At the Green Festival a couple of years ago, I wandered through a fair trade coffee display and picked up a free copy of Julia Alvarez’s A Cafecito Story. It is a literary “eco-parable” about the ravages of free trade and the benefits of fair trade. Better for the campesinos, better for the environment, better for your conscience, it argues.
I’ve since given it away or contributed it to a book swap, but I recall one scene in the book in which a Dominican coffee farmer who raises a delicious, pesticide-free product drinks a cup of cheap instant coffee. He is reduced to this sad state because he is paid so little that he can’t even afford to drink his own wonderful and life-giving joe. This concept is used a lot in fair trade arguments, pulling at heart strings and appealing to pampered Americans’ guilt. They can’t even drink a cup of their own coffee! They can’t even have a bite of their own chocolate!
At some recent moment I can’t put my finger on, this argument ceased to have any punch for me. I was probably cooking for clients at the time. I shop and cook for hours at a time and my food comes out pretty damn good. (I base this not on my own judgment but on the fact that clients have called and emailed me just to describe in detail how knee-trembling my food was, where they ate it, who they shared it with, and how they wish they had ordered more). But I don’t eat it myself.
I charge customers somewhat gourmet prices. With paneer going for $5.99 a block at the nearest location where it’s available (Whole Foods) and the cost of organic spinach heading through the roof, I kind of have to. Also, it takes time to prep all the veggies, caramelize the onions, and toast the curry powder just so, and time is money. I think it’s safe to say I can’t afford to eat my own saag paneer. And no matter how aromatic the curry or how delectibly golden brown the cheese is when I pull it from the broiler, I’m not really sad that I can’t eat it. My clients choose to buy this artisan food, so good for them. I’m happy to collect the money, feel satisfied that they’re eating well, and make myself a simple stir fry.