Monday, October 15, 2012
Goblin Fart Bread
The price of the bread I usually eat for breakfast recently jumped from $3.99 to $4.99 a loaf.
There’s nothing special about this bread. It’s not baked by Third World children in search of self-expression, and no part of its cost is passed on to charities. It’s a round loaf, unsliced, about ten inches across, and since it’s baked without preservatives and I don’t keep in the fridge, it goes bad within a matter of days. Oh, and it’s pumpernickel.
Pumpernickel, incidentally, is not in and of itself a grain and there are no amber waves of pumpernickel swaying in the American breeze. It’s just rye, though the name has an interesting history.
According to the highly trustable Straight Dope website, “pumper” is from High German and means ‘to break wind.’ “Nickel” is derived from the name Nicholas, often given to devils and goblins. So ‘pumpernickel’ is the devil’s fart, possibly because being high fiber, it creates gases as it passes through one’s body, and it’s difficult to digest.
But this is not an etymological discourse, even though the origins of pumpernickel’s name bring a new twist to breakfast.
A one dollar escalation in a four dollar staple item is a price increase of 25 percent. Rye, to the best of my knowledge, has not become a rare agricultural treasure like truffles or the tasteless lichen scraped from the sides of cliff by small Asian men dangling from baskets. Nope, rye is just that, a modest, cold weather grain whose harvest of millions bushels is used largely in the baking of bread and the distilling of whiskey.
So why the sudden price increase? I asked the baker in my local food store and he didn’t know. There had been no announcement. One day, the bakery’s computer spat out price tags that read $4.99, the next day it was a dollar more. He volunteered that he, personally, hadn’t gotten a raise that might account for the price increase, and neither had his cohorts manning the ovens. No one, he added, was driving a Mercedes. His crew bakes an average of a dozen loaves of pumpernickel daily, a couple more on Saturdays, and these are generally sold by 6 p.m. Leftover loaves are sold at deep discount or discarded the second day. According to sources that for obvious reasons must stay anonymous, the cost of producing pumpernickel bread is around eighty cents a loaf, when you count the ingredients, packaging, the salary of the baker, and the power used to fire the oven and run the giant mixer that kneads the dough. Add wastage, at a liberal ten percent, and transportation costs of the grain, say another ten percent. That’s still long way from $4.99.
So just for the hell of it, I found the store manager, who wasn’t even aware of the price increase but volunteered to check her computer. Same thing. Citing her Econ 101 class, she started to tell me about guns and butter, or, in this case, pumpernickel and butter. She did not make a convincing case and was aware of it, so after a minute or so of discourse, she went to check on the bratwurst and knockwurst in the pork product aisle.
It struck me that in earlier times and other nations, such a drastic change in the price of bread would have led to revolution, or at least loud demonstrations in the street. Here, not so much. In fact, the baker told me, no one else noticed the bread suddenly paying buck more.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. A while back, 12 ounces of assorted bagged lettuce and greens were $2.69. Now they’re $3.89. Same lettuce, same bag, same weight, different price. Hydopronic tomatoes, largely tasteless and colorless fruit (or is it vegetable? The argument rages on among aficionados) now cost as much as vine grown. At this rate, I’ll be eating unadorned kale (which has neither risen nor fallen) three times a day within a few years.
What this proves, among other things, is that bread is no longer the staple it once was. Very possibly, the present American staple is the Big Mac, and you can rest assured that Mickey D is not about to slap at 25% increase on its most celebrated concoction. It also demonstrates that the prices of niche foods, which I suppose is what pumpernickel bread is, can be manipulated at will. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bread vanished altogether in the near future, just as the inexpensive decaf ground coffees like Bustello and Pico disappeared from supermarket shelves in my area about a year ago.
I’m not sure what consumers can do. All I know is that whether the price increase applies to tasteless hydroponic tomatoes or farting goblin bread, it stinks.