It is a snowy, wet evening. The night before the biggest annual sporting event in America, and I am walking the local mall with my dear daughter in tow. The Super Bowl is far down on my list of things to ponder; we are in search of that which may have more import for me and the Wee Lass. We are looking for a potato masher and some brownie mix. Tomorrow is a big day: we want to make brownies.
We eat dinner and set out for the kitchen wares store, the type that has an extensive selection of finely made stuff, and the overheated price tags to match. I had in mind the masher I wanted. Heavy duty, sturdy, preferably stainless steel. The kind with a flat, perforated disk attached to thick bars and a solid handle. I have never possessed such an instrument. Having read reviews and done research, the disk type seems an excellent choice.
The store has an excellent selection of mashers of various types. Wee Lass enthusiastically joined in the search, bringing me various mashers she took delight in finding on the racks. The low end started at $20, a coil type that seemed bizarre. Next up was a rubber handle/metal shaft, also at $20. Then, solid metal at $25. None was the disk type. Then I found it: chromed stainless, holey disk, Swiss. Almost like a fine watch.
It was $45. Forty-five dollars.
I admit, I balked. It was indeed a very fine tool. Well-made. Sturdy. A Ferrari among the Hondas, as it were. In my state of jobless-induced fiscal austerity, out of my league at the moment. I wistfully placed the masher back on the rack, telling my daughter we might have better luck with brownie mix.
We found the brownie mix. Tastefully done packaging, extolling the delights of fine dark chocolate and the creators' passion for excellence in baked goods. Handsome fellows wearing aprons on the box photo, beaming over a plate of what surely must be brownie nirvana.
Nirvana, at $17 a box. I silently put enlightenment back on the shelf. My sigh was audible. I told her I would look for a likely recipe on the Internet, or in my collection of food-related books at home. She smiled and said okay. Before leaving the mall, she and I strolled over to a nearby department store, whereupon I found a serviceable thickset silicone masher of the disk type. Price? Nine bucks.
Purchase tucked under arm, we wended through the mall on our way back to the car and home. Wee Lass strolled along beside me, we laughed and chatted. But I had this moment of clarity, a voice speaking quietly but firmly in my head as we passed all the new stores full of shiny things we may want but do not necessarily need. Stores crammed full of things that here pass for ordinary, but would be luxuries in many places on earth. People buying, people jonesing for stuff as the voice said: When did we as a society come to want so much, and why? When did we lose perspective on content over form, value over cost, truth over hype?
I thought of the impending Super Bowl, a contest which, in all candor, makes me yawn but which much of the nation seems to treat as a secular holiday. Full of hype, of noise and blather, of aggression and over-indulgence. A spectacle that I as an American am supposed to want watch just because its, well, the SUPER BOWL!
But I don't. I enjoy a good sporting contest, but this just seems like an over-blown aggrandizement of the many negative traits of consumer culture. The real kicker for me, the one that made me wonder about the pop culture my daughter will grow up in, be surrounded by, and possibly be made to feel like an alien if she doesn't care to participate in it...is that even the commercials get just as much publicity as the game. The commercials, for crying out loud! People actually say the only reason they watch the Super Bowl is for the commercials. 30 seconds, millions of dollars, all for the purpose of getting us to buy stuff.
For some reason this made me sad and anxious. Those thoughts, and my humbling search for a simple potato masher, left me feeling a sense of dislocation like I was an alien among a different tribe. I reached for the only antidote I could think of at the time: I took my daughter by the hand, and we walked out into the snowy night, marveling at the fat flakes falling from the sky. She laughed to catch one on her tongue, and so did I. It was then I felt closer to home and okay in my affinity for simplicity. Tomorrow, we would make brownies from scratch and know that they are good.
Epilogue: Wee Lass and I spent some time discussing the merits of spending $45 dollars versus $9 dollars on a potato masher. I did my best to explain the difference between the 'value' and the 'cost' of an item. She did me proud when she nodded her head and said "The plastic one will do for now, and you can get a better one later when you have more money!" Well said. At home, I dug out my copy of the compendium 'Cook's Illustrated 2004'. Lo and behold, there was a recipe for brownies. From scratch, simple, and just what I needed. And more for less.