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The gumbo inflation index: Join a New Orleans chef on an ingredients shopping trip

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the Deep South, cold weather means gumbo, a classic Louisiana dish mixing all kinds of meats, veggies and loads of other ingredients. And what it takes to fill that gumbo pot can offer a unique perspective on inflation. The Gulf States Newsroom's Drew Hawkins and Stephan Bisaha went on a shopping trip with a New Orleans chef to see how the official inflation numbers match up against the Gumbo Inflation Index.

DREW HAWKINS, BYLINE: OK, Stephan. So we're at one of the oldest family markets in New Orleans, Zuppardo's.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Yes. And our gumbo chef/guide today is Bunny Young.

BUNNY YOUNG: I'm Bunny.

HAWKINS: Hi.

YOUNG: We hug in New Orleans. Hi. We hug in New Orleans. Hi. Nice to meet you.

HAWKINS: Young's a home chef who does catering and pop-ups, and she's decked head to toe in crawfish red, from her crocs to her dangling crawfish earrings.

YOUNG: Y'all ready?

HAWKINS: We're following your lead.

YOUNG: All right. OK.

HAWKINS: You're in charge.

So first up, an absolute must for any gumbo.

YOUNG: I want to have the best smoked sausage - their regular smoked sausage, and I use their andouille smoked sausage.

HAWKINS: Andouille is basically the smoked pork sausage of Louisiana. It's crucial for things like jambalaya, red beans and rice and, of course, gumbo.

BISAHA: So normally when you're checking on price changes on individual goods, you go to the Consumer Price Index, the CPI, put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, andouille is not listed in the CPI, but it does track pork. And compared to three years ago, pork is up 17%. But this past year, pork prices have remained stable - basically, flat.

HAWKINS: But according to the YGI - that's the Young's Gumbo Index - the price of andouille has gone up.

YOUNG: Look, these are 6.50 each. I can remember, they were, like, maybe, I'd say, five bucks this time last year. Now we're going to get the stuff that we need to make the roux.

BISAHA: Roux is basically just fat and flour - forms the base of the gumbo. The price of flour shot up significantly a couple years ago, and it's still going up - just not as much.

HAWKINS: So this is a great example of what economists say we're going through right now - disinflation. Prices are still rising - just slower.

BISAHA: But disinflation is uneven. Flour prices are rising a lot faster here in the South than they are nationally - nearly 7%.

HAWKINS: And now that we have our roux, our gumbo needs some fresh vegetables. In New Orleans, we call it the holy trinity. You've got your onions, celery and, of course, some green bell peppers. And here we've got some good news. According to the national index, fresh veggies are actually cheaper this year - nearly 5% cheaper.

BISAHA: And this isn't just disinflation. It's the real deal - deflation, prices dropping.

HAWKINS: Yeah. But that's not something we're seeing in New Orleans, at least when it comes to bell peppers.

YOUNG: Two for 89 cents. Yeah. This is expensive in today's culture. It's very expensive.

HAWKINS: Young actually has the receipts to back up this bell pepper bump. Compare bell pepper prices to a year ago, and, yeah, the price she's been paying has gone up - roughly 14%.

BISAHA: So the reason why Young's prices don't match the official inflation numbers is because the CPI is asking a different question. What are prices doing across the country? Ingredients like andouille and green bell peppers don't play nearly as big a role in the CPI as they do in the gumbo pot.

HAWKINS: I guess to balance it out, we'd need to have the Kansas City barbecue indicator and the New England clam chowder index.

BISAHA: Yes, or the Philly cheesesteak metric or Chicago deep dish benchmark.

HAWKINS: I love it. OK, so after buying a few more things - some fresh crab, shrimp and a lot of seasoning - we made our way back to the home kitchen with Bunny Young as she turned our basket of indicators into actual gumbo.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)

YOUNG: Sizzle, sizzle.

BISAHA: After several hours of chopping, browning, boiling and simmering...

HAWKINS: ...And being tortured by the incredible smell, we finally got to the most important test - the taste test.

YOUNG: Is that it?

HAWKINS: Oh, that's it. That is so good.

As for the final part of our index, the actual price of the gumbo compared to a year ago, Young says she's had to up her prices from 10 to 15 bucks a pop, so we're talking a 50% jump there.

BISAHA: And her customers are asking for smaller cheaper portions now, but, like us, they're still eating it up.

HAWKINS: For NPR News, I'm Drew Hawkins.

BISAHA: And I'm Stephan Bisaha in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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