The most egregious aspect of the Schnucks chicken, though, was its state of deterioration. At three days before its sell-by date, this bird's skin was taking on a sickly gray hue, and it smelled of decay. The team preparing the Schnucks menu had no choice but to run out for a "backup chicken."

This raised an uncomfortable question, one that echoed throughout the preparation and the meal itself: How can we all eat better when the superior products (vegetables and meat, in particular) are most readily available to those with more money and, in many cases, more time?

Somewhere, in the back of our minds, we wanted the less-expensive ingredients — the chicken from Pete's Shur-Sav, say, or the tomatoes from Schnucks — to be on par with their pricier brethren. This wasn't born of any desire to prove avowed foodies wrong or to fly in the face of the locavore movement. Quite the contrary. Those who care about their food and where it comes from are part of the solution, not part of the problem. But the hope was that maybe, maybe, the more affordable meat and vegetables wouldn't taste so different from the more expensive ones.

This was one experiment in which we all wanted to be proven wrong.

But as the cooks set to chopping, trussing, whisking and mixing, it quickly became apparent that the recipes — straightforward though they were — would produce varied results based on the ingredients' sources.

The tomatoes from Schnucks largely collapsed under pressure from the knife, their flesh pinkish and watery. The salad's goat cheese component, too, proved problematic for another team. Meant to be slathered on the tomato slices to form a lovely vertical salad presentation, the cheese was warmed in the microwave for ten seconds and then whisked with heavy cream. This worked nicely for the teams that actually had chèvre, but the crumbled feta from Pete's Shur-Sav didn't fare so well. In a desperate attempt to get the texture right, the Pete's team placed the feta-and-cream mixture in the stand-up mixer, with results that were described (optimistically) as "a feta milkshake" and (realistically) as "the worst thing my hungover self could see right now."

The final presentation reflected the discoveries made during the preparation. The Schnucks salad sagged with water weight, the tomatoes' excess fluid diluting an otherwise delicious honey vinaigrette. The Whole Foods salad looked pretty on the plate, while the Pete's Shur-Sav iteration was marred by the unfortunately chunky feta-cream mixture. The farmers' market version, buoyed by plump tomatoes and fluffy chèvre, was the poster child for a summer salad.

During the prep phase, all chickens appeared to be created equal; each was stuffed with onion and lemon, slathered with butter inside and out, trussed and sprinkled with salt and pepper. The accompanying potatoes — new potatoes from Whole Foods and Schnucks, red waxy potatoes from Pete's Shur-Sav, fingerlings from Tower Grove — were tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper, ready to sizzle alongside the chickens in the oven.

Gooey butter cake revealed a new kind of difference: not in ingredient quality, but in skill set. While most participants described their baking skills on a scale from "adequate" to "desperately bad," one team member was an absolute baking star. Her gooey butter cake — made with the haul from Schnucks, a collection of mid-priced, non-organic ingredients that could be found in nearly any American pantry — was stellar. The not-too-sweet shortbread crust was the perfect contrast to the decadent filling, and the golden-brown top was a thing of beauty.

Remarked one non-baker, who snuck a bite before the table had even been set: "This is so good that I almost need a cigarette, and I don't smoke."

Eating is not a numbers game, except when it is. When the menu ingredients sourced from Schnucks tally up to nearly $27 more than those purchased from Pete's Shur-Sav, it begs the question: Is this meal $27 better than its nearly identical counterpart? Is the $7.52 chicken better than the $3.99 chicken? (Not really, especially when you consider paying for a second chicken to replace one that reeked of decay.)

Place the Whole Foods receipt on the table and the stakes are even higher: The Pete's Shur-Sav ingredients were purchased for $65.46, while the Whole Foods ingredients came in at nearly twice that, with a total of $118.56.

What's going on here?

Pete's Shur-Sav provides the five food groups at across-the-board reasonable prices. For families on a tight budget — and that describes an enormous number of families these days — it's vital to have a place where food is not prohibitively expensive. This is particularly true when it comes to pantry staples and shelf-stable items: sugar, flour, salt, oil. All can be purchased at Pete's for good prices.

Move toward the produce aisles, though, and the value becomes questionable. The tomatoes from Pete's totaled $2.48; the heirlooms from the Tower Grove Market totaled $3. The differences in appearance, firmness and flavor would suggest a far greater price disparity.

But getting to the farmers' market is not a reality for every family, and that brings us to another tight economy — one of time.

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