The Diminishing Marginal Utility of Roast Quail
Or how my dad taught me basic economics
My mom likes to joke that she scored with my dad. That Shanghainese men make the best husbands. They like to cook, clean, and generally keep house. I can’t confirm whether this is actually widely accepted among Chinese people, but he certainly lived up to and beyond the claims. However, he had a tendency to ruin my taste for my favorite foods. I never begrudged him for it. He ended up (indirectly) teaching me about an economics principle I wouldn’t formally encounter until my last year of high school.
I’ve always known Houston to be a food city, even if it’s only recently started to get wider recognition for it. Next to Chinatown’s palaces of seafood, dim sum, and hot pot, you have Viet-town with savory pho and crispy banh mi. Obviously, glorious Tex-Mex joints abound. So when my dad brought home roast quail for dinner one night, I wasn’t surprised.
“It tastes like chicken,” he said. He started to tear off small pieces and spread them out in the styrofoam box, warped from the steam and his commute.
I poked a piece with my chopstick. “It smells kind of weird.” We’d eaten even less mainstream things though, like pig intestines doused in red oil.
“Here, just try it.” He placed a large piece between my chopsticks. I took my first bite and let it settle on my tongue. The crispy and slightly caramelized skin made up for the relatively tasteless meat. It was a little tougher than chicken.
He smiled. “See? Good, huh?”
I nodded even though I hadn’t passed a verdict yet. He had gone during a break from his restaurant shift to pick up the new dish in Chinatown. Always buying food for the family, his coworkers liked to say.
Somehow, we (and by we, I mean I) ended up picking clean three-quarters of the box. When my dad set down another box a few days later, I attacked the fragrant meat more eagerly. There were no leftovers to pack for my school lunch that time.
For the next two months give or take, I ate each box of quail as completely as I could, but each time the amount of leftovers increased. I hate wasting food, so in it went into my lunches, buried in noodles, rice, and the bone broths my mom and grandma steeped. (News flash for food hipsters: bone broth has been part of Asian food for years and years.) Spurred on by the positive feedback, my dad made sure there was never a deficit in my roast quail supply.
On a Sunday before I was due to go teach a few hours of ice skating lessons, he set a hearty serving in a shallow blue-and-white bowl before me.
“Protein for the endurance you’ll need! Eat it before it gets cold!” His wide grin couldn’t drum up the enthusiasm he had gotten so used to seeing though. My whiny teenager side had bubbled up.
“I’m tired of quail. Do we have ramen?” I said. Addressing his kind attention to my protein intake, I added, “I’ll eat an egg with it.”
“What do you mean you’re tired of it? You like eating it so much!”
“Ba-ba, we’ve had it for months.” I pouted, carefully. “Maybe for dinner instead?”
He nodded, but his lips pressed together as he took a few pieces for himself and put the rest back into the fridge.
Halfway through my three hours of bending down to hold little kids’ hands as they teetered around the ice, my stomach growled and reminded me how much I could’ve used that protein. What was I thinking having one fried egg and instant ramen?
At dinner I monopolized the quail dish. My mom was both impressed and horrified by my remarkable appetite. My dad smiled again, wide and bright, and also had some, but only when I was occupied with the small pile in my bowl.
A few weeks later, this pattern repeated with char-siew pork, then caramelized sea bass, then lamb chops. You wouldn’t have known that my parents worked blue-collar jobs. I certainly didn’t until I learned that collars had certain colors at all.
In my first semester of college, my introduction to microeconomics TA explained diminishing marginal utility to an indifferent lecture hall, using the typical examples. To satisfy a craving, one more cupcake (or cookie) will give you less satisfaction than the first one consumed. One more Maserati in a millionaire’s collection bestows fewer bragging rights than the first two. Okay, that one I embellished.
I, on the other hand, had different examples in mind.
Thank you for reading! This is the first in my series “An Economic Life,” where I write to educate and entertain while attempting to remember and apply my liberal arts education. :)