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Random Food Report: Rock-Bottom Lobster, Side of CHIPS

A few columns ago, we introduced Luke Chen's Chimps In Pants (CHIPS) Theory to help explain why we, with our enormous brains and upright stature, tend to make such dumb decisions about food (and nearly everything else, but we'll stick with food for now).

The August 26 edition of The New Yorker features a column by James Surowiecki on CHIPS in action: The phenomenon of counter-intuitive pricing on restaurant menus, specifically, for the cost of lobster.

Tell us about it: Earlier this year we reported on the appearance of lobster at fast food restaurants - such as the Quizno's Lobster & Seafood Salad Sub - driven by the recent surge in lobster harvests and the corresponding drop in prices.

As Surowiecki reports, freshly-caught lobster "is selling for as low as $2.20 a pound." Yet menu prices at high-end restaurants have not fallen. Lobster seems to resist the usual effect of excess supply in the market. Local Chicago restaurants, for example, still list lobster at a premium:

  • "1 LB Maine Lobster Roll" at GT Fish & Oyster: $26.
  • Two options (listed at "Market Price") to choose from at Joe's Stone Crab: a 14oz "Grilled Jumbo Lobster Tail" for $48.95 or a 22oz version for $64.95, as reported by a Joe's staff member on August 24.
  • "Twin Maine Lobster Tails" for $49.95 at Catch 35.
  • A 1.25lb. "Whole Maine Lobster" for $32 at Hugo's Frog Bar.

Profit margin, of course, explains in part maintaining higher prices against lower costs; everyone involved in getting the tasty crustacean to your plate makes more money. Further, restaurants want to avoid setting an expectation that lobster can be had on the cheap as wholesale prices will undoubtedly rise in the future. Consumers have short memories and lower prices would quickly become the "new normal."

Another factor, according to Surowiecki, is how lobster is treated "less like a commodity than like a luxury good, which means that its price involves a host of odd psychological factors." Most of us don't know that the price of lobster has fallen off a cliff. We can't objectively assess a dish before ordering, so we "often assume a correlation between price and quality." Thus we may have the reverse reaction to lower prices on menus: We assume something is wrong or that we're dining at an inferior restaurant. So to protect the usual high price, and simultaneously make more money on the low cost of the plentiful supply of lobster, menus have been flooded with lobster-based dishes, such as lobster risotto ($28.99 at Benny's Chop House), lobster pasta ($27 at Shaw's Crab House), and lobster cocktail ($22 at Smith & Wollensky).

Diners inclined to order premium lobster items (whole lobster, etc.) will continue to do so, and those interested in lobster, but scared off by the ticket price, will see the lower-cost options as more reasonable. Either way, restaurants pocket the difference.

The recent abundance of lobster is an aberration in the trend toward steady decline along the East Coast since 1999, especially in areas such as Long Island Sound. Last year, Connecticut funded research to better understand the causes, speculated to include raising water temperatures (possibly tied to global warming) and contaminants such as pesticides, which have put Long Island Sound lobster "in danger of collapse." So, eat up.

Buchertown Rejects Slaughterhouse
Sounds like a failed punk band merger, doesn't it?

We need more headlines like this. "Docking Station To Acquire Laptop," "Asphalt Splits With Pavement," "Smirnoff, Tropicana Meetings Sour," "Overdraft Feuds With ATM," that sort of thing.

In early August, the metro zoning board of Butchertown rejected a proposal by meat processor JBS USA to expand the company's slaughterhouse, located in the neighborhood east of downtown Louisville. An attorney representing the Buchtertown Neighborhood Association claimed the company was "trying to bypass customary review procedures," and really, who can blame the BNA? We wouldn't a slaughterhouse in our backyard either.

Customer Slams Restaurant, Owner Strikes Back
We stumbled across this debate between an unhappy diner and the restaurant owner on UK TripAdvisor. For anyone who has read negative reviews by haughty, self-proclaimed foodies on Yelp, Metromix, etc., we highly recommend giving it a read. Among other zings from owner Kiren in the reply: "You claim to be foodies. I have never met a self-professed foodie start his meal with a bowl of chips."

Odorous Offal
Residents of downstate Rantoul have finally had enough. Earlier this month, the pork processor Rantoul Foods announced to the Rantoul Village Board plans "to build a rendering facility on their property that will eliminate sludge" stockpiled by the plant and spread over local fields. Complaints from locals over the offensive odor, combined with objections over the "huge number of flies" and concerns about "potential health effects" spurred the company's decision.

The new facility, also referred to using the less offensive "byproduct recovery system" term, in addition to placating the villagers, presents some upside to Rantoul Foods. The system will pipe offal to the "rendering plant cooker" which can produce some new products for the company, namely "a byproduct of ash that will be used in dog food, and lard from hog fat."

Now that's what we call a win-win.

Love Me Tender(ized), Part II
If our column on "tenderized" beef left you wondering, "What type of magical device could transform a cut of gristle into a succulent Cajun-marinated steak?," wonder no more. We found an example for you: The Movistick, created by Nu-Meat, the "leader in supplying industrial meat processing machinery."

Finally, we dedicate the Random Food Report this week to the dearly departed:

  • Elvis Presley, who began working on his first movie, Love Me Tender, in August 1956.
  • Stage announcer Al Dvorin, who popularized the phrase "Elvis has left the building" famous. Dvorin, 81, died in a car crash on August 22, 2004, along with Elvis photographer Ed Bonja while returning from an appearance at the tribute show American Trilogy.
  • Jerry Leiber, who, along with his collaborator Mike Stoller, wrote hits such as "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock." Leiber passed away at his home in Los Angeles on August 22, 2011.

And three of the Report's favorites who are still with us:

  • Howard Dwaine "Howie D." Dorough, original member of the Backstreet Boys, born in Orlando on August 22, 1973.
  • Norwegian Elvis impersonator Kjell Henning Bjoernestad, who set a world record in August 2003 singing hits by The King for 26 hours, four minutes and 40 seconds. "Kjell Elvis" broke the record previously held by Brit Gary Jay, who gave out after 25 hours, 33 minutes and 30 seconds.
  • James "Debarge" Debarge, who scored a Top 10 single with "Rhythm Of The Night," born August 22, 1973.

To the beat of the rhythm of the night, dance until the morning light . . . forget about the worries on your mind, you can leave them all behind. You're welcome.


Comments welcome.


Posted on August 26, 2013

MUSIC - Britney's IUD.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - Locked Out And Loaded.

BOOKS - Foxconned.


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