x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Why nothing in life really comes for free

I've always been suspicious of free samples at supermarkets or offers of free food at restaurants.

I

live on the conservative edge of a parochial neighbourhood in a progressive small town. This town also happens to be the global epicentre of goddess worship, so I’m not surprised to find myself pulling in between two parked cars whose bumper stickers forecast, in different but equally annoying fonts: “The Goddess is alive, and magic is afoot.” In a different corner of the state, Colonel Walter Hitchcock of the New Mexico Military Institute once expressed his gratitude for the armed forces while coining the now immortal idiom “Freedom isn’t free”. That’s a pretty common bumper sticker around here, too.

The grocery store where I park is known for handing out free samples, but I’m never tempted. I approach samples with the same guarded suspicion I bring to an all-you-can-eat scenario, with the bonus hurdles of a talking salesperson to hear and a Dixie Cup to hold, which feels clinical and somewhat perverse. My repulsion hit especially close to home when a staff member at a nearby branch of my supermarket was sentenced to two years in federal prison for violating both a yogurt sample and the customer to whom he offered it.

I have a hard time believing that anything is free – even for a critic – and that includes writers who review restaurants. Complimentaries for industry workers and regular customers are one thing, but if you’re using freebies to fund a lifestyle, it’s at the cost of your own credibility. “Gratis” and “on the house” are euphemisms for “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. When you accept something that’s free – and especially if you request it – be honest about whose interests you’re representing.

Reviews are often so obsequiously frescoed with hollow praise that I end up turning to Yelp for guidance. I find Yelp only marginally less useless for the same basic reason: people tend to more passionately report negative experiences, and not all people are motivated to tell the truth.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely investigates the seductive power of free goods. As he explains on his website: “When we set up a temporary candy stand and sold mouthwatering Lindt truffles (which usually cost around 50 cents) for 15 cents and ho-hum Hershey Kisses for 1 cent, 73 per cent of the chocolate-lovers who stopped by made the rational decision and chose the superior and highly discounted Lindt truffles. But when we lowered the price by 1 cent for each item — resulting in a cost of 14 cents and 0 cents respectively — suddenly demand reversed and 69 per cent of consumers chose the free Kisses.”

I’ve met people who swear by dumpster-diving behind the town’s nicest grocery store and I’ve listened to some who claimed to have survived for some time on only foraged foods or wind-fallen fruit. The website Give Me Free Food (www.givemefreefood.com) offers coupons for discounted and sometimes free food to places such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Outback Steakhouse.

In history and folklore, foragers of free food have not fared particularly well in the luck department: there’s that fairy tale about the poisoned apple, as well as the ingénue who ate both the cakes and then the mushrooms she was offered. Other heroines had their sacrifices defined in more certain terms, such as their firstborn child or their voice, but at least they weren’t taking mushrooms from strangers.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico