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Last week, the food pages of the New York Times  had a long piece on dry cooked ham.   Seems that "country ham" doesn't always come from a country where people actually like to eat. The store-bought stuff is often "an inexpensive regional product whose usual fate is to be soaked in water, then poached and baked with a sweet fruit glaze."    Well, yes, that's what I think of when I think of ham --a pink, tasteless mass oozing brine at the end of the buffet line.   For many of us ham, like fruitcake, is celebratory symbol more than an actual food. 

 

"The country ham industry shot itself in the foot," ham maker Sam Edwards told the Times.  "We decided that the cheapest price wins, so we took a great product and reduced the quality and turned it into a commodity."

 

The insatiable demand for ever lower prices has turned many luxuries into commodities.  Sushi, once a special treat, is now so ubiquitous that it's helped push once abundant species like bluefin tuna, monkfish and freshwater eel  onto the endangered species list.    Shrimp , once a delicacy, is today farmed in crowded, mud bottom ponds dosed with antibiotics and served up "all you can eat" style at chain restaurants.   And it's not only edible delicacies that have gone cheap.  Cashmere, once so valuable it was called the "diamond fiber" has since the 1990s become an explosive growth industry in China, where the skyrocketing number of grass chomping cashmere goats has led to desertification and dust storms so powerful they carry pollutants to the United States.  Human rights advocates warn us that cheap silk comes thanks to cheap hands, and that those hands are sometimes attached to "bonded" children laborers.   

 

Turning something into a commodity does not always make it cheap.  In the case of sex, for example, it transformed something that is mostly freely given into a fee for service.  Generally, though, to turn something into a commodity is to lower its price, and make it more widely available.  To Americans, this generally sounds great--we want every citizen to have access to the "good things" in life.   But real luxuries turned into commodities hardly qualify as the "good things."  On the contrary, they are often terribly disappointing things.  The "county" ham tastes like Spam. The $19.99 "all silk" blouse droops into shapelessness at the first cleaning.  The $39.00 "cashmere sweater" is too flimsy and thin to keep out the chill.   Those "all you can eat" shrimp are as mushy as the muck they were farmed in. 

 

In today's New York Times, David Brooks wrote that the first priority of what he called the "political class" is "to persuade a country to postpone gratification for the sake of rebuilding the country."  The cheapening of consumer goods--especially luxuries-- gives us the false hope that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it at a price anyone can afford.   Generally, though, what we get is a pale imitation, masquerading as the real deal.  This essential lie has led to a world of pain--and disappointment.  Does every 10 year old kid deserve "sushi" in his lunchbox every day, regardless of the real cost?  Is a teenager's life made better, more interesting or more fun by a collection of cheap cashmere sweaters?   Probably not...after all, delaying gratification, while anathema to marketers, is a life skill well worth developing.  As my grandmother used to say,  "If we get it all now, what in the world will we have to look forward to--or work toward?"

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor and science journalist who teaches at Boston University. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. More

Atlantic contributing editor Ellen Ruppel Shell teaches at Boston University, where she co-directs the Graduate Program in Science Journalism. She writes on science, medicine, the media, economics, and sometimes even sports and the arts, and tends to focus on the underlying cultural and societal implications. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
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