You get what you pay for…

We buy so much of what we consume these days behind our laptops, even food! Mike and I might possibly be personally responsible for  Jeff Bezo’s  success with Amazon. It’s so easy and convenient especially living in New York where we walk everywhere and carry our belongings (and groceries) on our backs. But sometimes you have to stop and think about the price of convenience. While we really don’t care about the experience of buying paper towels and cleaning products, specialty items like olive oil and cheese are a different story. I’m happy to bargain shop for paper plates online, but we’ve learned that the savings doesn’t translate to fresh zucchini blossoms that you can only find at your local farmers market. So every now and then we have to leave our discount shops behind and splurge a little.

We definitely got a bit sucked into the online shopping craze and we still purchase quite a bit of what we consume online. It’s the reason why we’re able to spend a lazy Saturday morning with our feet up, coffee in one hand and tablet in the other and get a full week’s grocery shopping done without even getting out of bed. The convenience and time savings are life-changing. Over time however, we’ve come back to the importance of brick and mortar shopping, specifically where food is concerned, and not just the big super markets either. Don’t get me wrong. We appreciate the big stores too. After all that’s where we find our Cento San Marzano tomatoes on sale, but what those stores offer in savings and convenience they lack in product knowledge, curated selections and personal experience. I realize more and more how crucial  it is that we support, and in so doing maybe even save the local neighborhood shops with artisanal products and invested staff that help make New York such a coveted place to live.

I love shopping with the cheesemongers who know every nuance of each cheese on display. They will enthusiastically offer me a sample of something I’ve never tried, or comparable (sometimes better) substitute if they don’t have what I’m looking for. This is not just because it’s their job but because they love what they do, and they want me to enjoy it as much as they do. They can tell me where each variety is from and something about the region, not just what aisle it’s in. We certainly can’t afford to shop exclusively in these tiny markets, but when we do the whole shopping experience is elevated. When I walk out of Bedford Cheese Shop with a shopping bag full of delicacies and imported foods like prosciutto and quail eggs and foie gras, I feel like I’m living the fantasy life I pictured when I first imagined my move to Manhattan. The price tag seems small next to my big dream. I’m not just buying food to fill me up. I’m buying the quality and experience, the connection and sense of community, and the story that comes along with a hand-picked selection. Of course the reality is that our main meal will probably be a ninety-nine cent box of pasta paired with a can of chick peas of about the same price (thank you Amazon), but that trade off is what makes it work. It doesn’t hurt that pasta and chick peas is satisfying and delicious when you’ve prepared it by hand, and maybe paired it with an exotic treat.

Years ago you didn’t go to the corner butcher because  you were wealthy, you went because that’s where you found meat. Maybe you bought less of it than your wealthy neighbors, but you both purchased it at the butcher shop. Mike and I are always looking for that artisanal shopping experience (specifically a butcher and btw we’re taking recommendations, dear NYC readers…). Today with fast fashion and discount retailers commoditizing  so many things, specialty shops in all sectors have become a splurge, rather than a staple of each neighborhood.  When I first moved to New York I felt guilty, even reckless to patronize these boutique establishments.  I was always looking for a deal to offset the sticker shock of the exorbitant rent I was now paying. I knew the price of everything, but had forgotten the value. I was missing out not only on quality, but on the very essence of the city. I didn’t get it.  Big chain stores and discount retailers aren’t what make New York…New York. It’s the places that are run by the couple living upstairs or the farmers markets and street carts that really give the city its character and charm.  In an effort to be conservative and financially responsible, I was missing the experience.

Yes our rent and our grocery bills are considerably higher here in the city than in most other locales, but we have to consider what we’re buying. Trust me the tiny space inside the four walls that we pay so dearly for is absolutely, unequivocally NOT worth the money. But the thing is, that’s not what we’re paying for. If our priority and desire was a 400 square foot living room and equal amounts of floor space in five other surrounding rooms, then we would go buy that in the suburbs for a fraction of the cost of renting our tiny apartment.  But all that space comes with a price of its own – it’s not in New York.  The only thing right down the street is a generic strip mall with the same half-dozen big box stores that you’ll find literally anywhere.  The thing about living in New York is that you’re not paying for floor space. You’re not paying for what is inside your four walls. You’re paying for access to everything that is immediately, deliciously, tangibly right outside of those walls. You’re paying for every opportunity, every play, every museum and every thought leader speaking at your local Y that you can simply walk to see. You’re paying for every concert at every small intimate venue, every after work event, networking opportunity, interesting class and store opening. You’re paying for every restaurant of every ethnicity and the seemingly limitless collections of unique neighborhoods to discover. When you think about it, you’re living space comes free with what you are really paying for – the experience of living your life in this vibrant, endlessly fascinating cauldron of a city.

That’s how we feel about food too. It’s like the food came free with the amazing dinner party we got to host. Of course nothing is free and there is a huge balancing act that goes on behind the scenes, but I think I’m finally getting what its all about.

So what do you make for dinner when you’ve indulged in one too many shopping trips to your favorite specialty shop?  Pasta and ceci (chick peas) is a quick, easy and affordable option. My favorite way to make this dish is with sausage for some added flavor but it’s equally delicious without meat. Visit our recipes page to get the full pasta and ceci recipe.

What’s your favorite fast and affordable meal OR your favorite splurge? Tell us in the comments.