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Substitutionsgiving: Inflation-friendly substitutes for thanksgiving dishes

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You might already be noticing one addition to your holiday menu - inflation. The cost of Thanksgiving dinner is up nearly 40% from two years ago according to the annual Farm Bureau survey. That got NPR's Business Desk thinking there has to be some kind of solution or substitution. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith has the story.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: This year the cost of a Thanksgiving meal for 10 is nearly $80 just for the most basic ingredients. But here at the NPR Business Desk, we thought inflation can't win Thanksgiving. So a group of us got together, took on four of the most iconic dishes - mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, turkey with stuffing, pumpkin pie. And we set out to find a substitute dish that could stand in for the classic and would get that dish back to what it cost on Thanksgiving of 2020, before inflation took off - a Substitutionsgiving (ph), if you will.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Well, I guess we should say, like, welcome to Substitutionsgiving. We're all here...

SMITH: Everybody came to try the dishes - reporters, editors, interns.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, hey. Come on in.

SMITH: Business Desk energy correspondent Camila Domonoske went first. She took on mashed potatoes. Potatoes have gone up in price by more than 20%. So has the price of the milk you whip into them. Camila's solution - beans.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: These are mashed butter beans. For y'all who aren't from the South, that's just lima beans.

SMITH: Pound for pound, Camila's lima beans cost roughly the same as russets. But a little bit of lima goes a long way.

DOMONOSKE: Like, one pound of potatoes makes two servings. One pound of beans makes 13 servings.

SMITH: Are you serious?

DOMONOSKE: You come out on top, like, in a big way when you go for the beans.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: And the mashed beans look a lot better than I thought they were going to look.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They look so similar to potatoes.

HORSLEY: Yeah, they're a little gray.

(LAUGHTER)

DOMONOSKE: All right, let's - give it a shot. Give it a shot before you hate on it.

SMITH: Our intern, Mary Yang, volunteered to taste.

MARY YANG, BYLINE: I think the texture throws me off. I don't know.

SMITH: What we do know - Camila's beans cost about $5.25, about half the cost of russet potatoes. Next up, cranberry sauce - so here at NPR, there was something of an institution around cranberry sauce. We were all way too scared to mess with it, so we passed it off to our editor, Uri Berliner.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: My ingredient was cranberry sauce but not just any cranberry sauce - Susan Stamberg's - Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish, which is an NPR tradition that goes back many years.

SMITH: It's, like, a thing.

BERLINER: It's a big thing. It's a big thing. I mean, it's pretty iconic.

SMITH: Apparently, they serve it in the NPR cafeteria every year.

BERLINER: The ingredients are weird. They are raw cranberries, an onion, sour cream, sugar and horseradish. And it's the color of Pepto-Bismol.

SMITH: I've never tried this relish. But correspondent Scott Horsley has.

HORSLEY: She acknowledges, I know this doesn't sound tasty.

SMITH: Is it tasty?

HORSLEY: Well, that's - it's - some people...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Opinions differ.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I've never heard Scott Horsley stumble in that way in my life.

SMITH: What will really have you stumbling, though, is the price. Sour cream is up more than 20% over last year, horseradish prices up more than 40%. Uri had a couple of substitutions in mind.

BERLINER: Called up Susan Stamberg and said...

Would you be willing, considering there's been inflation, to substitute for any of the ingredients in Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish?

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Well, listen - never. Of course not. I mean, these are written in blood, sweat and tears, I must say. Don't mess with Mama Stamberg's.

SMITH: Not to be deterred, Uri tried again.

STAMBERG: Absolutely not, absolutely not. But now I feel like the ogre. I feel like saying, bah humbug. And, of course, it would be the wrong holiday.

BERLINER: So there was just no way I was going to try and substitute for Mama Stamberg's. But it made me really nervous because, like, what was I going to do? What was I going to do? So what do you do? You go to the internet.

SMITH: Type in tangy, tart, side dish, Thanksgiving, not cranberries. And the internet came up with...

BERLINER: Secret sauce.

SMITH: Apparently, it's Canadian.

BERLINER: There's chopped pickles, mayonnaise, scallions that are cut up. There's a clove of garlic and a little bit of honey.

SMITH: We were skeptical, especially correspondent Alina Selyukh.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: You had me all the way up until the honey.

SMITH: Scott Horsley gallantly stepped in to try it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: What's the verdict, Scott?

HORSLEY: Oh, it's yummy.

SMITH: Really?

HORSLEY: Yes.

SELYUKH: That's really good. It tastes like a spread on a sandwich in a New Jersey deli.

HORSLEY: Oh, yeah.

SELYUKH: That's what it tastes like.

SMITH: OK, this is, like, a hit.

And the price - nearly 40% cheaper than the cranberry relish. So two substitutions down, two to go - next up, the turkey. Almost $30 this year for a 16-pound turkey, it is the most expensive thing on the Thanksgiving table. I took it on, and I felt a lot of pressure. It's so iconic. And, you know, finding any meat that's going to feed 10 people for less than 18 bucks is not easy. Chicken, ground, beef, fish, even Spam - they've all skyrocketed in price, too expensive. Pork prices, though - they've risen a little bit less. So I started looking around - pork shoulder, pork butt, hot dogs. Nothing quite fit the bill. And then I found it.

And it is...

(SOUNDBITE OF TINFOIL RUSTLING)

SMITH: Bacon, Bacons-giving (ph).

For three family-sized packages of bacon, just $12 - you know, a little bit of bacon goes a long way. Now, instead of stuffing, which is up almost 70% over last year, I opted for tomatoes. Their price hasn't really risen in the last year. And you can use them to make a Thanksgiving BLT.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: You know, I think, like, half of America would be ecstatic if there were BLTs instead of turkey.

HORSLEY: Oh, yeah.

SMITH: Of course, no Thanksgiving meal can be considered complete without pumpkin pie. But pumpkin pie mix alone is up almost 20% in price. Luckily, pie master Scott Horsley had a plan.

HORSLEY: I knew I wanted to do something with sweet potatoes.

SMITH: So while russet potatoes have gotten a lot more expensive this year, sweet potatoes have not. To get the skinny, Scott called up Michelle Grainger. She is the executive director of the Sweet Potato Commission in North Carolina.

MICHELLE GRAINGER: When we started harvesting, we realized that our yield was higher than anticipated. Some operations weren't prepared for the number of bins they were going to need to put the sweet potatoes in.

HORSLEY: So there's actually a bit of a glut of sweet potatoes right now, and you can find some real discounts. At my local market, sweet potatoes were about a third the price of canned pumpkin. So...

SMITH: Wow.

HORSLEY: I decided to make a sweet potato pie instead of a pumpkin pie. And while the sweet potatoes are a bargain, I got to tell you, the spices are pretty expensive. It's got nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, a little bit of molasses.

SMITH: Wait. This sounds not that cheap.

HORSLEY: Well, but you're saving so much money on the sweet potatoes. You know, you can splurge on all those ingredients.

SMITH: And so we did it - Substitutionsgiving 2022. We made a Thanksgiving meal that cost what a traditional meal cost back in 2020. The menu - mashed butter beans, Canadian secret sauce, bacon, tomatoes and sweet potato pie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Sweet potato pie is really, truly superior.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Yep.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It really is.

SMITH: It is superior.

HORSLEY: (Inaudible).

SMITH: Of course, just sitting around, eating and laughing with wonderful people who spend way too much time thinking about the economy - there is no substitute for that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Scott, I got to tell you, this is a real GDP - real good dessert pie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWEET CHARLES SHERRELL SONG, "YES IT'S YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.