(Nearly) a pound of flesh

Here’s a riddle for you: What costs sixty dollars a pound in cash and at least three times as much in shame?

Answer: jamón ibérico de bellota (Iberian acorn ham).

If you suspect that this riddle involves a story, you’re right. Sadly, the story also involves me, my local deli, and the complete and total shattering of my grocery budget for the month, but hopefully by the end of the story there will be a lesson learned—or, at the very least, some angst assuaged.

Here’s how the story begins: As I may have mentioned before, I live across the street from a very excellent deli. It’s the one where Julia Child shopped when she lived in town, and the quality has remained the same since she packed up and moved to California and her kitchen packed up and moved to the Smithsonian. I can get (or at least look wistfully at) some of the best cuts of meat in Boston just by walking across the street.

Now, being the deadbeat graduate student that I am, I’m still very much constrained to live on a tight budget. I’m looking forward to the day when that will no longer be true (and perhaps ever so occasionally engage in activities that make it seem as though it’s not true now), but in general it’s fair to say that I’m still eating a lot of sandwiches for lunch. And while being in my eighteenth year of school (gah!) is more than enough to turn me off to sandwiches forever, the proximity and excellence of my lovely neighborhood deli has thus far allowed me to rekindle an interest in that most mundane of lunch fare.

I’ve really enjoyed mixing and matching all the different meats, cheeses, and breads my deli has to offer, and everything I come up with definitely has a lot more pizzazz than your standard bologna on wheat. Not to disparage Oscar Mayer or anything—I’m sure driving that big hot dog around is tons of fun—but these are sandwiches you can get excited about. I’ve got to be honest: these sandwiches are really a (cold) cut above the rest…

And so, yesterday, it was once again time to make my usual trip to the deli and find some new comestibles for the week ahead. Previous weeks had featured Black Forest ham and Italian prosciutto, so I decided it was time to turn to Spain. Scanning along the rows of meat, one small sign caught my eye. Jamón ibérico? I thought. That definitely sounds Spanish. Looks like that’s the one for me!

As usual, I asked the butcher to slice me up about 3/4 lb. of the meat and then briefly walked around the store looking for other things while he worked. As usual, there was no price displayed for the meat, but my weekly purchase usually ranges between $8 and $12 and supplies lunch for five or six days, so I don’t generally look too carefully or complain.

As I came back to the deli counter, though, I noticed that a couple of things were different.

First, the butcher hadn’t given me a “test slice,” something he almost always does to ascertain whether the thickness he has selected is satisfactory and whether I like the taste of the meat. Then, instead of slicing the meat into a pile and throwing it all into a baggie when finished, the butcher had taken out a larger styrofoam tray and had begun arranging the slices of ham side by side between layers of wax paper. Being untrained in the art of meat slicing myself, I thought maybe this was because he was afraid the meat might stick together otherwise.

As it turned out, though, both of these differences were due to one thing: this meat was extremely precious.

Just as I walked back up to the counter, the butcher was weighing the tray. It came to 0.64 lb. and he was about to add more, but I told him it was fine—”I usually order too much anyway,” I said. In hindsight, it must have been my guardian angel stopping me there.

After he had wrapped, weighed, and priced the meat, he handed it over to me and I began walking towards the checkout counter. Then, I looked down at the price.

$38.40?

I blinked and looked again. This couldn’t be right: I was holding a little more than half a pound of meat, and it was going to cost me nearly forty dollars? Impossible. But there it was, staring me in the face: $38.40.

I walked back to the deli counter and said, “Excuse me. Perhaps this decimal point is in the wrong place. How much does this meat cost per pound?”

“Sixty bucks,” replied the butcher. “But trust me… it’s worth twice that much.”

“I’m sorry?” I gasped, incredulous. “Ham can’t possibly cost that much. There must be some mistake.”

“Look,” he snapped. “It’s imported from Spain, alright?”

“Yeah, well, my phone is imported from Korea, buddy, but that doesn’t mean I paid $6,000 for it!”

(Clearly, I was becoming a bit agitated.)

Not growing any friendlier as the result of my quip, the butcher informed me that the ham was useless to him now that he had sliced it (nobody else would buy it now, he said) and lectured me that I should have asked for the price before asking him to go to the trouble of cutting it for me.

To be fair, this was probably true. And at this point, noting the size of the butcher (not to mention the knife he was holding), I reasoned that it would probably be best not to retort that if he thought his job was so much trouble, there were plenty of unemployed Americans who would be willing to take it off his hands. I also decided not to argue the point that prices should be posted next to the meat so that customers would not be put into this position. (Indeed, in some cases, it may be illegal not to.)

Instead, I gave in, walked up to the register, and bought the ham. The cashier, who had overheard much of the exchange (it’s a small store), thought it might be funny to console me by reassuring me that these would be “some wicked good sandwiches,” but somehow his counsel failed to have the desired effect.

In case you’re wondering why the ham costs so much, this is Wikipedia’s answer:

The finest jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn). This ham is from free-range pigs that roam oak forests (called la dehesa) along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this last period. It is also known as jamón iberico de Montanera. The exercise and the diet has a significant impact on the flavor of the meat; the ham is cured for 36 months.

Acorn-fed, free-range, well-exercised, 3-year-old ham indeed. And all for only about $2.50 a slice.

All the way home, I was positively fuming about what a pushover I was. So what if I have to go back and shop there next week? So what if the butcher was big, mean, and holding a large knife? So what if my pride would have been temporarily wounded by setting the meat down and walking out of the store? Is the alternative really preferable?

While I’m still kicking myself about my spineless retreat, I have decided two things:

First, I haven’t learned nearly as much as I thought I had about negotiation and difficult conversations. In previous weeks, I had been priding myself on some of the techniques I had mastered and knowledge I had absorbed in this regard as a result of a course that I’m taking, but this clearly didn’t do me any good when I needed it most. There’s no doubt in my mind that pride went before this fall…

Second, I’m going to keep that ham and eat every bit of it. These will probably be the most expensive sandwiches I’ve ever eaten, and with every bite I take I will remind myself of what being an idiot tastes like. Next time, I won’t back down so easily.

As for that butcher (who I now refuse to call mine), I hope he knows he’s going to be slicing a lot of Oscar Mayer from now on.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “(Nearly) a pound of flesh

  1. Ruth Ryshke

    An idiot indeed. Oh dear James, who will someday be a lawyer certainly needs better skills during a controversy. What if you were in court, during trial and you acted this way – you would lose the case!! You are too funny… and btw – I heard you were home to see your honey bunch and I didn’t know it – not cool. Love ya anyways, Ruth

    • It’s definitely true that I need to work on my confrontational skills! Maybe one more summer at ANEW would do the trick… 😉 I did come home and surprise everyone last weekend, but it won’t be long before I’m back again — Easter is the current plan. Looking forward to seeing you then!

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