I took a breath and bought a bag on sale for under three dollars!

Well. They were good. Really quite good. Good enough to eat on a regular basis. Other than being nearly a dollar a serving, of course. I would have to restrain myself and eat only one serving at a time, which for me is a very modest portion. I couldn't justify eating the whole bag at one sitting at that price! (I've eaten gourmet muffins for that price, but those are huge portions and a different story.)

So I'm thinking to myself: is this a dilemma for the modern age? So many things have been getting cheaper and cheaper -- cheap clothing, cheap food -- but they are not really better at all. The quality that one used to be able to expect as a matter of course is not only harder to find, but much more expensive. And so to have the same quality one had before one will have to pony up the cash to support it.

Which reminds me of cheap clothing. I am still astounded at the common tendency to throw away clothes after a year or two. Who does this? I'm still wearing some of my clothes from twenty years ago, and they have held up all this time, some of it just recently starting to fray. I thought it was just our disposable society at work, but apparently, it's true - all that cheap clothing doesn't hold up at all. What is this crap clothing? It's the new normal, I guess. That's "prosperity" for you - you think you are getting glitzed out, but it all goes threadbare in a year.

Ah. So to buy really excellent, decent quality clothing (if one can find it), one will be paying some big bucks, apparently. Same things as with the peas.

I am not willing to buy all organic food any more because I just can't afford it, but I need my green peas. I'll dole it out like gold bullion or high-end chocolate.

Did they pick these peas by hand? Sing them lullabies? Pay off the agribusiness mob? For two-thirds of a cup per dollar? Okay, okay, I'm sure that's what it actually costs to produce quality food these days, living wage and organic practices and all, and it's worth it, but oh, my!

Lesson learned: to get something of quality, sometimes you just have to pay the true price of its value.

That brings me to toasters.

I had a very nice toaster once upon a time. Wide slots, useable settings, even heating, quiet yet distinctive pop-up. Must have been twenty-some years ago. One day, the toaster died, and I went off in search of a replacement. I found plenty of inexpensive toasters, so I bought one. You might guess where this is going. Yes, that toaster lasted me about fifteen months before it too died. Now I do eat a lot of toast, but this was ridiculous.

Off I went to look for yet another new toaster. The really good high-quality toasters with metals sides and innards were upwards of US $130. I love my toast, but that was not in the budget. I looked a little closer and noticed that most of the toasters available were made of cheap, flimsy plastic. I could not find a decent toaster without plastic! They were all just as flimsy than the toaster that had just died.

In disgust, I stomped off, refusing to buy any of that crap. I made toast in my broiler for more than a year, and it was good if a trifle inconvenient. Piers Anthony wrote a funny philosophical short story once about the simple pleasure of toast through the space ages, but I digress...

Flash forward a couple years, and I was browsing through a thrift store and spotted a toaster. An older toaster with some life left in it. It was modest, a bit beat up. It was metal! I took it home for seven dollars, and I've had it ever since. It is now even more beat up, but still it keeps going. I don't know what I'm going to do when that one finally kicks the bucket. Does anyone know how to fix toasters any more? I mean, fix toasters in this country where it's cheaper to buy something new than to fix a perfectly good appliance. pause to roll eyes

It's true; I had my sewing machine cleaned and refurbished a couple years ago, and it cost me at least as much it would to buy a brand new machine. But, as the repair mechanic noted with a touch of awe, it has metal parts, and "you just can't find that any more." I told him there was no way I was giving up my old machine. I think he was pleased. I know I was delighted.

Lesson learned: if you are lucky enough to have anything "old fashioned" yet well-made, hang onto it for dear life, or you'll be stuck with a steady stream of cheaply-made plastic crap.

I think this is just the way it is these days: a profusion of cheap goods and a small selection of really quality goods for those able to discern the difference and willing to pay.

And why are so many of our goods getting cheaper and, well, cheaper? I'll leave you to contemplate the variety of likely reasons. Too big of a conversation for this post. I'm no economist, but I've learned a few things from green peas and toasters.


Lori said...

We've been through at least three toasters in the fourteen years we've lived here. I think one only lasted a couple of years. I only remember having two toasters while growing up and that was only a change to a four slot toaster as far as I know.

Product quality simply isn't what it used to be. :( The thing is, even if I was willing to spend the big bucks, I don't know if I'd had the confidence it would last any better than the one I bought for far less. It's a difficult call.

Joy! said...

Lori, true, it is hard to chose among the selections with confidence! Product reviews and consumer reports only go so far.

When we were getting married, I signed up for a registry on the facetious justification that "otherwise we might receive three toasters." My mother seriously pointed out that she and my dad *had* received three toasters for their wedding, and that they simply used them one after another as they wore out. I think they were on their third toaster. :) At the time, I couldn't imagine hanging on to more than one toaster, but now I can see the point!