Bánh mì at 35,000 feet: What’s Wrong with Airline Food?

Why, oh, why? That’s what I keep asking myself. Did I have to fork over $7 for a chicken bánh mì that Alaska Airlines was offering for sale on my flight from Los Angeles to Seattle?

Maybe I can be excused when Los Angeles International Airport has what must be the crappiest food service options of any major airport. Did I want another ham and cheese or chicken salad sandwich to take on board? A garden salad? Nope. Seattle-Tacoma Airport is far superior in its range of dining choices.

I might also be excused because I hadn’t had a substantial enough breakfast earlier that morning, so that by the time I was at cruise altitude at lunchtime, I was maybe a bit famished. Or I just needed to munch on something to pass the time.

OK, I shouldn’t be excused at all for being so naive.

The card in the seat pocket in front of me that listed the meal options described the bánh mì as Alaska’s “take” on the Vietnamese classic. Seattle restauranteur Tom Douglas supplies some of the meals on Alaska flights. Perhaps his magic hand might be involved in the sandwiches? I wondered. Hoped.

Instead, a company called LSG Sky Chefs, based in Seattle, made them. Okay, if you think about that for a moment, does that mean the bánh mì I was about to eat made one trip from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California already before it got put into my hands going in the opposite direction? It came wrapped in foil and was hot to handle. When I removed the wrap, steam came billowing out. And what would you think steam does to a sandwich whose bread is renown for its light crispiness? Instead of a baguette, it was more like a hoagie roll. A soggy one at that. While the chicken, what little there was of it, in combination with a kind of savory mayonnaise spread, could be described as tasty, it was also mushy. To LSG’s credit, the fresh vegetables normally found in bánh mì was wrapped separately in a plastic baggie: unseasoned shredded carrots (instead of vinegary-sweet đồ chua), sliced cucumbers and jalapeños, cilantro sprigs.

alaska banh mi

Credit has to be given to Alaska Airlines for even offering such ethnic fare, itself a proclamation that any old sandwich won’t do. But, in the end, as with most airline food, it was pretty awful, the worst bánh mì I’ve ever had.

I should’ve gone with my instincts, eschewed the very idea that a bánh mì served at 35,000 feet could pass muster.

As for LAX food choices at the gates, boarded off areas advertised that exciting plans were underway to bring in big name chefs to set up operations. Really? Do we need Las Vegas glitz or just good food?

Has Hawaiian Airlines Misled Customers about Breakfast?

Hawaiian Airlines proudly boasts that it’s the only carrier that serves complimentary meals at mealtime on all its domestic flights. Not only that, the promise is for a meal that is island-inspired. Hawaiian even goes so far as to name its executive chef, Chai Chaowasaree (who helms Pacifica Honolulu in Waikiki), suggestive of a Hawaiian-themed breakfast to Honolulu, yeah? So what did we get?

Am I missing something or does this breakfast look, um, ordinary? What island goodies showed up on the plate? A little bag of milk chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, that’s what. Oh, and a cup of complimentary passionfruit-orange-guava juice from a can. Fresh melons and grapes hardly qualify as tropical fruit. Pre-packaged crackers and cheese? Is this meal the best that Chef Chai could come up with? I didn’t expect first class quality, but at least something to whet my appetite for the island food I was looking forward to, now that my wife and I were headed to Hawaii. The breakfast was as uninspiring as the one we had on Hawaiian Airline’s morning flight from Auckland to Honolulu that I thought was an aberration, but apparently not. Hawaiian’s declaration may very well be true—and for that I should give them more credit—but couldn’t it make more effort to providing morning meals a little more interesting?

I should quit griping because everyone could get a complimentary rum punch just prior to arrival at Honolulu Airport.

Is Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy Worth the Extra Airfare?

Image from Air New Zealand’s website

Air New Zealand has a Premium Economy (PE) class that the airline touted as a significant step forward in comfort and service for economy passengers when introduced in 2010. Is it worth the more-than-double fare over economy?

On a flight between Los Angeles and Auckland, my wife and I upgraded to PE. I’ll explain how below. But first, let me describe our experience.

From the marketing, it surely seemed that our flight experience could be vastly more agreeable. The first improvement we experienced was the premium check-in line shared with business class. No hassles and, at the time of our check-in, no line.

PE seats are a big step forward in passenger comfort. On a Boeing 777-300, the seating configuration consists of six seats across, in groups of two separated by the airplane’s double aisles, a 2-2-2 arrangement, as compared to economy’s 3-4-3. The seat looks more like something out of an Apollo lunar module, which ANZ calls a Spaceseat. Made of ivory-colored leather and surrounded by a color-matched hard plastic shell, they contour to the body better than economy-class seats, with ample width for a large person and separate controls for reclining angle and tilt, though they’re awkward to operate. When reclining, the seat slides forward rather than leaning back into the space of the passenger behind. There is noticeably more legroom, enough to cross your legs easily or stretch them out. For electronic devices, a universal power port is provided as well as a USB port.



entertainment center

The seats don’t point forward like they do in economy, but are rotated roughly 30 degrees, a design that provides more legroom at the expense of a loss of overall lateral space in the cabin.

PE occupies an entire section of the aircraft, meaning curtains are drawn between economy and business classes. and two toilets are dedicated for 44 passengers. The surprising amenity was a dispenser of hot cloth face towels.

Aside from cramped seating in economy class, one big reason I dread long flights, especially overnight ones, is my inability to sleep well when sitting. My head tends to bob forward when I get drowsy—and that wakes me up. ANZ claims their PE seats recline 50% more than economy’s. Coupled with more leg and seat room, the greater recline was enough for me to sleep better. And while sleeping at any position other than supine is not ideal, I was still able to get about 7 hours of shuteye, even if I had to shift my body around occasionally, a remarkable achievement for me. The topper was that I didn’t watch a single movie during the flight, extraordinary considering that during another flight to NZ on economy last year, I watched four to cut the tedium.

When we first boarded, at each seat were waiting bottled water, blanket, pillow with pillowcase and noise-canceling headphones. The headphones would prove to be adequate, greatly cutting down on cabin noise, but our Etymotics ER-6i isolator earphones were much more effective. Shortly, the flight crew handed out to each PE passenger a felt bag which contained complimentary eye mask, lip balm, moisturizer, foam ear plugs, toothbrush and toothpaste and a pair of socks. The socks can be used for extra warmth when you rest your unshod feet on a bean bag that serves as a foot rest. As soon as the aircraft reached straight-and-level, the flight crew passed out hot cloth hand towels, followed by orange juice and sparkling wine.

And what about the meal? We were handed a menu for dinner with a choice of three main entrées.

supper menu

Would you believe a starter? Prosciutto with heirloom tomato and basil salad, marinated olives and baked ricotta cheese. It was served on a tray with dessert (cheesecake), which made me wonder about where the main dish fit into the sequence. It was to come later, placed on the same tray after the flight attendant recorded your selection and after offering a choice of three types of bread served from a basket. And how was the quality of the food? Very good as airline food goes, I’m happy to say, leagues better than what we normally got in previous flights in economy to New Zealand. My braised Asian-flavored beef was very tender, as was my wife’s salmon, flaky from not having been previously frozen. Flavors of both were good, more interesting than standard economy grub.

Breakfast, which in my experience is the least considered meal of airlines, was likewise a nice surprise. Again, the hot hand towel. Nice touch. Juices and coffee were served first. Next came a tray with fresh fruit and strawberry yogurt. The flight attendants refilled coffee and tea, served a croissant and took passengers’ hot meal orders. We both were surprised by how pleasant the breakfast experience was.

breakfast menu

The meals, in short, were a pleasure to eat rather than a means to pass the time, unhurried and more relaxed.

How is it that we got Premium Economy? ANZ has a program called OneUp in which passengers can upgrade one class by submitting bids as late as six days prior to departure. Bids, tendered as additional amounts over your base fare, have to be made separately on both inbound and outbound legs. Last year, our bids were summarily rejected. This time, we made similar offers but instead, for the LAX-AKL leg, were given an opportunity to improve the bid, which I did by a small amount. For $295 per person, the offer was accepted. (As time draws near, I’m sure we’ll be given the opportunity to rebid on the return flight.) So, the question at the beginning was, is it worth the extra roughly $2,000 roundtrip to purchase a PE fare outright? For us personally, no. Though our experience was undoubtedly excellent, it’s still a lot of money. But, we would be highly motivated to play the OneUp game when offered.

Sunrise as we approached Auckland

Sunrise as we approached Auckland

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Oh Poo, Is Tilapia Good for You?

I often wonder, is seafood safe to eat anymore? Out there in our waterways floats a vast stew of toxins, the worst offenders being heavy metals and chemicals from industrial pollution, not to mention dangerous amounts of radioactive isotopes from Fukushima-like disasters. Unlike soil, whatever gets dumped into the oceans spreads far and wide, only to be taken up by the organisms that live there. The conventional (current) wisdom is that the lower down in the food chain a fish species is, the less likely it’s accumulated enough toxins to trouble the health of humankind. And that’s the fine point, isn’t it? Because all seafood has some level of contamination. It boils down to a matter of statistics, what the probability is that something as large as tuna or small as sardines that you’re about to pop into your mouth will do you long-term harm. If you don’t want to be consumed or paralyzed by fear and worry, you just have to take your chances, unfortunately. Or do without.

Image from wikipedia

As appalling as the presence of poisons in our oceans is, within the past few years, journalistic exposés have uncovered human activity that is in a way even worse simply because it’s deliberate—the aquaculture of tilapia, which has become the dominant, if not sole white fish (no pun intended) to appear on restaurant menus. You fancy fish tacos? How about sweet-and-sour fish or Szechwan fish fillets? Pescado a la Veracruzana? Odds are, it’s tilapia. Diners like tilapia’s mild flavor and restauranteurs are happy about its low cost. Moreover, they are easy to raise on fish farms. To meet soaring demand, farms throughout the world, especially in Latin America, China and southeast Asia, have proliferated. There will be no foreseeable tilapia shortage.

Therein lies the problem, particularly the tilapia sourced from China and southeast Asia.

Back in 2011, the only issues raised by The New York Times were farm-raised tilapia’s questionable heart-healthy benefits (very little omega-3 and very high levels of omega-6 fatty acids) and ecologically troublesome waste pollution at fish farms. Yet, a year later, Bloomberg News reported that the tilapia raised in unregulated farms in China, the world’s largest producer, are being fed raw animal sewage or manure, though this practice has been known for years.

Yang Shuiquan, chairman of a government-sponsored tilapia aquaculture association in Lianjiang, 200 kilometers from Yangjiang, says he discourages using feces as food because it contaminates water and makes fish more susceptible to diseases. He says a growing number of Guangdong farmers adopt that practice anyway because of fierce competition.

“Many farmers have switched to feces and have stopped using commercial feed,” he says.

Do all farms in Asia practice this? No. I’m sure that many fish farmers have ethical standards.

In the wild, tilapia naturally feeds on algae and aquatic plants. It appears they thrive on poop, too. Because they aren’t carnivores, they’re touted as harboring very low levels of heavy metals. But, by feeding them fecal matter from farm animals, that “advantage” has been turned on its head so that consumers are exposed to pathogens like salmonella and E. coli instead. Won’t the FDA keep our food safe? Good luck with that. Would cooking the fish to high enough temperatures be enough to destroy these bacteria? Maybe. You’d be right to assume that in order to keep illness and infection in check, antibiotics, some of them carcinogenic, are heavily used.

To be objective, isn’t large-scale food production safety in general a problem? Yes, but the practices noted above emotionally are more revolting, nauseating even. Buyer beware! I’ve had my share of tilapia lately, but in protest, not anymore.

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Why This Little Problem at Trader Joe’s?

I am a big fan of Trader Joe’s. It’s my go-to store when I go shopping. Why? Because they have great values, no sale prices to worry about, have an increasing inventory of organic foods at excellent prices, and amazing variety for a store of its size. Furthermore, very few of their products have artificial ingredients. Trader Joe’s has a business model that works, high-quality and hard-to-find products at very fair prices. When I go grocery shopping at several stores during the day, I make it a point to go to TJ’s first because I will save a good deal of money.

That being said, there are some issues that have bugged me over the years.

When a new item is introduced—and each month brings new products—other things have to go. If those things include one of your favorites, you’re out of luck. With very limited shelf space, products that don’t sell well will be removed from stock, simple as that. Can I really blame them for that?

But, to me the most annoying problem is the tendency for some items not to be as fresh as they could be, so far confined to produce and food products that could go stale. Take, for example, their raspberries. I seek out organic berries whenever possible, since they are highly susceptible to pesticide contamination. Without chemicals, it’s pretty important that the time from farm to store be as brief as possible. I get the feeling that TJ’s sometimes gets their raspberries, a delicately soft fruit, toward the end of their freshness cycle in order to pass along good prices to shoppers. More than once, I’ve had to return raspberries that have spoiled within a day or two of purchase. By way of comparison, I’ve never had to do that for berries bought at Whole Foods or PCC. To be clear, I’m not saying this always happens, but it has enough times that I now closely examine all highly perishable groceries. (Tip: I’ve discovered that berries last much longer when removed to Mason jars than when left in their plastic clamshells.) Molding is not as much a problem with strawberries and blueberries.

Their organic Persian cucumbers are very prone to molding and organic onions to mildewing faster than when bought elsewhere.

On more than one occasion, I’ve bought avocados from TJ’s that absolutely refused to ripen.

In short, when it comes to produce at Trader Joe’s, while most of it is just fine, it does pay to be vigilant. To their credit, they will take back anything you don’t like.

I mentioned staleness. I no longer buy raw nuts from TJ’s. I’ve had to return many because they tasted stale straight out of the cellophane bag, a sign that the oils have gone rancid. One jar of an Egyptian-inspired mix called dukkah, consisting of fennel, anise, coriander and sesame seeds, ground almonds and kosher salt, a great accompaniment with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping bread, has also tasted stale even though it was eaten well before the pull date.

Lately, I’ve noticed a lack of freshness in some of TJ’s packaged snacks. A bag each of sea salt and pepper lentil chips and of soy sauce-flavored savory thins were likewise stale, again opened before their pull dates.

So what gives with Trader Joe’s? With over 400 stores nationwide, one would think that the chain would exert its clout to ensure more stringent food safety. Low prices doesn’t have to mean relaxed standards. I’m not alone in my concern, as any search on the internet will show. Complaints have been posted for many years now, which seems to suggest that TJ’s doesn’t care. Could that be?

Regardless, I still love TJ’s. Along with countless other fans, I would be genuinely bummed if they were ever to go out of business.

Airline Food Deconstructed?

I came across this interesting article on an experience that most of us would prefer not to think about too seriously: eating airline food. It posed the question whether it was truly horrible or is it that we expect it to be. It turns out that one big physiological problem to be overcome is the tendency for our sinuses to close because of the cabin’s very low humidity. Without our sense of smell, food becomes less enjoyable. Dry air also tends to dry up food, which is the reason why airline food tends to be more saucy to compensate. But, without question, the biggest problem is that meals have to be prepared way ahead of time and frozen since airplane galleys are not equipped to make food. All they have are convection ovens for reheating. Gone are the days when roasts used to be carved and salads tossed by the flight attendants, served on china with silverware and cloth napkins. Still, the article goes on to say, some airlines are trying to improve the food they serve.

And the article really struck a chord with me when it admitted that passengers look forward to eating only as a way to combat the extreme boredom of long flights.

Despite the sympathetic tone, there are too many times when airline food, especially breakfasts, like the one between Auckland and Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines, is truly forgettable. There was little thought given to improving the quality or experience.

The entire article is here.

Chile Reception: Huy Fong Gets Burned

Millions of people love it. Taystee, a character in Netflix’s made-for-TV drama, “Orange Is the New Black,” wanted it for the prison. It’s everywhere. From the looks of it, this condiment is almost as ubiquitous as ketchup, even appearing in non-Asian restaurants and doubtless millions of homes.

Huy Fong Foods’ sriracha sauce, more familiarly known as Rooster sauce, has been manufactured in Rosemead, California, since 1986. It’s the creation of an ex-Vietnamese farmer David Tran who couldn’t find a hot sauce to his liking when he immigrated to the U.S. The story of the sauce’s rise to prominence on the American table is the stuff of legend, spawning the documentary “Sriracha.” In Los Angeles, a festival entirely devoted to sriracha sauce (apparently, not only Huy Fong’s) was held only two weeks ago, drawing so many fans that the line to get in went on for blocks. It’s showing up as an ingredient in common snacks. How about sriracha candy canes? I bet the kids will be surprised. I’ve posted about sriracha popcorn before. And now this …

(Image from absolutelyfobulous.com)

It was inevitable then that the Rosemead facility would be hard pressed to meet swelling demand for its products, which includes an equally outstanding sambal oelek. Thus, in 2010, prompted by the city of Irwindale’s favorable terms, Huy Fong built a bigger plant there. The new facility would effectively triple production.

The story doesn’t end there though.

It seems that Irwindale residents are not so hot about the sauce. Complaints have been filed by neighbors suffering from respiratory problems, irritated throats, headaches and stinging eyes, not to mention putting up with the smell, all this the fallout from processing tons of fresh red jalapeño chiles during an intensive three-month harvest-to-bottle cycle, starting in September. These complaints were hard to ignore, especially when children were involved. Citing a “public nuisance” problem, the city attorney filed a suit with the Los Angeles County Superior Court that asked for a temporary restraining order to stop further production until the issue could be resolved. On October 31, the court denied the injunction but set a date of November 22 to make a decision on how to proceed.

I’m definitely in favor of resolving the health issues involved here. This is not something to be taken lightly. As an example, the roasting of chiles causes workers and residents in Hatch, legendary for its production of New Mexican chiles, to develop respiratory problems. But, let’s take a minute and ask a few questions.

Wasn’t it the city of Irwindale that made overtures to Huy Fong to build a plant there in the first place? Was Huy Fong required to install anti-pollution equipment as part of the deal (so far, nothing in public statements indicates that it was)? If not, did the city not consider that there might be health issues? In short, it seems that Irwindale needs to take some responsibility in all this, rather than being duplicitous and playing politics.

I suppose that Huy Fong could take matters into its own hands and threaten to leave the area for friendlier turf unless concessions were made. You know, strong-arm the city like Boeing is doing with the state of Washington and the machinists’ union to get its way with the 777X program. After all, the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, has made its own overtures to Huy Fong in the wake of the Irwindale incident. I can hear it now at Pat’s and Geno’s, Whiz ‘n sree wit.

Ramen Burgers: What’s the Beef?

“Want ground beef and cheese with your ramen?”

This question you don’t ever expect to hear at a ramen restaurant. At least, for now anyway. But can it be that far behind when the latest craze of Japanifying popular American food is the ramen burger? Yep, that’s right, a ground beef patty sandwiched between two ramen “buns.” But, before I get to that, let’s consider what has gone on before, what blazed the trail to this brain child of enterprising Manhattan Japanese chef, Keizo Shimamoto.

When pizza became an international food, Japan was quick to adapt it to its tastes. While some toppings may be familiar to Americans, others such as octopus, squid, scallops, clams, crab, tuna, mayonnaise (Kewpie brand, no doubt), shimeji mushrooms, bamboo shoots, nori (seaweed), shiso (perilla), among others, are about as alien as making pork & beans with natto. Personally, a lot of those toppings don’t sound half bad. But, the pizzas are made for Japanese consumption and what people eat on their own shores is, to put it mildly, none of my business.

Pizza topped with clams, shrimp and nori (from japanesesnackreviews.blogspot.com)

Then, in Vancouver, B.C., some ambitious businesspeople launched Japadog. The concept is simple: offer traditional Japanese condiments to accessorize a standard hot dog. To some die-hards, the idea might be sacrilege. Substitute teriyaki mayonnaise for catsup, grated horseradish (daikon oroshi) for sauerkraut, wasabi for mustard? You get the idea. But, at least, the foundations remain the same: sausage and bun. With the right combinations, could this work? Happily, it does at Japadog. Along the same lines, Seattle has its Gourmet Dog Japon.

Oroshi dog

Oroshi dog (Japadog)

And now, live from New York, we have the ramen burger. If the concept were similar to the Japanese hot dog, namely replacing traditional condiments with Japanese ones, okay. For someone like me who’d rather have an unadorned burger, maybe the addition of grilled shishito peppers, Japanese green onions (negi), a dash of shichimi might be worth a try. But Shimamoto’s idea was to replace the burger bun entirely with coiled ramen noodles shaped like buns and fried. Granted, like bread, ramen noodles are taste-neutral, but viscerally the thought of biting through a bunch of chewy and crusted pasta and a beef patty at the same time just doesn’t do it for me. How about adding a slice of cheese with that, which is actually an option? The bun is supposed to play second fiddle, a supporter of the patty, not an equal partner. You don’t normally pay much mind to the bread, unless it’s dry or otherwise indisposed. But ramen? It competes for your attention. And therein lies its lack of appeal for me. While the adaptations described above have some draw (to me, anyway), the ramen burger doesn’t, not even remotely.

The next thing you know, someone’s going to want to pair musubi with Spam.

Ramen burger (image from i1-news.softpedia-static.com)

No End in Sight: New Zealand’s Astronomical Cost-of-Living

I’ve thought long about whether I should do this post. The subject has bothered me for some time since it affects me—or, I should say, members of my family—personally. The astronomically high cost-of-living in New Zealand.

How do the Kiwis do it? It’s been getting more expensive to live there year by year. Wages haven’t kept up with inflation for 30 years. Sticker shock for even the most common items, including groceries, is so commonplace that it is the norm.

My wife and I have been to New Zealand several times already. We visit our daughter and her family in Christchurch whenever we can. We wish it could be more often, but airfares being what they are to that part of the world, we have to pick and choose the times we can go. But the prices we pay are nothing compared to what they must when they come here for a visit, practically double. Why is that? In fact, why are prices in general so outrageously high in New Zealand?

My daughter was the first to call this to our attention after she moved there a few years ago. We have since corroborated her observation just by comparing prices of common goods. Other foreign travelers, including those from other industrialized countries, have made the same comment. More than that, why are NZ products here in the States so much less than in their country of origin? I can, for example, buy a block of Kiwi sharp cheddar cheese (called tasty cheese over there) at Trader Joe’s for about $2.50 US but easily expect to pay at least $10 NZ for 500g in Christchurch at the local Countdown or New World. A bottle of Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc is priced at around $13 US here but over twice that much in NZ. And forget about consumer goods whose prices run about three times what I can purchase them for here. A baby’s car seat commands over $600 NZ that I can get through Amazon at $250 US, which is the reason why my daughter asked me to bring one over from the States for a friend who would otherwise not have been able to afford it.

Much has been written about this problem, including the feature piece (“The Great NZ Rip-off”) in the April issue of North & South magazine, a monthly Kiwi publication. One argument for high prices is that the cost of production has to be spread over the relatively small New Zealand population of 4 million people (1.5 million living in Auckland alone), not anywhere near the numbers of the world’s most populous cities. But does this adequately explain the high prices?

Not necessarily, it seems.

A supplier told North & South that the supermarkets, for example, strive for a 30 to 40 per cent gross margin of the retail price. Here in the U.S., it’s closer to 6 per cent. There are only two grocery chains in NZ, one owned by Kiwis (e.g., New World), the other by Aussies (such as Countdown). Wanna play Monopoly, anyone? There are many more choices (competition) in the States. When I’ve gone to the local Countdown where my daughter lives, it hasn’t been unusual to fork close to $100 NZ for just a couple days of groceries. Pure and simple price gouging. The industry is totally unregulated, even if there is a Ministry of Consumer Affairs. It is revealing that, at any given time, almost 60 per cent of items purchased were on sale, meaning that consumers shop by price lest their grocery bills be even higher. In one sense, my daughter has become more self-reliant by cooking her own pumpkins for purée and other things from scratch, like pizza dough, for example. But she does this out of necessity as much as or more than choice. Both she and my son-in-law are both vegetarians, so they aren’t faced with the need to cut back on meat and fish since their prices continue to escalate.

The price of electricity, a state-run monopoly, has doubled since 1986, the article points out, while it has gotten cheaper in other developed countries. Why should publicly owned utilities not be run in the public interest, with CEOs getting $3 million salaries, investing “public” funds in questionable financial investments and spending millions on advertising? Someone has to pay these expenses, and that someone is the average NZer. The same kind of story apparently is true for other services such as water and telecommunications.

Other external pressures work against the average Kiwi’s pocketbook. Even though the NZ dollar has been getting stronger lately against many currencies, why haven’t imports become cheaper? They have instead been stuck at the same high prices, which means there isn’t enough competition to drive prices down. Even if New Zealand is a food-producing country, most of it, about 90 per cent, goes abroad which has driven up export prices and therefore prices at home.

Is it any wonder that there is a diaspora of Kiwis to other countries where it’s cheaper to live and wages are higher? There are half a million living in Australia alone. The middle class is becoming increasingly strapped and may go the way of the dinosaur, a refrain we in America have been hearing lately as the gap widens between rich and poor. Where is all this headed? Is there any end in sight?

Phoenix Rising: The Optimism of Christchurch

Yesterday’s news that a large 6.5 earthquake hit Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, following a 5.7 rattler only two days before, was yet another reminder that New Zealand remains seismically active. When I was here earlier in the year, Mt Tongariro on the North Island erupted. Volcanic activity and sudden earth movement are alive and well here and throughout the entire Ring of Fire, which includes my own home state of Washington. Residents in my neck of the woods talk matter-of-factly of expecting The Big One.

Christchurch was famously struck by two big earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, separated by a mere 6 months. Tragically the latter resulted in 185 deaths. These were followed by the horrific Sendai earthquake in Japan later in 2011. Both quakes did significant damage to NZ’s second largest city, especially to the Central Business District (CBD) where a large number of older buildings was concentrated, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral. After the first quake, safety concerns led civil authorities to close down the CBD to public access. It remained inaccessible until about two months ago, after all unsafe buildings were razed, inspections completed and hazardous areas fenced off. Visible evidence of the destruction still remains, prodigious piles of rubble behind chain-link fences that will take years to clean up. The cathedral is a shadow of its former self.

Despite all this, as I walked through the area, I was really impressed with the positive spirit reflected in the downtown area, the optimism that comes from a people looking ahead rather than dwelling on the misfortunes of the past. Re:START’s project of sponsoring the construction of the container mall was a welcome, affirmative and symbolic gesture. Even if the CBD is mostly unrecognizable from what it had once been, there are indications everywhere that the phoenix is rising from its ashes. Whether it was temporary topiaries in the shape of animals, potted plants, decoration on chain-link fences, the fencing around the cathedral punctuated in front by a planter-box representation, or amateur entertainers performing for the public, these small signs signify hope for the future. With no motor vehicles, a big part of the CBD is for the moment a pedestrian zone. People were out in force today, many recalling with family and friends the former pre-quake landscape.