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.


How old are you Mr. Levitt, that your grandparents had to knit all their clothes and were too busy baking all the family's bread that they could not waste time/energy doing things they didn't have to? I gather no one of your grandparents generation read newspapers, went to the cinema, or sang songs because they plowed fields dawn to dusk (were they hunter-gatherers). Would you also consider musicians and artists "spoiled" because they don't have to make art or music to survive, they can just buy George Gershwin cassettes instead of wasting their time creating things?


Two benefits of baking your own bread:
1. The kitchen smells fantastic while the bread is baking.
2. Nothing tastes better than eating the first slice of bread while it's still hot, and smothered with peanut butter.


A little butter and honey for me, please!

Daniel Salinas

My wife and I are still in college and prefer making food at home because: 1. It saves us money 2. We loved home made sandwiches as kids 3. We share an activity together (preperaing food). However, breakfast is always at McDonalds (dollar menu items only) and if need be necessary, dinner will take place at Subway.

Jacob Heskett

For some of us, it's not about having too much free time. It's about an adulterated food supply. I'm not a big fan of eating a bunch of GMOs and chemicals when I can grow produce that is much more delicious and free from all this trash.

Anthony Scira

Hey guys great show ! But I have to disagree about being spoiled to the point of wanting to do our own labor.

For me anyway I was getting tired of buying inferior product. But I will say we have come a long way in the craft beer market. As far as pickling and preserving go I am tired of the sickening sweet preserves and limp over salted pickles. Not to mention when I make pickles I know what is going in there not some laundry list of chemicals I do not know how to pronounce.

I guess you can turn that around and say we are spoiled. But I still think it is more than that.


This really hit home, and you told everyone, whether from Santa Barbara, Chile, or New Jersey, to write. So, as a proud New Jerseyan, the family grocery shopper, and veggie lover, I always wondered why the Jersey tomatoes and blueberries--Hammonton, New Jersey = "Blueberry Capital of the World"--are nowhere to be found at my supermarkets (large chains, mind you). Instead, it's Mexican tomatoes and Chilean blueberries. Environmental footprint aside, our tomatoes are suppose to be extra delicious. I get it now.

I wonder if the folks leading the charge on the peanut farming project in Haiti to employ farmers and locally grow malnutrition fighting peanut butter knew about this before facing their cost issues as reported by NPR just last month.


(1) Any woman who shops for produce has known for years that in supermarkets and even at "farmers' market" stores the produce is imported from faraway places. This is not news.

(2) Michelle Obama is trying to educate inner city children about where their food comes from and how it is produced.

(3) High-density living may leave a smaller "carbon footprint" per person, but living in chronically crowed places can be very stressful, particularly for children.

(4) There is no mystery requiring a "psychoanalyst" to solve about why people will do for fun activities that they won't do for a living. It's simple: when you're life depends on it, it's stressful. When you want something for peasure or added enjoyment to your life, it isn't.

(5) Taking subtle shots at women will neither improve lives nor help the environment.


This podcast hit on a very interesting (sometimes frustrating) phenomenon that I've noticed in my work. I own/run a paint-your-own pottery studio. The idea is that customers come in, pick out a piece of pre-made pottery, paint it in whatever style they want, have it fired, and then take it home. Almost throughout human history, painting pottery would have been considered to be a "job". In fact, it is still a job in many parts of the world and I see elements of it as a job in the United States at craft and art fairs. I sell it as entertainment.

To my customers, it's entertainment. To me, it's a business. I need people to come in and paint to make money to feed my family etc. Therein lies the disconnect. At least one time a month, a guest will come into the studio and want me or my staff to paint something for them for free. This sets up an interesting problem for us. Yes, we enjoy it, but we make money doing it. Some guests cannot understand why we should get to paid to do something that they have to pay to do.

I suspect this is a dilemma that every artist runs into during their career. The fact that I am in a retail space I believe makes the disconnect more apparent.



More like The Tale of Half-Assing Everything

Oh let's try to garden one tomato plant once ever and then give up.
Oh let's make a shitty ten minute podcast about it
and hey while we're at it let's discourage all of our listeners from developing friendships with their neighbors and enjoying productive hobbies.

What even is this crap?