From time to time, stories surface about ridiculously expensive food products—the pizza adorned with gold leaf selling for $1,000, or the diamond-topped cupcake costing ten times as much. These items are usually concocted to garner publicity for a restaurant, and they generally work: The entertainment value is high enough to make them go viral.
Now we have the $761 jar of peanut butter, but it’s not available from a food outlet. You can only buy it from the U.S. government. It was made by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an outfit that employs legions of lab technicians to test consumer products for nutritional values. In scientific terms, it is “reference peanut butter,” designed to establish a benchmark product. Like most other things, it has skyrocketed in price; when it was first made, back in 2003, it cost a mere $140 for a six-ounce jar.
For $761, is it outstanding peanut butter? Apparently not. William Grimes, former restaurant critic for the New York Times, sampled it in 2003. He said it looked like “dark brown industrial paste,” and that it “lacked the creamy, unctuous quality of storebought brands.” Nor is it the result of a breakthrough creative process: A NIST chemist told the Times that it was “prepared by a commercial manufacturer of peanut butter whose name you would recognize.”
The peanut butter is far from unique. If you do some research on the NIST website, you’ll see that it’s actually a bargain. You can also purchase 91 grams (slightly over three ounces) of baking chocolate for $1,006, 50 grams of wheat flour for $472 and 60 grams of fortified breakfast cereal for $591, along with dozens of other items. Sadly, there’s no reference jelly to accompany your peanut butter.
So what did you get your sweetheart for Valentine’s Day? Most likely, she secretly wanted the world’s most expensive peanut butter, so she could brag about it to her friends. If you sprang for roses, dinner or a day at the spa, you were a piker.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); for more information, go to amazon.com