Can you spare a tear for the ultra-rich? One week after achieving the Guinness World Record for the world's most expensive dessert -- a $25,000 "Frozen Haute Chocolate" containing five grams of edible 23-karat gold -- the New York restaurant Serendipity 3 was shut down by the health department. It turns out that in addition to truffle shavings and other Haute Chocolate ingredients, the restaurant's kitchen contained "a live mouse, mouse droppings in multiple areas of the restaurant, fruit flies, house flies, and more than 100 live cockroaches," according to the inspectors.
The Haute Chocolate story is already exciting the usual populist outrage drizzled with references to Marie Antoinette. In the Detroit News, Brian O'Connor notes that for the price of two dozen of these confections all the food banks in his city would be able to meet the Thanksgiving demand instead of facing the holiday with empty shelves. He recommends guillotining the Haute Chocolate eaters, "Then we could treat the needy to a helping of my favorite dessert: ladyfingers."
But there could be all kinds of reasons for needing a $25,000 Haute Chocolate. What about the chocolate addict who freely chooses to blow his or her life savings on a single dessert? And we mustn't rule out those who suffer from a rare gold deficiency disorder and have already consumed their fillings and wedding rings. All of these worthy people now face a shuttered Serendipity when they go for their fix.
No, this isn't just another story about gluttony. It's a story about the inevitability of cockroaches in a world divided between rich and poor and served by a public sector in a state of bad decay. In this situation, even the rich get ripped off, and should live in fear that those truffle shavings are actually maggots in cross-section. As Robert Frank, the author of Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich, observed of the cockroach finding: "It goes to show that in today's mass luxury world, just because something is expensive doesn't mean something's good or high-quality."
I discovered this when a recent move put me within striking distance of two high-end food markets, Whole Foods and Balducci's. Ah, was my thought, no more cooking! For dinners at least, I would eat nothing but their tasty deli offerings. How disillusioning then to discover that the items that look so delightful behind the counter are little better than the take-out at Safeway. Balducci's fresh mozzarella-topped lamb burgers require a steak knife; their shrimp-and-caper concoction, at $26 a pound, seems to involve a preparatory stage of fossilization. You can do slightly better at Whole Foods, but only if you avoid anything with a sauce, which is likely to be a super-saturated solution of sodium chloride.
Yes, over-salting and over-cooking have a preservative effect, perhaps allowing the same items to be displayed for days at a time. But there could be something else behind the consistently bad prepared food at these upscale sources: Many, if not all, of the people doing the cooking behind the scenes are making foods they are unlikely ever to confront in real life. Ask a Salvadoran immigrant to whip up chicken masala and he or she will no doubt follow directions, but in complete ignorance of the desired taste. One of the women working at the Balducci's I have patronized has only one visible tooth in her mouth, which in addition to speaking ill of the store's dental benefits, means she can never have bitten into one of the lamb burgers she sells.
And what about the kitchen workers at Serendipity 3? Like most underpaid New Yorkers, they probably went home to vermin-infested apartments, and thought nothing of a cockroach or two.
What this means is that even the very rich cannot escape into their own little bubble of purity and excellence, of "haute" this and "haute" that. Ride around in a limo and you still have to sit in traffic created by ordinary people who can't afford to live near where they work. Fly in a private jet and you're still dependent on archaic, underfinanced, systems of air traffic control. Travel first class on the Acela train and you still have to stare out at the rotting environs of Philadelphia and Newark. Oh, and you lobbied against higher taxes and regulations on business? Then think twice before you sink your teeth into that chocolate and gold dessert. The vermin are always with you.