The Tale of the $15 Tomato (Ep. 94)

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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 here.) 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.


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?

Alexander Czisny

Your RSS link is to the Freakonomics podcast, not the new The Tail of The $15 Tomato.

Alexander Czisny

I took a second glance at the title of the podcast and re-read the synapsis and quickly realized that there is not a new podcast. Thinking back to your past shows, I remember hearing that you announce each new episode as a new podcast. I tried to ignore my past comment but I cannot. You do NOT have a new podcast; you have a new podcast episode. Stop labeling your episode titles with new podcast. This would be like saying there is a new Dexter television show instead of episode. Stop using the term podcast incorrectly. Thanks.

podcast: a program (as of music or talk) made available in digital format for automatic download over the Internet (


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.


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.


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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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.


i call projection on the levitt quote


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...


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.


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



I wouldn't say I "seek out some sort of hardship" when I make bread. I'm not weighing the cost of making my own vs. buying a $4 designer loaf at the grocery. It's just that there comes a time in life when you have to turn off the computer and DO something during that time. I suppose I could go to the mall and buy an item of clothing. Or I could get out a pattern from the big box in the closet and look through my fabric stash and sew myself a cute skirt. Both things take time and the latter costs less (since I don't have to put gas in the car to go to the mall, and I already have a pile of fabric from various sources collected over the years). But I'm not thinking of cost. I'm thinking it would be a fun way to fill up some time and create something.


We might consider that the "product" in Levitt's tomato-growing experiment is not tomatos. Those are at best a useful byproduct. The real product is the education of his children. For a similar example, how many parents pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to give their children music lessons? What percentage of those kids will ever earn enough as professional musicians to repay the cost of the lessons?


"The hidden side of everything."
Have you ever looked into the side the chicken industry hides from you? The chickens would appreciate if you would.


I like your work Dr. Levitt, but this explanation is far-fetched.
Eric (below) says it well and I totally agree. Being a working mom of a 2-year old, I still take the time out to cook and make things like yogurt at home because I refuse to have my family consume harmful additives and toxins increasingly found in mainstream food. More than cost, it's about health for us -- "you are what you eat."


I did that too, I made 'baby food' with a blender and I've made yogurt, soup, bread, ice cream - you name it. However, though I could control the salt, sugar, and additives - I realize I was still using mainstream ingredients that may have had additives and toxins already. I suppose unless you search out, pay inflated prices for "organic", well, you could do that. But for how long? The world is full of toxins and additives, is eating at home going to protect you? Not forever.


You get what you pay for. If you buy the cheapest food, it's probably not going to be the best. There's plenty of resources online to help figure out which foods are worth it to go organic for.

Just because you can buy a 1991 camry for a cheap price, doesn't mean every new car that's higher quality is "inflated".


Well, it's not simply wanting to engage in the labor for labor's sake, it's also a matter of lack of trust in corporations and our industrial systems. I grow my own vegetables because it a way to ensure that they are pesticide free and that I'm not contributing to labor abuses, etc.

It's also a much more efficient use of resources. It's a less efficient use of labor, but a more efficient use of resources. In fact, however, I'd like to eliminate the use of labor, and develop automated home growing systems, and to be honest, my system already is pretty automated. My garden is on an automated watering and fertilizing system, so really my only labor is some prep in the spring, planting, and then going out 1 - 3 times a week to harvest food in the summer and fall.

And I haven't spent much on mine either. The watering system is just a use of the existing in-ground sprinkler system that was there when I bought the house. I added rip fertilization for about $50 myself. In the first few years I was spending about $80 on the garden. This year, not counting the water bill cause I'm not sure of the impact there, I've spent about $20 on the garden and gotten about $50 worth of produce, so maybe all in all, after 4 years, I'm about breaking even. In the coming years I'll be doing better than breaking even.

The real issue is that corporations want people to be dependent on them. American propaganda is so backwards. America's aren't independent people at all, we are among the most dependent people in the world, heck we are more dependent than the Soviets were, it's just that we are dependent on corporations, not government.

People are getting tired of corporate dependency, they want independence, freedom from corporate dependency. This, unfortunately, due in large part to how our system has been constructed to favor corporate interests, requires a lot of inefficiency to free ourselves from corporate dependency.

Just think about how much less dependent we would be on corporate food producers if neighborhood were filled with fruit trees instead of ornamentals. It's massively inefficient to waste tons of viable land that get's watered and fertilized, on growing non-productive trees, when its just as easy to grow fruit bearing trees. We should never need to buy apples, pears, peaches, grapes (vines), etc. from a store again, but we do because our living spaces are almost entirely designed and constructed by corporations and within the framework of a capitalist system that breeds corporate dependency.


Joby Elliott

Doing things yourself isn't just out of some entitled, comfy striving to "feel whole."

A lot of us who garden, and preserve, and learn the old ways of doing things aren't doing it just because it's fun (although it is). A lot of us are doing it because of a deep-seated unease with the way things are, combined with worries that the way things are is not they way they're gonna be.


Levitt, you totally missed the point. I can understand how someone who is focused on economics and fast food would arrive at your conclusion. I grow 6-8 months of my own food despite the fact that I can easily purchase groceries at the store. Frankly, the "vegetables" at the store are junk. So no matter how cheap you buy them, they are not worth the money. I estimate my family saves about $10K a year on food because I grow it myself. Besides, what am I going to do with all the extra time, watch tv? no thank you. I enjoy being outside, tending to my garden and chickens. I work in front of a computer all day, its a form of therapy.