What happens when you take the same shopping list to four very different markets? An RFT food experiment.

What happens when you take the same shopping list to four very different markets? An <i>RFT</i> food experiment.
Steve Adams

To dispense with the obvious: A chicken from Pete's Shur-Sav is not a chicken from your local farmers' market.

The first is a too-white, too-plump bird, injected with water to give an appearance of heft and to command a higher price (although, at 89 cents a pound, the price is still very affordable). The second is a more natural pinkish color, plump in the way that chickens are plump, nothing more. But at nearly $4 a pound — or $16 for the whole bird — it's a major stretch to say that this chicken is "affordable," particularly for a family on a tight budget.

Now is a time when the national conversation about how and what we eat — from "food miles" to "food deserts," from back-yard chicken farms to genetically modified salmon — is at its loudest and most interesting. But sometimes, it's important to take the debate out of the hypothetical and, well, onto the plate. What would happen if an identical menu was sourced from four different stores? How would the shopping experiences differ? How greatly would the costs vary? And, most important, how would everything taste — and what does that say about how and what we eat?

Local chef John Perkins, who has popularized the "underground restaurant" trend in St. Louis with his successful Entre:Underground series, designed the menu for an event that was one small part dinner party and one big part experiment. While Perkins' Entre:Underground menus are innovative and bold (think duck prosciutto, chanterelle pot pie, grilled peaches with blue-cheese ice cream), this menu was straightforward, designed around ingredients that could (in theory, at least) be sourced from four disparate locations. The evening's dinner would begin with a tomato-and-goat-cheese salad, followed by roasted chicken and potatoes, and finished with a gooey butter cake (for complete menu details and recipes, see below).

Shopping teams were dispatched to Pete's Shur-Sav, Whole Foods, the Hampton Village Schnucks and the Tower Grove Farmers' Market. Armed with identical lists, the shoppers were told to find every ingredient they could and make substitutions at their discretion. The shopping trips were a study in contrasts: the crush of harried Friday-evening shoppers at Whole Foods and Schnucks, the leisurely stroll though the Saturday-morning farmers' market, the pleasant exchange with the butcher at Pete's Shur-Sav, who offered a free length of his own twine for chicken-trussing.

All the ingredients were brought to the Steve Adams Studio, a gorgeous space with a commercial-grade kitchen and enough equipment to prepare a meal for several high school football teams. As the amateur chefs (more frequently referred to as "RFT writers and editors") unpacked the grocery bags, differences among the hauls were immediately apparent. Hours before the first fork was lifted, we could tell that the four iterations of the tomato-and-goat-cheese salad would be very, very different.

Very.

The tomatoes from the farmers' market were heirlooms, charmingly ugly tomatoes in varying shades of yellow and red, grown and picked at Silent Oaks Farm in Opdyke, Illinois, about two hours from St. Louis. The Pete's Shur-Sav tomatoes were a lovely red, firm but not too.

It was the Schnucks and Whole Foods tomatoes that gave pause — seemingly decent as they lay nestled inside the plastic produce bag, but revealed to be subpar with just one squeeze. Leaking and overripe, the tomatoes had not fared well in their journey from farm to table.

The variations among goat cheese were significant, too. From Schnucks and Whole Foods came slender logs of chèvre, tightly sealed and ready for slicing or crumbling. The farmers' market goat cheese, procured from central Missouri's Whetstone Farm, was packaged, creamy and fresh, in a small tub. The goat cheese from Pete's Shur-Sav met the letter of the law, if not the spirit; while the recipe called for chèvre, the only cheese-from-a-goat at Pete's was crumbled feta.

The dessert course leveled the playing field, thanks to standard ingredients like all-purpose flour and confectioner's sugar, which are similar across the board (and which caused the Tower Grove team to "cheat," since such items aren't exactly farmers' market staples). The main difference here was in the eggs: uniform white orbs from Pete's Shur-Sav and Schnucks, light-brown organic eggs from Whole Foods and, from the Tower Grove market, eggs in varying hues and sizes. Additionally, because Pete's Shur-Sav doesn't offer pine nuts, that team substituted slivered almonds.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the four locations' differences were evinced most clearly in the four chickens. All, it should be said, looked good on camera, particularly after the oven rendered the crisp skin a gorgeous caramel-brown. But looks can be deceiving. The farmers' market chicken was the least plump, yet by far the meatiest; the Whole Foods bird also had plenty of meat on the bone and didn't rely on the trickery of water weight. The Pete's Shur-Sav chicken (a "stewing hen," the only whole bird available), on the other hand, created an almost cartoonish sloosh of water upon being lifted out of its plastic bag. What appeared to be plump breast meat was actually the poultry version of serious water retention. The Schnucks chicken was similarly waterlogged, and pierced by a retro red pop-up timer.

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