Tuesday, February 05, 2008

$8 Sardines

The other part of yesterday's "Dumb Money" story that I forgot involved the grocery shopping trip for the lasagna ingredients. Given the title of this post, you may already be alarmed and/or grossed out at the concept of sardine lasagna. I don't know, maybe such a thing could be good. But in any case, the sardines were totally separate from the lasagna.
Sardines are actually one of my favorite frugal meals. A can of sardines and a couple slices of buttered toast make a great dinner, though sometimes I can have a weird moment of self-awareness as I'm eating this meal. It's actually what inspired one of the most commented-on posts on this site, "What Makes You Feel Poor?" Eating sardines and toast for dinner doesn't necessarily make me feel poor, but if I really couldn't afford to eat anything else, it might.
But the point of this story is that sardines are sometimes not all that frugal! I was doing my grocery shopping at the Fairway in Brooklyn, which actually has very low prices on many items (such as Stonyfield Yogurt, which can be half the price it is elsewhere), but also stocks a lot of gourmet items which can start to get pricey. It's also just a tough place to shop because everything looks so yummy and you find yourself wanting to buy everything!
This time, my head was turned by a display of items which included a certain anchovy paste which I recognized as the product of a place I once visited in France, where anchovies were the local specialty. I almost bought some but instead turned to the cans of French sardines that were sitting right next to it. I had sardines on my shopping list anyway, and these French ones had a very pretty package so I thought I'd try them. They had lemon in them, which I wasn't sure I'd like, so I only bought one can and then got my regular sardines in a different aisle.
When we went to check out, I was putting the sardines on the conveyor belt and suddenly spotted the price tag: $7.99! For one can! I was shocked. The other ones I bought were less than $2 a can. How could these ones be so much more?
I pointed the price out to my friend, who said I'd be crazy to buy them. And I did almost put them back. But then I thought, well, it's still "only" $8, in the larger scheme of life, and now I'm really curious as to what could be so delicious about these sardines as to make them worth $8. Probably the only thing that makes them $8 is that they are French and the exchange rate stinks right now, but I still kind of wanted to try them. I waffled about it a little, but in the end I bought them.
My friend asked me afterwards if I was going to keep the can after I ate the sardines. After all, it was a very pretty red can with a quaint picture of a French girl on it, and I have a whole collection of cool old food and tobacco tins displayed in my living room. I said that yes, I did think I'd save the can and add it to my collection. Her response: "Oh, ok. Then the $8 is totally worth it."
Someone out there in food-marketing-land must be loving this story!


English Major said...

Mark Bittman (of the Times) says that you never buy canned sardines for best quality, only jarred. Don't know why, but that's what he says--it gives me the impression that there can be a big gap in quality. But if you're happy with the $2 can, why pay $8?

I'm a big fan of sardines and anchovies, and actually I think they'd be great in lasagna--you'd put them in the sauce, right after sauteeing the garlic and onions and stuff. They'd add some nice saltiness and bite, and they basically just dissolve, so it's not like you're left with big chunks of fish.

Noel Larson said...

Wow...After working in a Pizza place during Music School,we would every once in a while get an order for sardines on pizza...put me way off of them...

Anonymous said...

Madame X, you are probably too young to remember when generic brands came in white packages with black lettering. The packaging was cheap, and reminded you that the product was cheap -- cheaper than the product in the fancier package. Everyone loves getting a bargain, and having the black and white package was a sign that you were saving money. Well, in the long run, it didn't work. People didn't believe that the quality of a product in cheap packaging was as high as the quality of the product in the fancy packaging. And ultimately, people don't like to be reminded that they need to save money; they like to feel like they can afford to buy the same expensive products as everyone else. So within a few years, generics and store brands were back in fancier packages. Packaging counts as an indicator of worth. (I mean, even not considering attractiveness, or the nostalgic value of having been where the sardines come from, or thinking that they're likely to be better sardines if they come from the "sardine source".)

But if the package is really pretty, then I personally agree with your friend that "the $8 is totally worth it," as a one time thing. And it's fun to try new stuff, as long as we don't make a habit of buying expensive treats! And we all want to know ... were the sardines really great?

SMB said...

I, too, will want to know if the $8 sardines are yummy.

Janet said...

French sardines are probably better than the generic ones at Rite Aid for .89 cents from Poland. The quality of the fish and whether it was packed in olive oil makes a big difference.

You can also blame high-import taxes (15-20%) on certain sardines unless they were coming from Mexico or Canada.

VixenOnABudget said...

I have never tasted sardines. I must admit a dual feeling of curiousity and revulsion to try them.

It will be on my next shopping list.

Anonymous said...

show us the can Madame X!!

Chief Family Officer said...

I would have bought the anchovies, not the sardines :)