Saturday, June 8, 2019


Question: how many ingredients are there in butter? Ha! Trick question! There's only one ingredient in butter. No, the only ingredient is not, “butter,” it's milk. (Salted butter has two ingredients, milk and salt.)

There was was a five year period not long ago when I was living the bachelor lifestyle, and I did almost all of my shopping in convenience stores. I ate lunch at school or on the soi. (That's shorthand for any small restaurant in a Thai neighborhood.) There was a Family Mart in my building, and I always stopped in on the way home. I could buy most of what I needed there. My dinners followed a pretty close pattern of sandwiches or eggs, with the occasional pizza delivery in the mix. I bought my butter in the convenience store, and I bought the one brand that they had. It seemed okay; it tasted like butter. The company was Australian, and the butter was “product of Australia,” and it was certainly not expensive at about $3 for 400 grams (a bit less than a pound). I'd cut it into thirds and put two in the freezer and one in a Tupperware. I didn't give it much thought.

One day, unwrapping a new package, I idly looked at the ingredients. There were about ten, several of which looked like industrial products. The first ingredient was, “butter oil.” It all looked very suspicious. I read up on the modern varieties of butter-like products and decided that I'd be better served by finding some real butter.

The mall supermarket had a couple of brands, and checking the ingredients, sure enough, “Milk; Salt.” There was a brand from Denmark called Lurpak that cost about $5 for 200 grams (close to half a pound). There were a couple of other brands, but the Lurpak was fine. I still buy it. Is this a prudent course of action? The Lurpak costs almost three times as much as the ersatz butter. Of course, it's fine, go ahead. It's not a bank-breaker. It's not like I'm baking pies and croissants here. A package lasts me quite a while.

If my father were reading this, he would take it as further proof that I am a reckless spendthrift. He would disinherit me! Oh, wait. He already did that.

This butter is a small matter, but it is illustrative of one of the founding principles of my family life when my first wife and I were raising our boys. We were never rich, not by a long shot, and when my boys were small, we weren't even particularly prosperous. In almost every category of food and drink, we had no chance of indulging in the top-shelf products. In some instances, though, even a very moderate budget can support the day-to-day use of the best special products from around the world. My ex-wife was in complete agreement on the subject.

Like real maple syrup from Canada. We always ate together as much as possible, dinner every evening and at least one special breakfast on the weekend. That could be bacon and eggs, or something like pancakes or waffles or French toast. At first the real maple syrup seems like a wild expense. The sugar-syrup substitute was about a buck, maybe a little more, and the premium maple syrup was about $5. That bottle lasted a long time, though. So as an annual expense, what did it come to? An extra $10 or $15? The four of us loved it, and we enjoyed the hell out of it. We weren't rich, but the maple syrup in our house was as good as that in any house in America, including the White House.

Same with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The Kraft imitation is particularly odious once you've tasted the real thing. We always had the real stuff. We cooked a lot of Italian food, eggplant and chicken Parmesan, lasagna, baked ziti, steak pizzaiola. The Kraft was probably under a dollar then, and the jar lasted a while. The Reggiano was available in whatever quantity suited your needs. I usually got a tub, a small, lidded plastic tub, that cost under $4. It was quite a bit of grated cheese to look at it, and it lasted a long time. Here too, on an annualized basis it was a no brainer. Buy it!

My parents were eating dinner at our house one time. We saw them almost every year; either we'd fly to New York or they'd come out to L.A. My father loved Italian food, and he loved the Parmesan cheese, too. So he's looking at the package, smelling the cheese, he held it up and looked at it from the bottom. Then he put it down without taking any. I asked him, “everything okay, dad?” He gave me that look and said, “did you know that that cheese costs almost $20 per pound?” Sure, I said, but that tub only cost four dollars and it'll last us a few months. He just shook his head in disappointment and ate his spaghetti and meat balls, without cheese. He couldn't bring himself to eat cheese that expensive. He thought that I was crazy.

The only luxury item that I indulge in these days is medicine. Luckily, it's all affordable so far. We eat in restaurants frequently, but where we live those are very affordable as well. At the house, well, there's the matter of the Danish butter. That disappears into the annual budget just like the other things did. We have French toast or pancakes sometimes, but my wife found the real maple syrup too sweet for her taste, so we stick with the sugar syrup. “Shake Cheese?” It's a very rare Thai person who will knowingly eat any cheese at all, and my wife is no exception. The European cheeses at the mall are ridiculously expensive, too expensive for me to consider just for myself. You have to draw the line. There's a jar of Kraft in our refrigerator. I'm getting used to it.

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