“Why haven’t you gone to bed yet?” Bob scolds me from the kitchen as though I were one of the kids. I should have gone to sleep two hours ago.
I’m trying to understand the price of an egg salad platter.
The cafe opens on this Saturday, and I need to figure out what’s going to be available for me to cook (without an oven yet…but coming soon!), and how much to charge for it. In addition to the soup and pastries, we’ve decided on egg salad, straight up: it will be made from our eggs, seasoned with parsley from the potted herbs that are outside the cafe, along with spring onions from the farm down the road, on a bed of fresh-picked Boston lettuce. It will be topped with bacon from our pigs, which Dad smoked with our own maple syrup. Along side it, we’re offering a selection of our homemade pickles.
I’m serving the egg salad platter next weekend. I started cooking it last summer. As soon as we decided we’d open a cafe, I went down to Barbers’ farm stand and bought up extra beets, onions and cucumbers. I spent hours last July and August making pickles so I’d have them for the cafe this year.
We started growing the hens that will lay the eggs for this week’s salad the winter before last.
It takes two years to make a decent egg salad.
And I’m sitting at the computer, tallying up the cost of buying the produce, the cost to raise the chickens who lay the eggs, the cost of making the pickles. I figure in a percentage to cover my overhead — the taxes, the insurance, utilities, repairs and upkeep on the building, and tack on a few dollars to pay myself.
I can’t produce an egg salad platter for less than $12.
I suppose I knew that, intuitively. I’ve been writing and talking about the true cost of food for the past twenty years. But I’ve been writing for people who are interested in the topic. I’ve been speaking mostly to people who have already made a commitment to honor us farmers with honest wages.
I realize now that I’ve spent 20 years preaching to the choir. And this Saturday, I’m going to hang out a flag that reads OPEN for the general public. And my neighbors are going to walk in. They haven’t all sung in the same choir.
They’re talking about it already. When I go down to Agway to pick up switch plates and light fixtures, the dad of one of the kids I was in 4-H with is waiting at the entrance. “When are you going to be open?” I’m wandering down the aisle trying to find pipe fittings and Sue, who has worked there ever since I can remember, calls out from down the aisle. “Congratulations on the cafe, Shannon! We can’t wait to check it out!” I hear the same from my third grade art teacher.
Every morning and every afternoon, the mail truck pulls into our lot to do the pick-up from the post office next door to us. “When are you guys gonna be open? I need a place like this on my route!”
I think of them as I sit at my desk with the calculator, and breathe in. I hold my breath for a count of ten, then try to breath out for a count of ten. It’s a trick I learned back in my twenties for coping with anxiety. All these neighbors are offering me the gift of support and encouragement.
But they don’t know that it takes two years to make egg salad, and they don’t know that it costs $12.
And I’m scared to death. As soon as I finish my deep breathing exercise, I can feel my pulse quicken all over again. I can feel my diaphragm tighten. If I can’t get $12 for egg salad, it’s not worth staying in business. I could cut back on the substantive ingredients. I could cover the plate with cheap carbs. But I don’t want to do that. I want to feed my neighbors the way I want to feed my family. I want to raise awareness about what it takes to grow good food, and I want all the people whose labor graces our tables to be treated fairly, myself included. It is rare for our family to walk into a restaurant and find food items on a menu that leave us feeling good, both physically and spiritually. There are already plenty of establishments that meet the cheap food demand. I don’t want to run one of those. And I’m not ready to make compromises. But that doesn’t ease my shortness of breath.
The next day, I take Saoirse to her swimming lesson with Ms. Gayle, who was my middle school and high school gym teacher. She greets me with a warm hug. “When’re you opening? Terry and I are really looking forward to coming!”
That’s when I lose it. “Don’t!” I suddenly bluster. “I – I — I’m not ready! You may not like it!”
She looks at me pointedly. “What’s wrong? It’s going to be great!”
Saoirse is in the pool now, swimming laps. We are sitting on the deck beside the water. I can look straight out to the hayfields beyond Ms. Gayle’s house. I don’t have to look her in the eye, so I screw up the courage to try to bring forward the words that I speak so confidently when I preach to the choir. But I lose all my practiced eloquence. “Good food isn’t cheap,” I muster. “I’m worried people are going to be mad at me. I have to charge higher prices if I’m going to make this work.” In a city, I think it is emotionally easier to find a niche for a business. There may be customers who walk in the door and walk out if they don’t like what they see, but in the vast majority of cases, there was no relationship to begin with. In contrast, many of the people who walk through my door will be people I know. I will have been to slumber parties with their grown children, I will have trick or treated at their doors, I will have wept beside them as we mourned the loss of loved ones we shared in common. I will have sat in their classrooms, run around their backyards, or just chatted with them along the side of the road. There is far more to our relationships than a simple financial transaction. And I’m frightened to put myself before them with my egg salad, awaiting their judgment. I might lose their business. But the greater fear is that I will lose the relationship.
“Do you know what I’ve always admired about you?” Ms. Gayle leans into me. I slowly turn to meet her eyes. She’s known me since I was eleven years old. “You’re brave. You’ve always been brave.” She pauses and monitors Saoirse’s laps, then turns her attention back to me. “I would have loved to have done what you’re doing. I never had the courage. But you — You try things. You don’t let your fears keep you from doing what you want to do. That’s pretty special.”
She was saying something nice about me, certainly. But the subtext of her words was even more important: I know you and I love you and I am still your neighbor…no matter what I think of your egg salad.
She returns her attention to Saoirse, and I’m left alone in my thoughts. I’m worried about how my neighbors are going to feel about my egg salad. But I’ve gone toe to toe with so many of them on differences of opinion. We don’t always get along. We don’t always agree. And then, there have been many times when we’ve brought each other great joy. What’s a little egg salad in the scheme of things?
I don’t have the luxury of a huge anonymous population that I can stay emotionally buffered from as I sift through to find my customers. I have people I know. But we have a history together. And they may not like the price of my egg salad on opening day. But we have time on our side. We have years of knowing each other. And with those years comes a certain elasticity. If they don’t like the price of egg salad, they will still like me. And I can talk to them, and they can talk to me. And I can keep learning how to run this new business, and they can keep learning about what matters to me. Within a few years, we might even agree on the price of my food.