Status Signals All the Way Down

At every socioeconomic level there are choices set out for us.

At lower income or entry-level socioeconomic tiers there are choices like these:

Should I buy Tide detergent? Or should I buy All at a 40% lower price point?
Should I buy regular chicken or pay double for organic, free-range, cruelty-free chicken?

As you work your way up the socioeconomic ladder, the questions change shape a little bit:

Should I buy another Honda Civic, or am I ready to step up to a BMW? Or am I the kind of distinctive person who drives an Audi, or a Jaguar?

At still higher socioeconomic levels you can ask yourself things like:

Should I live in Summit, NJ or am really a Basking Ridge kind of person?
Should I send my son/daughter to private school? Should I consider Hotchkiss or Choate?
Should I consider the Rolex? Or am I ready for the Patek Philippe?

No matter how high you go, these aspirational questions never end.

Should buy a pied-à-terre in SoHo, or on the Upper East Side? Should I winter in Miami? Or Turks and Caicos? Or Buenos Aires? After all I'm quite an international person.

It shouldn't surprise us to find aspirational tiers for megayachts, private jets and major professional sports teams. Remember: billionaires like Larry Ellison and Paul Allen are status-signalling primates too.

As you read though this post, it’s entirely possible that these choices quickly begin to sound ridiculous to a person who happens to be far removed, socioeconomically speaking, from the upper tiers.

Then again: do you think a wealthy person cares about the type of detergent they buy? These "games" appear ridiculous from both angles.

And yet people still believe they need to make whatever choices there are at their level. And, worse, as we move up the ladder (if we are fortunate enough to do so), we somehow effortlessly start to make decisions that used to seem ridiculous, because they were too far away. If you play the money game right and save and invest properly over the course of your life, rest assured: you will be facing decisions at tiers far above where you are now.

The question is, will you make these decisions from a place of self-awareness? Will you understand the greater game being played around you that structures these endless signals, these endless aspirational products? Or will you be a checkers player, obediently and enthusiastically choosing the Patek Philippe watch when it's your turn to do so?

Eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll recognize that a system has set out the frame, the structure, of these choices across your whole life. This system "allows" you to make a series of choices from a series of pre-set menus.

Once you realize these are all pre-chewed choices that aren’t really choices at all, you escape the system. You start avoiding making these decisions at all, saving you time, mental effort... and an absolute shit-ton of money. Ironically, this simply accelerates your move up the socioeconomic ladder.

The only way to win this game is not to play.



You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

The More We Consume, the Hungrier We Get

Readers, this week I thought I'd share an extended quote from Robert Sapolsky's book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. It touches on topics frequently discussed here at Casual Kitchen ranging from consumerism to hyperpalatable food, and it explains why we humans, sadly, can't help but always want more:

"Once, during a concert of cathedral organ music, as I sat getting gooseflesh amid that tsunami of sound, I was struck with a thought: for a medieval peasant, this must have been the loudest human-made sound they ever experienced, awe-inspiring in now-unimaginable ways. No wonder they signed up for the religion being proffered. And now we are constantly pummeled with sounds that dwarf quaint organs. Once, hunter-gatherers might chance upon honey from a beehive and thus briefly satisfy a hardwired food craving. And now we have hundreds of carefully designed commercial foods that supply a burst of sensation unmatched by some lowly natural food. Once, we had lives that, amid considerable privation, also offered numerous subtle, hard-won pleasures. And now we have drugs that cause spasms of pleasure and dopamine release a thousandfold higher than anything stimulated in our old drug-free world.

An emptiness comes from this combination of over-the-top nonnatural sources of reward and the inevitability of habituation; this is because unnaturally strong explosions of synthetic experience and sensation and pleasure evoke unnaturally strong degrees of habituation. This has two consequences. First, soon we barely notice the fleeting whispers of pleasure caused by leaves in autumn, or by the lingering glance of the right person, or by the promise of reward following a difficulty, worthy task. And the other consequence is that we eventually habituate to even those artificial deluges of intensity.

If we were designed by engineers, as we consumed more, we'd desire less. But our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get. More and faster and stronger. What was unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won't be enough tomorrow."






You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

When the Student is Ready, the Teacher... Was There All Along?

Readers, once again, thanks for indulging me as I take a break from writing to work on other projects.
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Everybody's heard the following saying so often it's become a near-cliche:

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

But I've been wondering about this expression lately. I think it means more than it means.

Think about it: Is it really plausible that the very moment I'm ready to learn something, the universe knows to plop a teacher right there, right next to me?

Right then? Really?

I mean, as much as I'd love to think otherwise, the universe doesn't revolve around me. Heck, the universe doesn't even know who I am. Or for that matter where I am.

And the presumption that the universe not only knows all these things, but also knows my exact level of "readiness" for a given lesson… well, now we're beginning to border on pathological narcissism.

Yet this saying is still true, strikingly so, almost to the point of being eerie. I've seen many, many examples of teachers “appearing” at just the right time, not just in my life, but in the lives of almost everyone I know.

Which is why I think this expression means something completely different, something shocking: It suggests that we are surrounded by teachers, the right teachers, all the time. For everything! It's just that we're too busy stiff-arming all these teachers and all these opportunities to learn.

We ignore or reject advice, we use "yes-but" tactics, we react emotionally or with rage, and we shoot down their ideas and teachings with a wide range of ego-defending excuses and rationalizations.

The only reason a teacher occasionally "appears" is because at that time, for whatever reason, we didn't stick out our arms and block the insights--insights that, all along, were right there for the taking. In other words, we were "ready."

So, imagine: What if we stopped stiff-arming all the teachers? What if, instead of letting in a teacher only when we're ready, what if we just stayed ready?

I bet a lot more teachers would appear. After all, they were there all along.


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Do You Believe All Food Companies Are Evil and Exist Solely to Exploit You? Then You Have a Problem

Readers, once again, thanks for indulging me as I take a break from blogging to work on other projects. This is another popular post from CK's archives.
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Why are so many consumers and bloggers totally convinced that food companies and consumer products retailers are evil, greedy, and exist solely to exploit their customers?

Look, if you hold a simplistic, generalized world view like this, you are committing an act of disempowerment. You may not know it, but you are willingly giving your power away to these companies.

Now, this isn't to say that some companies aren't greedy. They can be. Nor is it to say that consumers aren't at times cheated, taken advantage of, or unfairly separated from their money. But it is the height of enfeebled hypocrisy to whine and complain about "greedy companies" when they merely make and sell the very products we consent to buy.

I will not allow my readers to hand their power over to companies like that. No way.

The truth is this: big business (or Big Food, or Big Retail, or Big Pharma, or Big Oil--go ahead and take your pick) has absolutely no power over us unless we willingly choose to be disempowered first. There have never been more companies competing for our consumer dollars, and there have never been more consumption choices available to us--including the easy-to-forget option not to consume at all.

Just walk into any standard supermarket, and you'll find at least 50,000 products--three times what you'd find 30 years ago--all helpfully arranged throughout the store in the hopes that you'll make a purchase. Sure, among those 50,000 products there are lots of unhealthy foods. But an unbiased walk through any grocery store will reveal an extremely wide array of healthy, laughably cheap foods too.

If you decide to eat unhealthy foods in the face of all of those options, you make that choice. No snivelling marketing executive from Big Food grabbed you and forced a bag of Doritos down your throat. (PS: If this actually happens to you, let me know and I'll gladly re-evaluate every single one of my views on consumer empowerment. Uh, and call 911. )

Sure, some food company may have made those chips hyperpalatably salty and tantalizingly delicious. But you picked the bag off the shelf, you carried it to the counter, you paid for it with your money, and you took the bag home, opened it and consumed the contents.

If you consider it reasonable to blame Big Food for that sequence of events, then you're beyond help. You've already given away all of your power.

Readers, what are your thoughts?


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

2 People, 15 Days, 30 Meals, 35 Bucks

Readers, once again, thanks for indulging me as I take a break from writing to work on other projects. This was one of the most popular posts in CK's history.
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The purpose of today's post is to show a practical example of how you can eat a low-cost, healthy diet over an extended period of time, without having to spend hours in the kitchen every day.

Below is a recipe list, menu list and itemized grocery list you can use to feed two people a wide range of simple, healthy dinners for fifteen days. It can easily be scaled up for larger families, or used as a template for your own collection of favorite, low-cost recipes. And this is no hypothetical menu that looks good on paper but fails miserably in practice. I actually used this exact menu, made these exact food purchases and cooked these exact recipes during an actual fifteen day period a couple of months ago. This was a real 15-day trial carried out in real life.

It's deceivingly easy to assume that eating involves unavoidable tradeoffs: Healthy food has to be expensive. Cooking at home means spending hours slaving away in the kitchen. There's not enough time or money to eat well at home.

Forget all those phony tradeoffs. This 30-meal plan proves that things can be easy: Cooking low-cost, healthy food at home can be done efficiently, with surprisingly little effort and for a tiny fraction of the cost of eating out. Keep reading to see what I mean. At the end of the post, I'll explain some of the behind-the-scenes factors that helped make this trial much easier to execute than we expected.

The bottom line is this: cooking and eating healthy, low-cost meals for weeks at a time can be done--and it doesn't have to be hard work.

Recipe List:
Garden Gumbo - 1.5 batches
Black Beans and Rice - double batch
Viennese Potato Soup - double batch
Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry - double batch
Chicken Mole
Easy Lentil Soup with Chicken

Grocery List:
Produce aisle:
2 Green bell peppers: $2.05
Celery, bag: $1.99
Onions, 3 lb bag: $2.99
Garlic: 50c
Carrots, 2 lb bag: $1.79
Cabbage head, ~3 lb: $2.47
Potatoes: 5 lb bag: $3.49

Canned Foods/Beans/Dried Legumes aisle:
1 14.5-oz can red beans: 67c
2 lb bag brown rice: $1.79
4 14.5-oz can black beans: $2.68
3 29-oz cans stewed tomatoes: $3.00
1 lb dried lentils: $79c

Meat aisle:
Package bacon: $3.99 (note: we used about 1/3 of the bacon)
Value-pack chicken breasts: 5 lbs: $6.91 (we used 1.5 lbs in the Chicken Mole and we added 1.5 lbs as an extra ingredient to the Lentil Soup)

Grand Total Food Cost: $35.11
Schedule of Dinners
Day 1: Garden Gumbo
Day 2: Black Beans and Rice
Day 3: Garden Gumbo
Day 4: Black Beans and Rice
Day 5: Viennese Potato Soup with Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry
Day 6: Garden Gumbo
Day 7: Viennese Potato Soup
Day 8: Black Beans and Rice
Day 9: Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry
Day 10: Chicken Mole
Day 11: Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry
Day 12: Chicken Mole
Day 13: Easy Lentil Soup
Day 14: Chicken Mole
Day 15: Easy Lentil Soup

A few final notes:
1) Was this your entire food expense for the full 15 days?
No. Just dinners. However, the recipes in this meal plan will also cover quite a few lunches here and there from leftovers--at zero incremental cost. Your mileage (and caloric intake) may vary.

2) No, seriously, you actually ate all this food for just $35?
Look, no way was I going to lowball my costs and then crush the dreams of an excited reader who tried this meal plan but found his costs to be way out of line with mine. Admittedly, the de minimus cost of some common pantry items (spices, olive oil, bouillon cubes, optional white rice, etc) aren't included. More importantly, however, after the trial ended, we still had 2/3 of a package of bacon, about 2 lbs of chicken, most of a bag of onions, most of a head of garlic, several carrots, most of a 5-lb bag of potatoes, 1/3 of a bag of celery and the bulk of a 2-lb bag of brown rice still sitting in our kitchen. Had I calculated the meal costs based on the actual portions of the food we used, the total cost would have been as much as $9.00 lower.

In other words, technically, I could have titled this post Two People, Fifteen Days, Thirty Meals. Twenty-Six Bucks. There are always going to be errors and variability estimating exact food costs, but I made sure my error factor would be from overestimating the costs, not lowballing them. Many readers could do this trial for much less money.

3) Why did you say that the trial was easy? How could it possibly be easy?
Mainly for one reason: we made liberal use of CK's list of Best Laughably Cheap Recipes. Further, we took advantage of the fact that nearly all of the recipes here at CK are extremely scalable, meaning they can be made in double (or even triple) batches for very little incremental work.

One more trick you can use: cook double batches of dinner on two successive nights, and then alternate the leftovers over the following days. Face it: reheating food you've already made is by light years the easiest way to get healthy food on the table. And when you alternate two sets of leftover meals, you won't get sick of eating the same damn thing every night.

You'll notice one more thing about our meal plan. There isn't that much meat in it. Surprise! You've stumbled onto one of the unsung advantages of a low-meat, part-time vegetarian diet. Nevertheless, our protein requirements were easily met with this meal plan.

Finally, this 15-day schedule could easily be repeated with two or three other mini-collections of recipes culled from CK's Best Laughably Cheap Recipes. In theory, you could create a meal template for an indefinite period of time: just rotate in a new batch of recipes every two weeks. Result? Hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year saved on your food bill.

4) I'd feel like a total loser if I had to spend this little money on my food.
Ha! I'll go you one better: I built a spreadsheet to calculate my food costs--just for this post! Set aside your ego for a moment and understand the central point: there's actually no sacrifice involved here. This trial shows that you can eat extremely well for very little money--and even less time spent cooking. Try it, see for yourself... and feel free to spend your leftover money on something else.


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

That Time Michael Ruhlman Was an Appalling Food Snob

Readers, once again, thanks for indulging me as I take a break from writing to work on other projects. This post got a lot of attention when it first ran, as it describes an act of disturbing and un-self aware snobbery from a much-admired figure in the world of food.
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Several years ago there was a dispute between Michael Ruhlman (author of Ratio and the bestselling French Laundry Cookbook) and NPR food writer Kelly Alexander. It all started when Alexander penned an article earnestly celebrating the miso salmon entree at The Cheesecake Factory.

Ruhlman made fun of her.

Alexander then offered a bet: if Ruhlman actually went to The Cheesecake Factory, he'd like the food there too. Irony of ironies, she won. Ruhlman liked the food!

What's interesting about this story isn't that The Cheesecake Factory's food is good (of course it's good, its engineered that way). Rather, what's interesting is the behavior of Ruhlman and his friends while eating there. In particular their appalling condescension:

1) One of Ruhlman's dinner guests asks, "Do you think the Roadside Sliders are made of possum?"

2) Another dinner guest wolfs down a plate of pasta carbonara, but excuses himself by saying, "it's a guilty pleasure, liking bad pasta."

3) And when asked if he'd like chicken on his pasta carbonara, Ruhlman responds, "why would I want chicken on it?" (the waitress gave a flawless response to a question that I can only describe as existentially condescending).

Presumably, all of this banter is tres funny to Ruhlman and his pals. It must be a blast to join a group of foodies on a journey to the culinary hinterlands where you can sit around a dinner table, condescend to your waitress and make hilariously witty comments mocking the food! It's as if they fail to realize that the people and the environment around them are real, rather than some movie about the Midwest that they happen to be watching.

I like Ruhlman. I really like his thinking about food. But if this is how he typically behaves when he steps outside of his food bubble, the vast majority of Americans will never accept his ideas. And that's the real shame.

Finally, if I had a nickel for every food critic who gets "sad" when he can't find haute cuisine at a national restaurant chain... well, I'd have a lot of nickels. Is it really so difficult to grasp the idea that normal people occasionally enjoy casual meals at casual restaurants?

Look, the food at the vast majority of American restaurants is casual, often mass-produced and typically contains staggering amounts of calories. It's often delicious. Understand this for what it is, and don't expect to find things where they shouldn't be.

It goes without saying that you don't have to eat this food, or even like it. And you are more than welcome to campaign against it (heck, campaigning against overpriced, hyperpalatable, over-salted food is one of my favorite pastimes here at Casual Kitchen). You are welcome to like what you like, dislike what you dislike, and explain (on your own food blog, even!) exactly why.

But when you deliberately set foot inside a national restaurant chain, try to recognize that the food should be judged in the context of its genre. Stop recoiling in mock horreur when your pasta carbonara comes with peas or existentially optional grilled chicken. Don't be quite so oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world may not follow your obscure rules of food decorum. And at least try to be nice.

And that joke about possum? Come on.

What's your opinion?


Read Next: Food Absolutism
And: On the True Value of a Forgotten Restaurant Meal







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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Conspicuous Consumption and Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class"

Readers, once again, thanks for indulging me as I take a break from writing to work on other projects. Here's a bit of an eggheaded (but surprisingly popular) post from four years ago. Enjoy!
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Readers, if you've ever wondered why so many people presume that branded merchandise and high-priced consumer goods are somehow "better"--even when they're not--Thorstein Veblen gave us the answer back in 1899 in his seminal book The Theory of the Leisure Class:

"But the human proclivity to emulation has seized upon the consumption of goods as a means to an invidious comparison, and has thereby invested consumable goods with a secondary utility as evidence of relative ability to pay.

This indirect or secondary use of consumable goods lends an honorific character to consumption, and presently also to the goods which best serve this emulative end of consumption... The consumption of expensive goods is meritorious, and the goods which contain an appreciable element of cost in excess of what goes to give them serviceability for their ostensible mechanical purpose are honorific.


The marks of superfluous costliness in the goods are therefore marks of worth... This indirect utility gives much of their value to the 'better' grades of goods."

--Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class

Veblen's writing is, uh, difficult (he was an academic and it showed), but his logic goes something like this: An item's price is a signal of your ability to pay, which is a signal of your wealth, which therefore signals your place in the dominance hierarchy of our society. The more needlessly expensive an item (its "superfluous costliness" as Veblen phrases it), the greater the wealth signal.

This is where Veblen came up with the now infamous phrase conspicuous consumption: consumption literally meant to be seen as overt demonstrations of social status and wealth.

In the modern era, we see this at every level of society. It exists at every branding tier and market segment of nearly every consumer product category. Every consumer goods retailer we shop at, every brand we choose, and practically every product we buy, collectively play some role in our identity construction and our place in society's status hierarchy.

Veblen then goes on to make an even more striking converse argument: Inexpensive consumable goods aren't just less expensive, they're also "cheap" in a deeply pejorative sense:

"While men may have set out with disapproving an inexpensive manner of living because it indicated inability to spend much, and so indicated a lack of pecuniary success, they end by falling into the habit of disapproving cheap things as being intrinsically dishonourable or unworthy because they are cheap."

The circularity here (as well as the financial waste) would be downright laughable if there weren't so many obvious examples of it in everyone's daily life. If you catch yourself presuming an expensive wine is better, that expensive branded products are better, or even that organic food is worth a large price premium, please recognize you're being played... by your own subconscious need for status.

Veblen takes the concept still further:

"So thoroughly has the habit of approving the expensive and disapproving the inexpensive been ingrained into our thinking that we instinctively insist upon at least some measure of wasteful expensiveness in all our consumption, even in the case of goods which are consumed in strict privacy and without the slightest thought of display. ...Any retrogression from the standard of living which we are accustomed to regard as worthy in this respect is felt to be a grievous violation of our human dignity."

Written a hundred years ahead of its time, this passage helps explain why so many middle- and upper-middle class Americans feel vaguely icky shopping at Wal-Mart, why they feel too culturally superior to go to chain restaurants, and why they pay significant price premiums for branded merchandise without even a second thought. Veblen saw it all more than a century ago: these things reflect our status.

We all like to think we don't buy things with our status in mind--that we're somehow above being so transparently status-conscious. But we do it without thinking, and worse, we rationalize it after the fact with plausible-sounding reasons justifying our actions. Of course the rationalizing is the most important step of all, because it protects us from truly seeing our own ugly status-consciousness for what it really is.

This neatly completes the circle of consumerism, to the intense delight of all the companies profiting from our freshly stroked egos.

One final thought. It's not a stretch to say that the average consumer hasn't read The Theory of the Leisure Class. It ain't exactly a page-turner, so I can see why. But how much would you bet that the people selling and marketing to us do know, intimately, all the concepts at work here?







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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!