The heart of the deal

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The other day, I was forced to be a jerk.

It was the day we picked up our chicks. Cape Cod Feed and Supply opens at 8:00 AM, and we were told to get there early, as the chicks sold out quickly. We were the first ones there, at 7:45. By the time the store opened, several other people had joined us.

The young woman who works there made a list with people’s names, but not in any particular order – we were third or fourth. When it came time to divvy out the chicks, though, they went in the order of the list, and the woman just ahead of us wanted six Buff Orpingtons.

It looked to me that there were only eight or nine Buffs left, and we had hoped to get eight ourselves. I hated to do it, but I had to say something.

“I really don’t want to be a jerk,” I said, “but we’d also like to get some Buffs, and,” here I looked at the floor and shuffled my feet in my best aw-shucks manner, “we were here first.”

Everyone was very cooperative, and we took four of the remaining Buffs and let the woman have the rest, but I can’t be happy about any incident in which the words “we were here first” came out of my mouth. This is why the incident sticks in my mind. In my food-related travels here on Cape Cod, this is one of the very few times someone behaved like a jerk. Bummer that it was me.

Maybe the gardening gene and the niceness gene are linked, like blue eyes and blond hair. Among the people we’ve met who raise food – or hunt it, or fish it, or write about it, or just cook it – there’ve been precious few jerks. Zealots, yes. Even a hefty quotient of crackpots. But not many jerks.

And a good thing too. It is the food community’s relative jerklessness that makes the barter system possible. When you’re trading eggs for tomatoes, or clams for strawberries, you don’t break out the scale and the calculator. You simply do your best to offer a fair trade.

Our barter bonanza (not the wine -- that's there for scale)

Our barter bonanza (not the wine -- that's there for scale)

We’re just scratching the surface of barter’s possibilities, and we’ve done very well indeed. This is primarily because we’ve been trading with Al and Christl – a couple who, between them, could design, build, or grow just about anything. Their need for oak logs and fondness for clams dovetail nicely with our need for plant-related advice and our appetite for the bounty of their garden.

The first time I brought clams over to their house, I had them in the back seat of the car, still in the peck basket. A peck is ten quarts, and it’s a lot of clams. Because Al and Christl are just two people, I was afraid it was more than they could eat in a reasonable period of time, and that too many clams would be something of a burden.

When I took the basket out of the car, Christl’s eyes lit up, and she clapped her hands together. “Oh my,” she said. “Those are beautiful!” And she proceeded to talk about all the things she’d make with them.

Christl appreciates food, and the growing of food. Maybe it’s just her nature, or maybe it’s because she grew up knowing scarcity, but she spends time and energy cultivating a garden that’s the best I’ve ever seen, and nothing goes to waste in her house. It is a joy to bring her clams.

We brought them another half peck a couple of days ago, and they gave us some spectacular rhubarb and asparagus, along with young kale leaves for salad. I suspect my eyes lit up. I know I said it was beautiful. All the way home, I talked about what I would make with it.

It is enthusiasm and good will, and not a careful keeping of accounts, that makes this kind of trading possible. Sure, I want the rhubarb and the asparagus. But I also want the pleasure of the exchange with people of like mind and the comfort of knowing that everyone’s happy with the trade.

So please don’t tell Christl I was a jerk at the feed store.

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Comments

  1. Why exactly is it that when you trade goods for goods you can’t be a jerk, but when you trade goods for money you can? The hand-waving about “the scale and the calculator” doesn’t quite do it for me.

    Of course this is the sort of question that only a jerk would ask.

  2. Aaron — It’s a perfectly reasonable question. Goods-for-goods transactions involving jerks undoubtedly go down every day, as do jerkless money-for-goods transactions. I certainly don’t fantasize about a moneyless Utopia. But I think the kind of trade I’m talking about is a special case.

    We’re talking about a self-selected group of people who have joined an informal local community of food enthusiasts. From what I can see, most of them participate because they’re interested in spending time and sharing ideas with people with common interests. Even if, deep down, they are jerks, it’s in their interest (i.e. continued participation) to keep that fact under wraps. And so the trades seem to be conducted mainly without jerkiness, or at least the appearance of jerkiness.

    I’m sure there are eggs-for-tomatoes exchanges in which one party or the other — or both — feel like they got the short end of the stick, but I haven’t witnessed any.

  3. beachnitpicker says:

    I think that the difference isn’t so much the medium of exchange as it is the size of the community in which its long-term objective value is established and accepted. In a small community bartering goods for goods, jerks not only can be easily identified and excluded, but there is no objective standard for comparing the jerk’s mealy tomatoes with your delicious clams. The jerk must either stop acting in his own short-term interest (i.e., making sure he get the best of every trade) or be frozen out of the community.

  4. I don’t think you were being jerkish. It sounds more like a poorly managed distribution system. You assumed (rightly) that your needs/wants would be taken care of in a logical, as-promised manner. When they were not, you had to take things into your own hands. Being a jerk would have been if you were at the end of the line and demanded first dibs and proclaiming tyranny if your desires weren’t met. You just ensured that proper protocol was followed through with, more-or-less.

  5. Thanks for the moral support, JLem. On the 1-10 jerkiness scale, I agree that I wasn’t up above about a 3. Still felt jerky, though.

  6. That’s not jerkish.

    “Jerkish” is the behavior of the others, who must have recognized the correct pecking order, but didn’t tell the seller. (Maybe this foodie community ain’t as jerkless as you think–)

    Also think you should have ordered ALL eight Buffs you’d wanted– everyone knew it was a first-come/first-served situation, with a limited supply. Note that the woman who ordered six chicks didn’t feel obliged to buy only half the supply.

  7. Lisa — I’m not sure it was clear to everyone else that we were there first, but I had my suspicions about that woman. There was a certain furtive quality to her asking for six Buffs. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to clean ’em out — and now I’m glad we didn’t because it’s more interesting having two kinds of chickens. You also have a better chance of being able to tell them apart.