We usually celebrate our anniversary with a hike or a bicycle tour that includes a picnic. This year was no exception, despite heavy rain during the day, but we saved the picnic for the back porch, after we returned home.
I collected the picnic ingredients. My wife would have packed smoked salmon or oysters, crabmeat salad, coconut pudding, and perhaps a fancy marzipan concoction, but as an unimaginative forager and reluctant cook I opted for cheese and crackers. On such an occasion they had to be special, however, and I selected some imported Camembert. While unloading my basket at the register I realized that I'd forgotten crackers, so I raced down that aisle, grabbed a likely box, and dashed back before some tourist tossed my groceries off the conveyor belt and took my place. Thanks to a price check, I had plenty of time.
With no rain or mosquitoes bothering us on the back porch, I had time to notice what I had bought. As usual, the Camembert lacked the faint whiff of ammonia, or goat, that followed a bite of the first Camembert I ate in France. The wheel seemed at least one-tenth smaller than the last one I bought, a couple of years ago, yet it cost about 20 percent more than I remembered.
That would represent 15 percent annual inflation, which is bad enough, but it was the crackers that really showed how little the American dollar is worth after a couple of bouts of our Fed chairman's "quantitative easing." In my haste I had snapped up a carton of rosemary crackers, which cost me $3.49. The box measured just over eight inches long and a couple of inches square, containing a single sleeve with 32 crackers in it, so each cracker cost a whisker under 11 cents. The whole package weighed only five ounces, and the manufacturer had trimmed the crackers into an octagonal shape, thereby depriving the purchaser of a sizable portion of what little the box could have held. The manufacturer calculated four crackers as a "serving," but I would have counted four of them as a "bite."
Since I was still pretty hungry after polishing off the crackers and Camembert, I started rummaging through the cupboards. A bag of corn chips caught my eye, and I popped it open to fill the void. It was a common brand that we buy whenever the menu includes chili or taco salad: it comes in a white bag, depicting an ersatz Mexican girl in a peasant blouse, and has cost $2.00 for years. When I first bought that brand the bag only weighed 15 ounces, but it was still cheaper than the nearest competitor, which was marked at $2.29 for 16 ounces. Our brand is still $2.00 ("same low prices," says the sign), but the bag now contains only 11 ounces.
Then I glanced at my dried cranberries, which I use extensively for trail mix, and for the tahini-based groat clusters that serve as the main staple on my research trips. I don't buy them around here because, as with many things, we're charged tourist prices in Conway stores, ranging anywhere from 40 to 100 percent over the same or similar products sold in Tilton or Portsmouth. Instead, I stock up on trips south. Last year Market Basket sold them for less than half the cost in Conway, at $1.50 for a 6-ounce bag, but this spring they raised it to $1.69. Last week I bought several bags at $1.79, which is still much cheaper than up here, but given my recent experience with crackers and corn chips I inspected one of those bags and found—sure enough—that the contents have been reduced to five ounces. That's more than a 40-percent increase, per ounce. I haven't emptied out a bag to figure the per-cranberry price, fearing it would discourage me from buying any at all.
My brand of $1.99 dish detergent just shrank from 34 ounces to 30, and the 24-ounce container of raisins to 20 ounces. The $7.99 bag of high-test cat food is now $11.99, and barely half its original size. In corporate America, if you can't gouge any deeper on the price, you have to start cheating on the quantity. Many industries can't do that because of weights-and-measures regulations or limited customer demand, but grocery stores mainly sell things that people have to buy. With sufficiently inventive packaging, eventually they'll just sell us the empty containers.
William Marvel lives in South Conway.