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The Sjostrom Foodstuff Satisfaction Index

I distinctly remember the first time someone called me “cheap.” It was on a date with someone nice but ultimately forgettable, and I was more cash-strapped than I cared to let on. I really had no business even going on dates, since romance is a crippling financial endeavor, but loneliness makes weak men do stupid things. And so it was that my nice, forgettable date and I found ourselves on our first and only outing at a notoriously poor restaurant where a shady friend kept me an ongoing tab, since I was the kind of individual who had ongoing tabs at poor restaurants. My date eventually became wise to the front I was running.

“What are you, cheap or something?”

“No,” I lied. “I just think you get a lot of food for the money. It's not cheap, it's inexpensive.”

As a man of many hobbies, I enjoy getting into semantic arguments such as these. So many of our instinctive slapfights, verbal and online—conservative/liberal, cat person/dog person, Biggie/Tupac—boil down to random rubrics and verbiage, and do very little to actually qualify anything on their own merits. (Really, have you ever heard a person successfully champion Biggie at the expense of Tupac? Or vice versa?)

Perhaps my favorite conflict is this touchy imbalance between what’s “cheap” and what’s “inexpensive,” which just so happens to be anything but a semantic argument. To borrow a phrase from the world’s greatest human Mark Twain, they’re about as close as lightning is to a lightning bug.

Anyone who’s ever sold anything will tell you, there’s not a small difference between “cheap” and “inexpensive.” The first reflects quality more than price, and the second specifically refers to cost. When it comes to cuisine, of course, we’re talking about a whole different discussion: sustenance versus satisfaction, or some combination thereof. And this is what gave birth to the Sjostrom Foodstuff Satisfaction Index, a silly-seeming notion that I take as seriously as my marriage.

The index has only three qualifiers:

  1. How much did you enjoy your meal?

  2. How much did you pay for it?

  3. How much did the first two questions influence your delight as you were in the physical act of eating?

If this seems like a complicated avenue for pinning value to something so fundamental as a McRib sandwich, maybe some context will help. See, I didn’t grow up in a family of means. The salaries of a pastor and music teacher, combined with the appetites of four ravenous boys, made dollar-stretching something of an art form. Until I was well into my teens, my only seafood experience was Van de Kamp's fish sticks (which were and are delightful). The cereals I ate came in enormous bags labeled “Marshmallow Mateys” or some such nonsense, and I can tell you from personal experience that powdered milk is an abomination of the highest order. I understand and respect the idea of “eating on a budget.” It's a small miracle that my mother, bless her, never hurt her back bending over to get groceries from the bottom shelf.

Applying the index to my adult life, I go through my personal system of checks and balances whenever I enter a drive-thru. Is the enjoyment of the meal I'm paying for at odds with its tangible cost? And as my wife and I plot a future with potential offspring and conspire to make a hypothetical small human eat healthy as we avoid wasting money, the full scope of the Sjostrom Foodstuff Satisfaction Index becomes more vivid. I’m considering including the rules on the mobile above the crib.

By all means, spend whatever you like on the things you eat; it's your life, and this is America. But by qualifying your foodstuffs through a quick regimen of guidelines—how much does your meal cost, and is the satisfaction you gain worth the trouble—you might find a little extra padding in your wallet, midsection and overall peace of mind.

Who's up for a McRib?

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