Hello, friends. At the grocery store recently, I was overwhelmed by the idea of how much energy goes into producing and packaging the food I eat. I bought a bunch of cilantro that was grown in California, with all the ground preparation, seeding, watering, weeding, and pest-deterring that farming entails. It was picked (hopefully by legal labour, not migrant children), washed, roots lopped off (pity, because cilantro roots are delicious in curry pastes), bundled, boxed, and trucked more than 3000km (1900 miles) to Ontario. It was then sorted and driven again to my local supermarket, where somebody arranged them all neatly. All I did was pick the bunch that looked nicest to me. It cost $0.99.
How is this even possible? I know there are economies of scale, but I still find it boggling. And cilantro is about as unprocessed a food as you can buy, packaged only with a printed twist tie. What if you buy a can of tuna? Breakfast cereal, or tropical fruit juice, or a frozen dinner?
Then I read about working-class breakfasts in Victorian London. This is from Judith Flanders’s The Victorian City, which I mentioned last week:
Today, eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, but in the nineteenth century the situation was reversed. Most of the working class… cooked in their own fireplace: to boil a kettle before going to work, leaving the fire to burn when there was no one home, was costly, time-consuming and wasteful… The nearest running water might be a street pump, which functioned for just a few hours a week. Several factors – the lack of storage space, routine infestations of vermin and being able, because of the cost, to buy food only in tiny quantities – meant that storing any foodstuff, even tea, overnight was unusual.
Consequently, working-class people bought breakfast from coffee-stalls on the street, where a cup of coffee and “two thin” – that’s two thin slices of bread-and-butter – might cost half a penny or a penny, depending on where you lived. This sounds very cheap to us, of course. But let’s consider that in the context of working-class incomes.
According to Flanders’s research, a coffee-stall holder would typically work nine hours a day (starting late at night, or at 3 or 4 in the morning), six days a week, every day of the year. For that labour, he or she would earn about £30 a year. That’s an average daily gross income of about a shilling, or twenty pennies. From that, the stallholder must rent or maintain his coffee-stall; buy fuel, coffee, bread, butter, and haul water for the coffee-stall; and, of course, feed and clothe his family, and keep them warm and housed. All on an income of a shilling a day, or 24 ha’penny cups of coffee. It’s an astonishing portrait of subsistence.
Let’s flip it around in modern-day terms. The closest I have to a streetside coffee-stall is the Tim Horton’s (a doughnut shop) up the street, where coffee and a bagel costs about $2.50. If you were to set up as a streetside coffee-stall selling coffee-bagel combos for $2.50, and you had 24 customers in a nine-hour shift, that’s a take of just $60 a day. If you worked 6 days a week for every week of the year, you would gross $18, 720. From that, you would need to pay for the same things: rent or repairs on the coffee-stall; coffee, bagels, butter, a water supply, fuel; your own rent, and the needs of your family. Subsistence again. You’d be hard-pressed to buy three coffee-and-bagel meals a day for your family of four.
Converting money between the nineteenth century and the present day is very complicated and I don’t want to claim that these are precise equivalents. But this is a vivid and immediate way of thinking about food, energy, and value, when many of us are so extremely privileged. It makes my cilantro look both cheap and frivolous.