Sky Full of Bacon

The Moral Case For $6 Tamales

Saturday I took my kids to the newly-paved Green City Market (oh, they paved Green City and put up a lot of arugula). There’s a tamale stand this year which I’ve wanted to try, but it’s usually had a long line attached to it.  For once, though, it was almost clear— probably because it wasn’t even 10:00 yet and it didn’t really seem the hour for a spicy pork or brisket tamale. But scanning the menu, there was a strawberry-mint tamale at the bottom. Especially for my youngest son, I knew this would go over well, as he’s been known to eat them at the best traditional tamale spot I know of, Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero in Rogers Park.

There was also something else of note on the sign: a six with a dollar sign in front of it. Could these really be six bucks apiece? The woman in front of us was getting a whole bundle of them, and it seemed unlikely she was buying a good $48 or more worth of tamales. Tamales are plebeian food, sold in batches of 50 at Christmastime— and not for $300. I placed my order— and sure enough, got a single pink tamale for $6.

Okay, so it’s a really good tamale. Less so for the basic ingredients of the tamale, corn masa and lard, than the freshness of real strawberry and mint worked into it. Setting price aside, it was an absolute pleasure to eat. But even someone like me, who walks into Green City scattering $20 bills to the wind for his weekly green vegetables, cannot entirely set price aside. Late that night, I tweeted what had been floating around the verge of my consciousness all day:

140 characters is no place to expect subtleties to come through, but I don’t think this was entirely condemnatory. It was, instead, the honest admission that there were two voices in my head, one of which said, “Mmm, what a nice organic artisanal sustainable tamale” and the other of which said “Six dollars for one tamale?!? You foodies are freakin’ nuts!”

I very quickly got back some responses— mainly from other vendors at the market— defending the price of the tamale as justified by what goes into it:

@skyfullofbacon fortunately not everything is mass produced- investigate making fresh masa with great local ingredients. $6 is a bargain.

Hey, I didn’t just fall off the organic turnip truck, I know how the market is and I believe that that $6 is a proportional reflection of ingredient cost like any other food item. (Admittedly, using the term “sucker” would tend to belie that.) But still, $6 for a tamale… I sent this response:

is there any price at which you wouldn’t feel a little silly buying a tamale?

and got this back:

@skyfullofbacon id feel silly thinking I got a bargain on a $1 tamale that was made with crap ingredients and crisco.

A fair answer but not a direct one, and one that points to another problem I have, which is that if you get too doctrinaire about only eating artisanal/organic/whatever, you’re not even going to know what a tamale is, because you’ll never explore our ethnic scene where authentic recipes and industrial products are inextricably entwined.  In other words, nobody’s going to appreciate a $6 tamale without getting there via a $1.50 one, is my belief.

So who’s right here?  I honestly am confused about what I think, and value.  I’m all for upgrading ingredients and patronizing the good stuff, but maybe it’s just that I don’t value tamales as much as I do BBQ or pie or whatever, so the price difference sticks out to me more.  (To judge by the lines, other people do value them, so they don’t really need to worry about me.)  What do you think?  Would you pay $6 for this tamale— and even consider it cheap given the quality?  Or does it seem preposterous to pay that for such peasant food?  I would love to hear your responses in the comments below.

*  *  *

So on my way out I stopped by T.J.’s, who sell poultry and meats.  There was a question I couldn’t resist asking Tim, the farmer, after having eaten at NoMi a couple of weeks ago.  “Do you know about the $75 T.J.’s chicken at NoMi?”

He did not know about it, and at first didn’t even realize that NoMi was buying from him (aha! Scandal!) until he realized that it was the same account as the Park Hyatt, to whom he sells a number of things, whole chickens included.  “Have you had it? Was it good?” he asked.  I explained that it was sous-vide cooked to a velvety tenderness that was, indeed, pretty wonderful, and that given the price of the other entrees in the $30-40 range, the chicken for two was not wildly out of line pricewise.  That said, he told me his favorite way to cook a chicken was to grill it, dusted with Lawry’s seasoned salt and basted with garlic butter.

“Well, I guess I better get myself one of those $75 chickens and try it out,” I said.  He pulled out a massive, almost five-pounder, and told me the price.  I gave him $16.75.

“I’m not charging enough,” he said.

Read the followup to this saga here.

*  *  *

$3 doughnut.

$75 chickens and $6 tamales, it’s time to round up this quarter’s list of the best things I’ve eaten at any price, while you still have time to try them for yourself.  To see previous installments, click on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.  (And as before, Key Ingredient dishes don’t count.)

• Grilled meats from Assayad, Dearborn MI
• Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel, and La Quercia Acorn Edition prosciutto, from Zingerman’s
• The soups at Mike’s Famous Ham Place, Detroit
• Pasta with bottarga, and snap peas with mint at Lupa, NYC
• Doughnut from Doughnut Plant
• Dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling
• All kinds of things lost in alcoholic haze at Yakitori Totto
• Grilled short ribs, Bento Box
• Ojinguh bokkum (stir fried squid), Hal Mae Bo Ssam (Morton Grove)
• Ramen at Chizakaya
• Any soup they make at Butcher & Larder
• $75 chicken at NoMi
• Sweet potato pie, Jimmy Jamm’s
• Northeastern strawberries from Nichols Farms
• A nice tortellini or ravioli something or other I can’t remember exactly now from Owen & Engine
• Goat biryani, Ghareeb Nawaz
• Spinach and kale and Chicken balti pies at Pleasant House Bakery
• Riccio di Mare e Granchio at Davanti Enoteca
• Oysters and clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster Bar
• $6 strawberry tamale at Green City Market

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11 Responses to “The Moral Case For $6 Tamales”

  1. AR Says:

    So we bought one of the $6 tamales–short rib, cheese–and it was delicious. I’m not normally a tamale person (I don’t care for corn masa, in general) but the masa on this tamale was simply delicious in a way I’ve never experience masa before. And the short rib was delectable. That said, will I ever buy a $6 tamale again? I don’t know. Probably not. It does seem ridiculously overpriced, esp. when you can get a cone-ful of hot, sugary zeppole for the same price. Or a bag of lovely fresh-baked ciabatta for the same price. Or 4 homegrown tomatoes. Or two insanely tasty foccacia breads. I admire the $6 tamale for its taste, but all the same, I’d rather not pay that much for that amount of taste. Ever again.

  2. Josh Kulp Says:

    As the author of both response tweets you quoted above, I appreciate reading your thoughts on this issue in more than 140 characters. I hesitated to respond at all to your initial tweet because twitter, like presidential politics is all about the sound bites. Thanks for starting the conversation and I’m sorry in advance for the length of my comments – I’m working on being less wordy – my staff would appreciate that as well.

    I run a business, Sunday Dinner, that is rooted in the local food world. Every menu we develop, whether at our burger booth at the Green City Market, at an event that we are catering, or at our “underground” dinner club, is conceived with the question, “What is in season?” in the front of our minds. We do this for a couple of reasons, and I’m not sure which one comes first: 1. As chefs, in season, local ingredients have more flavor and interest and 2. We have a choice as a company about where we spend our money and keeping dollars in the local economy while supporting producers that create a healthy environment and nutritious foods seems like a responsible and invigorating use of our purchasing power.

    The curt responses I provided to your tweet hinged not on your ruminating about food costs (something we consider everyday and encourage others to think over as well). My responses were a reaction to the “’$6 tamale’ is spelled sucker” bit of your tweet. I love your blog and your videos, I started watching them way back when it was a shock to see real HD video anywhere on the interwebs – before iTunes could even handle HD. So I respect your opinion and thoughts on many food subjects. I also know that you value awesome food and are willing to pay for it, so I was a little taken aback by the comment.

    I also treasure the ethnic food scene here in Chicago and am aware that when I eat at my favorite taqueria (El Asadero on Montrose by the way – get the steak taco) that I am eating conventional meat, GMO corn, and pesticide filled veggies. But I am also supporting a local business and a handmade, artisan product. I too, am wary of any single doctrine in regards to food. That is why your “sucker” comment seemed so unwarranted. Of course a single “I only eat heirloom tomato,” or “I only eat cheap” food philosophy is totally limiting. I cannot tell you how many times I have eaten the duck at Sun Wah, the tamales at Lo Mejor de Guerrero, the Sag Gosht at Hema’s, the brisket at Smoque, the Hot Dog at Dougs, and wished there were another option, for a couple of bucks more, where I could eat that awesome food and know that the ingredients were sustainable, humane, responsible, etc. But what we at Sunday Dinner, Amber at Las Manas, Bill Kim at the Belly restaurants, Sandra at Floriole, Paula at Hoosier Mama, Eddie Lakin at Edzo’s, Lydia and Nick at Great Lake, Rick Bayless at Xoco, and many others are doing, is trying to bridge the gap. Can’t we have down home, awesome food, and feel good about it? Aren’t more options good?

    My business partner, Christine Cikowski and I, spend a lot of time considering how to price our food. We sincerely strive to make delicious, sustainable, responsible food available to as many people as we can. We offer dinner club meals at a wide range of prices, seeking to be able to include as many people as possible (including our colleagues at the GCM and in the industry, most of whom work more hours than can be conceived, have very little discretionary income, and push forward out of passion and principal). At our Green City burger booth, we have spent many years honing our response to potential customers who are concerned about an $8.50 burger. It usually goes something like this: “The beef was raised by Pat and John over there, the cheese was handmade by Joe over there, the arugula on top and the green garlic in the mayo were grown by Beth and Brent over there, the tomato is from Chris at that booth there, the bun was baked this morning by Jory at the Benison’s booth, the ketchup and mustard are from Indiana, and we fresh ground this burger, hand puttied it, handmade the toppings, opened a restaurant in the park, lit a natural lump wood charcoal fire and grilled it right in front of you, and last but not least – it is delicious! What is that worth?” The answer, if you follow traditional 30% food cost models, is probably about $10 or $11. The reality is that we want these ingredients and our burger to be eaten by as many people as possible, and we believe our prices to be fair and feel frustrated and terrible when a customer or potential customer feels “suckered.”

    As you clearly are aware, not all ingredients are created equal. Some simply cost more than others. You acknowledge that “Hey, I didn’t just fall off the organic turnip truck, I know how the market is and I believe that that $6 is a proportional reflection of ingredient cost like any other food item.” I have no idea what the food costs are for Amber at Las Manas tamales. I do know that she purchases dried corn and cornmeal from Three Sisters at the GCM and hand makes her own masa. I think you might be hard pressed to find that happening almost anywhere else in Chicago. She fills her tamales with expertly prepared ingredients straight from the vendors standing around her.

    I cannot emphasize more, as a vendor at the GCM, as a chef, and as a food seller, you were not being “suckered.” No one was giggling after the market, while counting dollars in a luxury vehicle about how easily money flows at the GCM. No, Amber at Las Manas, and we at Sunday Dinner were planning our next menu, making our next shopping list, and spending the dollars we just brought in on paying our staffs, and buying more great local ingredients, so we continue to do the work we deeply love to do and provide our city with thoughtful, nutritious, delicious food.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    As a cooking instructor wanting to teach people about all of the aforementioned I embrace spending money on quality food. As a mother of 4, including 2 starving teenagers, I sympathizes with Michael’s dilemma over spending $6 on a tamale.

    It’s an interesting topic that I see both sides of and respect the opinions of all who shared them. To you both keep up the good work and know I am in full support of the $6 tamale – sometimes.

  4. Mark S. Says:

    All the twitter talk about authenticity aside, in the immortal words of Vincent Vega “I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars, but it’s pretty fu**ing good.” That is more or less my train of thought.

    Food cost may be (and certainly is) higher and justifies a higher cost, but to make it work, a $6 tamale better be outstanding in the same way that a $25 pizza is from Great Lake and the same way that a $24 pie is from Hoosier Mama. I don’t think twice about the price when I go there because they are not the same thing as Pequod’s or Random Pie Joint X. The $6 tamale doesn’t need to be good for a tamale because good tamales can be had for far less. It needs to transcend the tamale and be good for $6 because if it isn’t, I am going to spend that $6 on something better, tamale or otherwise, and in 6 months another local tamale place will emerge with a better tamale for 50 cents less and have a longer line. Fortunately for us, being local is no longer enough. There are plenty of local, delicious products around and only so much of my $6.

    Again, I understand the vendors are paying high prices for their ingredients, but that doesn’t mean that their products are equal to or greater than the sum of their parts. It is hard to improve on Three Sisters’ Cornmeal and Klug Farm berries on their own, but for $6 per tamale, the pressure is on them to show that it is an improvement.

  5. Mark S. Says:

    And to clarify, I am not saying that Las Manas isn’t spectacular, just saying that to get repeat customers at that price, they may have to be.

  6. All Day Says:

    In Chitown, we know when to loosen or tighten the belt (literally/figuratively). We know when to travel distances (technically not sustainable btw) across the city to eat our
    passion, or when to swoop into our neighborhood standby for the tried and true. We do this. We talk about it. We’re intense about our food adventures. And yes, we’re proud of our food artisans, who with their talent and innovation, bring attention and praise to our hard-working city.

    In our heart of hearts, though, we will eat AND buy what we want, when we want it. That includes a $6 tamale and/or a (not so “nutritious”-let’s clear that up right now) burger for breakfast at GCM. That also includes buying papaya or watermelons off a truck–ingredients that are, um, not exactly sustainable for us in IL per GCM. Viva la choices in food, pricing, and suppliers (local or otherwise). The pondering is okay too.

  7. S.s. Says:

    “Would you pay $6 for this tamale?”

    Probably not. And some of those who’ve replied to you on Twitter probably work at GCM or know LMT personally/profesionally. Not exactly a fair discussion, but thanks for your honesty anyway.

  8. Glee Says:

    The price of this particular tamale is 500% more than your typical fare purchased on the sidewalk or the place up in Rogers Park. A $15 versus $25 pizza is a 66% increase and a bit easier to swallow. A tamale is a simple food with few ingredients so how is it that you can really justify the markup? Because the customers at GCM are willing and able to fork it over. They would never dare buy one of the fine tamales sold in front of the Shell station on Devon and Clark. (You don’t have repeat customers by making them sick) The one thing that is most disturbing is that tamales are best enjoyed by the 1/2 dozen and at $6 a pop its a hard pill to swallow. I’m all for great local ingredients and supporting small farmers/business but I’m a savvy consumer and I’m not convinced of your $6 tamale.

  9. Wendy A. Says:

    Mike –

    This is a good topic. While you felt like you were getting “suckered” by paying $6 for a tamale, you did acknowledge that the tamale was “real in a way that ‘Mexican’ [quotes mine] tamales never are.” For me, the interesting part about this discussion is not so much that the tamale cost $6 – the market will determine whether $6 is too much to pay for a single tamale – but whether people will pay good money for ethnic food that contains sustainable, high-quality ingredients, made according to slow, time-honored tradition. And this discussion, in a sense, invokes authenticity (more on that later).

    The reality is, as much as foodies love to eat well, they also like to believe that they eat authentically, by frequenting hole-in-the-wall ethnic places. I admit I am one of those people. Like Josh (above), I am an equal opportunity eater – I enjoy high-end food, street food, and ethnic dives. Which is why I take slight umbrage at this phrase:

    “A fair answer but not a direct one, and one that points to another problem I have, which is that if you get too doctrinaire about only eating artisanal/organic/whatever, you’re not even going to know what a tamale is, because you’ll never explore our ethnic scene where authentic recipes and industrial products are inextricably entwined. In other words, nobody’s going to appreciate a $6 tamale without getting there via a $1.50 one, is my belief.”

    And here’s the local, organic straw person again. The nonexistent locavore who only eats local food, and never puts a piece of chocolate in their pie-hole. Who are these people? Who has only eaten $6 tamales, and shuns the $1.50 versions?

    Making it crystal clear that I am not condemning people that do not eat only local, organic, sustainably raised food (being one of those people myself), I do think there is a moral case for not eating exclusively $1.50 tamales (or $28 whole ducks, or $6 plates of chicken in Chinatown that could comfortably feed a family of 6). Finances aside (every has to do battle with their own finances, and I’m not going to tell people how they should allocate their food dollars), there is a price we pay as a society for eating cheap ethnic food. One of the positive effects of post-Pollanism is that people seem to be more aware of what they eat. Yet, for some reason, foodies find it okay to close their eyes to this awareness when they walk in the door of an ethnic place. Because the reality is, we avail ourselves of cheap food at a lot of “ethnic” restaurants on the backs of cheap, inhumanely raised and slaughtered animals, or as Josh says, pesticide-laden vegetables, cheap labor, and cost-cutting in the use of pre-made, industrial ingredients that are inexpensive precisely because the manufacturers avail themselves of all of the above cheap labor and poor-quality ingredients. I’m not trying to cast aspersions on a Mexican taco joint (or any other “ethnic” restaurant), but as Paul Kahan mentioned during a panel at the FamilyFarmed Expo, the least healthy animals often go to Mexican and Chinese restaurants, and then onto your plate, why is why your taco costs only $2.

    So, I’d like to us challenge the close-minded, foodie idea that “authentic” ethnic food must be made from the worst industrial ingredients that are spun into gold. I don’t buy that notion. I think that many restaurateurs, whether they be American, Thai, Chinese, or Mexican, have come around to, over the years, taking cost-cutting, corner-cutting measures in the preparation of their food that the public has come to accept. Do you expect to see homemade stock in your chicken noodle soup when you visit a roadside diner these days? No, but you wouldn’t be surprised that the powdered, sodium-heavy soup base was made by Acme Corporation in China. Likewise, we’ve come to expect that tamales (for instance) *should* include pre-made, industrial masa, and cheap ingredients. Authenticity is a loaded term, I acknowledge, but is the food “authentic” merely because it is made and eaten by Mexicans? How many of us have frequented Mexican restaurants (that I shall not name) that serve God-awful food but are filled with Mexicans? Within each culture exists non-foodies, people who care only that the food fill their belly cheaply, and that it bears some approximation to what they are familiar with, and do not care if it’s made well, or according to time-honored traditions. Which is why you’ll see Italians lined up at Italian bakeries that use green-dyed “inauthentic” peanuts to dress their cannoli, or chocolate frosting out of a can to top their cookies. The mere presence of Italians at such a bakery does not authenticate the food.

    Or does the adherence to time-honored tradition make the food more authentic? I don’t know, but if so, it very well may be that the most “authentic” tamales in the City are being made at the GCM. Only time will tell if people think they are worth $6 or not. But I’m glad to have a choice as to the type of ethnic food I eat.

  10. Michael Gebert Says:

    Thanks all, for good comments.

    S.s., I don’t mind that most of the initial responders (on Twitter) were friends of Las Manas, because they were fellow Green City vendors and thus shared the same basic concerns in regards to their own businesses.

    Wendy, though the comment about the no-ethnic-tamale-eater was really a hypothetical in response to Josh’s tweet (which seemed to pooh-pooh ever eating a cheap tamale), it is probably a bit less of a straw man than most snooty locavores of the media imagination, because there are certainly people who don’t dare go out and eat at Mexican joints in Pilsen or whatever, whose most authentic taco ever was from Big Star. Ellen Malloy raised the question on Twitter, which I found a reasonable one— are you really saying that the only authentic food is the one made using the least authentic industrial ingredients? That gringos doing it the old-fashioned way is less authentic than Mexicans doing it with Sysco products? And my answer is, yes, kinda, paradoxically enough. Or at least I think a realistic appraisal of our food scene requires acknowledging that authenticity has multiple meanings. And while, sure, I love Bayless Mexican and think he’s an important thinker and pioneer of it, if you only eat Bayless Mexican, you’re not really getting to know Mexican as it exists in this town. You need the exposure to the traditions being carried on using bad American products. You don’t really know tamales until you’ve been to Pupuseria Cuscatleco on December 24th and watched people buy them by the gross for Christmas lunch. That’s another dimension of the food worth knowing about, too.

    Ironically enough, I was at a client’s house today for an advertising project and as it ended the client’s partner arrived, fresh from a run in the park– and the first thing he did was tell my client that by the time he got there, they were out of tamales at the market. I mentioned my sticker shock at the fruit tamale and my client said, he doesn’t care for the fruit ones but the savory ones are worth every penny. But, as noted, by then they were already gone. So it would appear that Las Manas has, for enough people, crossed the value barrier for the $6 tamale….

  11. Matthew Says:

    So, I’m late to this, but what’s wrong with a tamal made with industrial products?

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