The real reason behind the great Cauliflower Panic of 2016

The crisis in the cauliflower economy was never about taste: it’s a signal of something much more significant


When historians review the trumped-up “cauliflower crisis” of early 2016, sparked by a trebling of the vegetable’s price (from $3.99 to $8.99 in supermarkets) between late November and mid-January, they will locate its Canadian ground zero at the popular Toronto restaurant Fat Pasha. News that chef Kevin Gilmore was forced to remove its signature dish—an $18 whole roasted cauliflower stuffed with Halloumi cheese and topped with tahini, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds—was oft-repeated in news stories, becoming a metaphor for some sort of collective loss. It fed into a larger, unidentified if overblown panic seen in media and online chatter, reinforced by news trucks camped outside of supermarkets as if covering a crime scene.

Given the reaction, one would think cauliflower was the only food to have risen sharply in price recently. It’s not. Carmello Papia, produce manager of Toronto’s Fiesta Farms, reports kale is up 15 to 20 per cent, lettuces have doubled in cost, as have green onions, and the price of imported strawberries has risen from $3.99 to $7.99. But somehow cauliflower became the proxy produce for a deeper anxiety that’s more about the uncontrollable forces underlying the price jump than actual affordability—a Canadian dollar in free fall, the effects of gonzo climate change, and  recognition of the fragility of a grid that connects us all. Outrage over cauliflower surprises Papia. “Everyone can live without it,” he says. A far more dire food scarcity is under way in northern Canada, incidentally, where food prices have hit surreal levels.

Cauliflower, that food that in the West was once boiled into blandness and masked by cheese sauce, is the classic example of modern vegetable gentrification. Martha Stewart taught us how to roast it, but it was restaurateurs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s massively successful Ottolenghi cookbooks that made cauliflower—in its charred, roasted and spiced glory—a dinner-party staple reflecting urban cosmopolitanism. The idea that it was under siege, priced beyond easy access, even for those who think nothing of paying $6 for a latte, signalled a frightening new world order.  “Is cauliflower the new caviar?” fretted a reporter at TVO.org.

(Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters)

(Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters)

Yet the price of cauliflower has always fluctuated, and often rises (and even doubles) in winter, though not as dramatically as this year, Gilmore tells Maclean’s. He observes a herd mentality. “The price rose in November,” he says. “All of a sudden it’s, ‘Oh my God, the cauliflower!’ ” When Fat Pasha opened in spring 2014, they priced their cauliflower dish at $16 and lost money on it, he says, noting half of the cost is more expensive ingredients: “We took something inexpensive then topped it with dollar bills.” Importing is precarious, he says, more so given a five-year Californian drought which shifted sourcing to Arizona. Last year’s deep freeze in that state saw North American importers bringing the vegetable in from Spain. “We just said ‘no,’ ” says Gilmore. “We didn’t want to play any part of cauliflower coming from another continent.” Unwilling to raise the price of the dish, he replaced it with squash prepared in a similar way in November. First-time diners were angry, he says. “They’d say ‘We’ve been waiting two years, what do you mean we can’t have the cauliflower!”

By this week, cauliflower panic had abated. The bubble had burst, for now, with gleeful photos of “two for $4” cauliflower shared on social media. Fiesta Farms is selling conventional cauliflower for $2.99 a head, organic at $5.99. “I caught the market at the right time,” says Papia, sounding like a hedge fund manager. He was keeping a low inventory, watching quality rise, which indicated more product around.  The now-cult $18 cauliflower is returning to Fat Pasha’s menu on Friday. The experience has changed how they approach the menu, Gilmore says. “It’s starting to show what we need to do—doing squash in winter and sourcing locally. It’s a worldwide problem. California is just showing it more.”

Though cauliflower prices have fallen, the underlying fundamentals, as they say on Bay Street, have not. “I’m assuming growing conditions have improved, so the supply is better,” Papia offers, though it’s not quite clear exactly how that transpired. Gilmore is optimistic: “My importer told said that, barring an act of God, we should be able to hold a fairly sustainable cost.” Papia’s experience has taught him certainty doesn’t exist: “You get the warning day before you buy it. You can’t control it.” And that, not the price of cauliflower, is why people are so freaked out.


The real reason behind the great Cauliflower Panic of 2016

  1. When I was a kid mandarin oranges were a Christmas treat. MacIntosh apples were available in the fall. Peaches and cherries in the summer. I don’t remember eating a lot of bananas. We had a big family and bananas were probably expensive. Now we are here again and imported fresh food is expensive. Time to be realistic and eat what is in season. What did our grandparent’s do? They likely participated in the 100 mile diet. They ate fresh when fresh when plentiful and canned for when it wasn’t. Exotic fruits and veggies were a treat. Perhaps it is time we got realistic. If you have a yard, rip up that water-sucking Kentucky blue grass and plant some veggies. My neighbour grows the most fantastic cauliflower…

    • How old are you? My Great-Grand-mother used to tell me stories of when there was no electricity and when the phone line was shared by a whole neighborhood. Modern technologies allow us to freeze and conserve these products for transport and storage, their price isn’t increasing today because we should act like our elders in the 1920s and 1950s. Their price is increasing because of a global shortage in production, which has nothing to do with your call to the roaring years. Canada’s population today is 3x what it was in 1950, food shortages is a matter of concern.

      • Wrong on all counts, but I have neither the patience nor the inclination to explain. But I will pont out that you create a straw man (the old canard where you imply the other poster said we should go back to the stone age with no phones or electricity, when he never said any such thing) then proceed to knock that straw man down with abandon. That’s not a counterpoint, it’s bluster, and it makes you look foolish.

      • We are paying high prices for fruits and vegetables out of season because we buy many from the US and the Canadian dollar is in the toilet.
        How old are you? I was a teenager 30 years ago and we shared a telephone line because we shared a phone line with other families in a rural area in northern Alberta and we had a dial phone. It was the 1980’s. You are rude and childish. My point is that if we have to export from the US, the fruits and vegetables will be expensive out of season. We might have to do without. Many of us who lived through the 1980’s are proof that we won’t expire.

      • Who told people they were supposed to sell food,water,and air in the first place? We are such backward ignorant dopes that we allow ourselves to be manipulated into open eyed blindness.
        I mean really why is there such a concept of “rising cauliflower” prices in the first place? Who owns the rights to the cauliflowers? What kind of species figures out they need to charge money for water or you can’t have any ? Are we completely nuts? What’s wrong with us? Either some supernatural invisible being is standing nearby pooping himself laughing or in the process of evolution we stopped at stupid…….”rising cauliflower prices” ? Wha….

  2. that’s ridiculous, who has a whole cauliflower on their menu???? And oh well, haven’t missed the cauliflower at all. I’ve been buying spanish red peppers which not surprisingly are the same price as the other peppers from the states at 5$ a pound. Here on the west coast we have tons and I mean TONS of home farmers and local markets that do have greenhouses. If we will have more greenhouses and not condos then maybe we won’t have such huge increases in veggies. All I can say is that the local asian markets have their prices high as well and most of the asian customers aren’t buying, so something has to give. Until then, it’s cheap salad greens and kale for this family, like them or not and then local stuff in the spring and summer. to hell with california stuff

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