The $64 Tomato and Other Budget Busters


You wouldn’t think a book about a tomato would make for highly entertaining reading. However, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander delivers a bumper crop of chuckles. 

After a joking remark that his prized Brandywine tomatoes probably cost him $20 each to produce, he dares to satisfy his own curiosity and calculate exactly what he has invested in his tomato produce. The joke is on him, of course, when he realizes his tomatoes have actually cost him $64 apiece (even more insulting, this figure doesn’t account for his labor).  His tales remind me of my own sincere but ultimately cost-ineffective efforts to either save money or do something special.

After I read the book, I began to sense a vague, unsettling feeling that I would be similarly shocked if I applied a cost-benefit analysis to some of my own follies. It didn’t take a spreadsheet for me to think of several  “rotten tomatoes” that I personally could suggest to continue the series: 

* The $29 Captain D’s Fish and Fry meal ($3.99 meal + $25 NSF fee, an indiscretion from the broke and fiscally irresponsible college days)

* The $187 home highlight ($6 home kit + $12 extra toner + $9 frantic purchase at Sally’s Beauty Supply + $160 trip to salon to remedy).  Nowadays I would never skimp with hair; it makes all the difference and besides, what mom doesn’t cherish her short time sitting under a cape with a juicy magazine and no interruptions from the little people of the household?

* The $502 sunscreen ($3 off-brand sunscreen + $6 Solarcane + $8 Aloe Vera + $3 Ibuprofen + $241 beach condo we were obligated to stay in two more nights) 

* The $7 per slice homemade birthday cake ($5 basic ingredients + $3.99 carton of whipping cream for 1/3 cup required by recipe + $4 fresh fruit for filling + $5 candy for topping + $30 second trip to store for obscure ingredient and unnecessary other purchases) 

* The $66 average workouts of 2008 ($82 per month membership for 12 months divided by one to two workouts per week over a dilligent 6 week period during a briefly accommodating family schedule). I am determined to bring my workouts down to less than $30 each this year!

Williams started gardening because of his love of the fresh food but acknowledges an addiction to working the soil and the observing the miracle of seeds sprouting.  Although he and his wife work full time, they make their own pasta from scratch, enjoy pies from apples in their own orchard, and preserve much of the garden’s bounty for winter months. His website offers a peek at his 2,000 square foot Hudson Valley garden, which is indeed glorious. What was he thinking, taking all that on in the first place? 

Thankfully, we have farmer’s markets all around Birmingham with vegetables from local vendors willing to produce the vegetables and fruits we can’t coax from a corner of our own yards. After enjoying this cautionary tale, I’ll gratefully head to the Pepper Place Saturday Market with a basket in my hand.

BirminghamMom note: Alexander spent time in the south, having attended two years at Duke University. He mentions having witnessed firsthand the southern penchant for associating football with Christianity. His fellow farmer and hero, Thomas Jefferson, championed keeping church and state separate. I am sure Alexander and Jefferson would agree that football is not inherently related to religion, but as a southerner, I’m still figuring out how to draw that line…