The Tale of the $15 Tomato: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “The Tale of the $15 Tomato.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) In it, you’ll hear Steve Levitt talk about his favorite foods (hint: most of them can be obtained via a drive-thru window); a surprisingly agrarian feature of his childhood; and his wildly unsuccessful effort to get his kids enthusiastic about agriculture.

As trivial as all that may sound, there is in fact a larger point to the podcast. As we once wrote in a Times column, modern and relatively well-off Americans spend a lot of time voluntarily performing the sort of menial labor (growing, baking, brewing, knitting, etc.) that our grandparents would likely have loved to not have to perform.

LEVITT: I think all of this movement towards doing our own labor, and pickling, and fancy food stuff that you do at home, I think that is really a sign of how spoiled we have all become. Our basic needs are so well taken care of that we need to seek out some sort of hardship to feel whole. Which is a good thing. It’s a great thing. What could be better than having all of your basic needs met?

Part of this episode was recorded outside a Wingstop in Chicago, where we were picking up some of the chicken wings that Levitt loves so dearly. You can read more about his wing obsession here and here. Or you can read his hard-luck story about A&W root beer. And for a full run-down of Levitt’s underdeveloped palate, you might want to revisit our “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” podcast. 

Audio Transcript


DUBNER: Check check check check check…you want to tell people just where we are right now?


LEVITT: We’re outside the Wingstop chicken wings store, where they have told us we have to wait forty-five minutes for chicken wings but we’re so desperate, we’re sitting here in the car, recording radio.


DUBNER: All right...uh...why am I hearing nothing? Check check check…check. Talk for a minute.


LEVITT: Hello?


DUBNER: Keep going.


LEVITT: Steven Levitt…chicken wings...forty-five-minute wait. What a pain in the ass.




ANNOUCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


DUBNER: So Levitt, um, a college friend of yours once told me that your favorite meal during college was a dill pickle, beef jerky and grape soda. Is that true?


LEVITT: I did indeed have that for breakfast, but to tell you the truth, it sounded better before I ate it than after.

DUBNER: Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author, is an economist at the University of Chicago. He sometimes makes fun of me for caring too much about food. You know what I think? I think he cares just as much, if not more. It’s just that he cares differently.

LEVITT: My tastes go to things like...




LEVITT: KFC, beef jerky.


DUBNER: Chipotle.


LEVITT: Grape Crush.


DUBNER: Dill pickles.


LEVITT: Chicken wings, I love chicken wings.


DUBNER: You do love your chicken wings.


LEVITT: I had Cocoa Pebbles for breakfast.


DUBNER: His favorite part of Cocoa Pebbles, of course, is drinking the milk at the bottom of the bowl.


LEVITT: Most definitely.


DUBNER: His dream meal?  


LEVITT: ...maybe McDonalds or Burger King or something like that.


DUBNER: And Levitt’s favorite letters in the alphabet? Big N, little a, Big C, little l. NaCL, that’s the chemical symbol for salt.


LEVITT: Oh, God, I love salt!


DUBNER: Some of his other loves, root beer, for instance, have let him down.


LEVITT: So anyway, there was my thirst and there was the A&W Root Beer. So, I went to the drive through and I said, ‘I’d like an A&W Root Beer please,’ and the voice came over the microphone and said, ‘I’m sorry, we are out of root beer, is there something else I get you?’


DUBNER:  It’s like a bank running out of money.


LEVITT: Yeah, or like KFC running out of chicken.


DUBNER: Oh, you’ve had that happen?


LEVITT: I’ve had that happen to me too. So, I went to a KFC with my daughter Amanda and I waited in line for what seemed like an interminable amount of time. But I was truly shocked when I went up to the counter and I asked for a bucket of chicken and they told me that they were out of chicken.


DUBNER: But in the end, true love prevails. And Levitt is a man who knows what he loves …


LEVITT: Pretty much the cheaper the food the better. There’s almost no fast food that I don’t adore.




LEVITT: Yeah, I like KFC. Burgers. Chipotle. I’d kill for Chipotle.

DUBNER: As you may know, we put out this podcast every week. Twice a year, we also put out a series of five one-hour radio specials that air on NPR affiliates across the country. These hour-long shows are primarily reconstituted podcasts. But sometimes they have extra material that we don’t want our podcast listeners to miss out on. That’s what today’s podcast is—short and sweet, a little story about Steve Levitt’s appreciation for food, and where it comes from, and what it means. When you hear him talk about his favorite foods…

LEVITT: God I wish I could have gone to McDonald's tonight, it would have been so much better.

DUBNER:…it might surprise you to learn that he has a somewhat agrarian past.

LEVITT: So, so growing up one of the most romantic memories, nostalgic memories that I have is that almost every weekend during the summer my father and I would drive an hour and a half to a little working farm that my grandparents kept as a hobby and the memories of us really growing, you know, corn and zucchini and cucumbers and potatoes is one of my fondest memories. I’ve always dreamed of having my own children experience dirt roads and the simple country life of pretend farming. It’s never really come to pass. I am not very good at growing things. We’ve tried having a garden in the backyard and the rabbits took care of that pretty quickly. So finally I hit on a solution that might actually work which was something that I saw in a magazine, which was a hydroponic tomato growing garden.

DUBNER: It was a neat little contraption—pricey, about $150. But all you had to do was put in some water, no dirt, and seeds, and turn on the special light and, voila! Fresh cherry tomatoes, grown right there in your kitchen.

LEVITT: Well, I can’t say it worked out so well. It certainly was a lot of labor and my kids were interested in it for maybe a day or two. And it sat right in our kitchen and this ultraviolet light was blasting away. The neighbors even asked us what was going on. I think they thought maybe we were growing pot in our kitchen. We had in the end, I think, about fourteen. Fourteen cherry tomatoes, total.

DUBNER: So let’s see: there’s the cost of the hydroponic garden, and the electricity, the labor…

LEVITT: Even if you take the minimum wage rate, I think we are talking about maybe fifteen dollars per cherry tomato, something like that.  It was a costly experiment in eventually failing to get my children to have the same love of farming as I have.

DUBNER: But it did get Levitt thinking. A lot of things that we do for fun, or for entertainment, things like gardening, or knitting, baking, these are things our great-grandparents had to do and probably would have loved to not have to do.

LEVITT: Yeah, so, you know the line between work and leisure is a complicated one. Leisure is defined as something you would do for yourself even though you don’t get paid. So some people will cut their own yard or grow their own cherry tomatoes. But things that you will happily do for yourself, you wouldn’t happily do for your neighbors. If my neighbors, who had seen us growing the cherry tomatoes through the window, had said, ‘Look could you grow me some cherry tomatoes and I’ll pay you the market wage for what it is to grow tomatoes,’ I’d say, ‘Are you crazy? I’m not going to grow your tomatoes. You grow your own tomatoes.’ That’s what really gets to be interesting, is why is it that we are willing to do things which are completely unpleasant and we would never think of doing them in a market setting, but the romanticism of doing them as leisure somehow takes over. And that’s a question that I think really an economist can’t answer. That’s the question for a psychoanalyst, I think.

DUBNER: And as Levitt sees it, all these activities we do, growing our own cherry tomatoes, brewing our own beer, baking our own bread, this says something about us.

LEVITT: Yeah, I think all of this movement towards doing our own labor, and pickling, and fancy food stuff that you do at home, I think that is really a sign of how spoiled we have all become, that our basic needs are so well taken care of that we need to seek out some sort of hardship to feel whole. Which is a good thing. It’s a great thing. What could be better than having all of your basic needs met?

DUBNER: If you want to hear the full radio hour that this podcast comes from, it’s called “You Eat What You Are.” Our website lists the radio stations across the country that play our show. If your local station is not on that list, feel free to give them a call and, if they’re not responsive, look up the home address of their program director, drive by at night, and throw some nice rotten tomatoes at their house. Just don’t bother to grow ‘em yourself.




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  1. eric says:

    I question whether our ancestors would eat things like McDonalds and Wingstop all the time rather than cooking at home. I see this movement more based around health and cost, and finding out what goes into your food rather than relying on a company driven by stockholder profits to make the choice of quality for you.

    By cooking at home you get tastier, healthier food for a hell of a lot cheaper than a restaurant (especially fast food). You also get to control how much salt, sugar, and chemicals go into your body. I see those as the main reasons for the cooking “resurgence”, not people being bored and wanting more work to do. Thoughts?

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    • jake3_14 says:

      Also, for those of us on low-carb/paleo diets, there are damned few restaurants that serve a meal that’s 2/3 animal fat, 20% protein, and 15% vegetable-based carbohydrates. I would love to be able to buy fresh bone broth/stock, rich with gelatin and minerals, but alas, even my local Whole Foods doesn’t sell it.

      Leavitt needs to talk to a lot more people, maybe even do a genuine survey, before he concludes that people make food that they could buy more cheaply because we’re spoiled.

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  3. tmeier says:

    They might have loved not to HAVE to garden, that doesn’t mean they didn’t like to garden. The difference between going for a swim and trying to survive a shipwreck.

    Then there is the issue of quality; those of us who don’t enjoy processed foods are generally very conscious of the difference between many sorts of home grown fruits and vegetables and what can be bought in even the best market. If you can’t tell the difference between a homegrown tomato and the simulacra you get from a fast food shack then by all mean save your money for something you can appreciate.

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    • James says:

      Exactly! Then there’s the flip side of this: in the modern world, what I do for a living (writing simulation software for supercomputers) is something my grandparents (all of whom died before the first PCs) probably never dreamed of. I actually enjoy doing this, but I sure wouldn’t want to do it every d*mned day.

      There is plenty of collected wisdom that covers this: “Variety is the spice of life”, “A change is as good as a rest”, etc.

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  4. vr1000 says:

    I can easily pay someone to cut my lawn, shovel my driveway of snow or I can buy beer at the liquor store but I very much enjoy cutting my lawn, shoveling snow and brewing beer. I work as a researcher and so few of our projects work out long term but if I shovel my driveway, I get that immediate sensation of accomplishment. I love that feeling.

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  5. Enter your name... says:

    I like baking bread enough that I’d be willing to have a small number of people pay me market rates so I could do it more often. However, it would be a small number (I’m physically limited to about two hours of manual work a day) and they’d have to accept whatever bread I happened to be making. Neither of these conditions result in a viable small business.

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  6. frankenduf says:

    i call projection on the levitt quote

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  7. James says:

    I think you’re wrong about the growing stuff for your neighbors. My (fairly rural) neighborhood has quite a thriving exchange economy in garden produce. This year I’ve given the neighbors (and friends) loads of cherries, peaches, and pears, and expect to be giving them apples & grapes if the weather holds. In return I’ve gotten carrots, rhubarb, hot peppers, home-brewed beer and jam…

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  8. Texcis says:

    Yes I CAN get fast food cheaper that cooking at home. By the time you add my time for menu planning, grocery shopping, food prep, cooking, and clean up +electricity, gas and water. Are you kidding? After 10 hours of work and commuting, I’m not stupid.

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    • Eric says:

      I can make a meal at home in about 15-20 minutes, using fresh ingredients without a bunch of corn syrup, salt, and preservatives injected into them for less than $6/person (usually MUCH less).

      For me, just driving to and from a fast food place takes at least 15 minutes, or longer depending on where I want to go and what time of day it is. Not to mention, I have yet to see a fast food place with anywhere near the quality of food I can make at home for $6/person.

      Add in the costs it adds on to your health, as well as the extra gas to drive to every meal instead of just the one time a week to the grocery store, and your equation might tip in a different direction.

      If you want fast food quality, get some hormone and preservative riddled hamburger patties, and the cheapest white buns you can find, salt the hell out of everything, add some sugar, and I guarantee it’s cheaper than whatever fast food place you can find. Youtube is full of videos of people laying out how much it costs them to make the equivalent of a fast food meal

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