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The Indicator from Planet Money: When a food staple becomes a luxury


Who doesn't have a favorite comfort food? Maybe yours is chicken soup, mac and cheese or arroz con leche. Comfort foods are often cheap dishes with humble origins. But what happens when our staple foods become luxuries? Our colleagues over at The Indicator from Planet Money, Paddy Hirsch and Adrian Ma, take a look at fish and chips in the U.K.

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: By any measure, fish and chips are an integral part of the British culinary landscape - 22% of Brits visit a fish and chip shop every week. And Brits spend roughly $1.5 billion on fish and chips every year.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: And there are more than 10,000 fish and chip shops in the U.K. The vast majority are independently owned. And most are these takeout joints where you just kind of take your meal out wrapped up in paper.

HIRSCH: And they often have these cute names like The Friar Tuck or the Oh My Cod. Or in the case of the one around the corner from my mum's house in Bournemouth, Chips Ahoy! Perry Godfrey is the owner.

PERRY GODFREY: The shop's been a fish and chip shop for nearly 70 years now. When I took it over, it was very rundown. And we built it up in the last 22 years. And thankfully, we're very successful. And we keep going from day to day and keep improving, hopefully.

MA: Hopefully. Perry says the fish and chip business is coming under some intense pressure right now.

GODFREY: Economy at the moment - the prices have ranked up. Oil - just to open up per day, it cost me 50 pounds just in oil. Fish - fish has doubled in the last - over the last five, six years. Energy - of course, we know all about energy. Packaging is another cost.

MA: Yeah, and there are a lot of factors to point a finger at here. There's the war in Ukraine, which drove up the cost of vegetable oil and also the fuel to heat that oil. And the U.K. government has also raised interest rates, which has translated into higher rents and more expensive loans. In some shops, the price on the menu board has risen to eye-popping levels - even as much as 20 bucks a head.

HIRSCH: And that's for a meal that's traditionally been a staple of the British diet, eaten by people on low incomes.

DUNCAN WELDON: If you go back 25, 30 years, you know, fish and chips were very, very cheap.

HIRSCH: Yeah, this is Duncan Weldon. He's the Britain economics writer at The Economist newspaper.

WELDON: If you compare the cost of fish and chips to something like the cheapest meals at a branch of McDonald's, they were very, very comparable in price 20 years ago. Whereas now, you're saying you're spending 2 1/2, three times as much on buying your lunch at a fish and chip shop than compared to a McDonald's. You know, that takes it from being a staple to being, essentially, a luxury item.

HIRSCH: This story of a staple becoming a luxury is not a new one. It happened to oysters in New York in the 1800s, to sushi in Japan, to caviar, brisket, lobster.

MA: Paddy, you just named, like, all the delicious foods. What's going on here?

HIRSCH: I'm just trying to make the point here that economics often drives long-term changes in diet and taste and that right now, the U.K. is going through a big change with this staple, fish and chips.

MA: Now, before people go out and start, like, panic buying fried fish and chips...

HIRSCH: (Laughter).

MA: ...This does not mean that the fish and chip shops are going to disappear, like, overnight altogether.

HIRSCH: No, no. The dish is still hugely popular in the U.K. And the restaurants are kind of part of the fabric of the community in a way that fast food chain joints are absolutely not. In Bournemouth, Perry Godfrey says the customers who visit his fish and chip shop certainly see things that way.

MA: Adrian Ma.

HIRSCH: Paddy Hirsch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON TRIO'S "ARE WE THERE YET?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.
Paddy Hirsch