Carolyn, from Rhode Island, one of the dozens of holiday makers who stood in line for fried clams one recent Sunday at The Bite in Menemsha, was taken aback at the prices.
“This is pretty intense,” she said, looking down at the red and white take-out carton, roughly the size of a Tiffany’s ring gift box. Containing eight to ten clams, a half pint of deep fried whole bellies at The Bite currently costs $12.95. Counting his change, her father told her: “You just presided over a theft.”
Clams are just one of the many food items which acquire semi-precious status on the Vineyard, particularly at this time of year. Up the road at the Chilmark Store, pizza costs more than property. A sumptuous 16-inch veggie deluxe pizza sells for $28.95. This works out at $1,204,610 an acre, which is more than triple the assessed cost of developable land in that town.
A bagel with lox and cream cheese from the Bagel Authority in Vineyard Haven is an even $10. A bagel enthusiast could buy their breakfast, have it priority mailed to the Vineyard and still get change.
“I don’t understand it,” said a perplexed vendor at the award-winning Bagel Hole in Brooklyn, where the same thing is $5.35. “I mean, the lox are closer to you guys.”
Marty Nadler, a comedian who spends six months of the year on the Island, feels besieged as a patron.
“It’s so serious it’s hard to make fun of,” he said, “I was at a Vineyard restaurant recently and a guy looked at his check and asked the waitress: ‘Did we break anything?’ ”
High costs have long been a fact of life here, he added, but recently they have had a growth spurt. “I think we should start bringing picnic baskets from off-Island, then we can say, ‘We’ll pay you a couple of bucks, just let us sit here for a minute,’ ” he said.
The raw materials are not a snip either. A six-pound frozen organic chicken from Morning Glory farm in Edgartown is $21. An heirloom tomato is $7.39 at Cronig’s market in Vineyard Haven.
Gallery owner Mary Etherington lived in acceptance of Island prices for many years — it wasn’t until she was buying her favorite cocoa powder from Whole Foods, off-Island, that she experienced sticker shock.
“Whole Foods is no bargain store — people call it Whole check,” she said, “but my cocoa there is just over six dollars. On-Island it’s ten and change.”
Author Holly Nadler shops at Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs, which is known for lower prices. “But even there I find myself wondering if I need a second job,” she said, adding: “What are we going to do though? We need to eat.”
There are a few bargains to be had, like the still-affordable lobster rolls at Grace Church in Vineyard Haven, the dollar coffee from Vineyard Gourmet in Vineyard Haven, or the Tofuti Cuties — tofu ice cream sandwiches — which cost 50 cents from the Fiddlehead Farm in West Tisbury.
And speaking of fiddleheads, you can also forage.
“I’ve always been a proponent of wild ingredients,” said Carrie Smith, who works as a private chef in West Tisbury. There are good spots around the Island for wild watercress, wild asparagus, nettles and black locust flowers — the blossoms can be good in salads or as fritters. For more information see forager Russ Cohen’s latest book, Wild Plants I Have Known . . . And Eaten.
Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said high costs can be tracked to the fact that many retailers have a small window to make their money.
“I think they’re supporting a family 52 weeks a year on ten weeks of work,” said Ms. Gardella. “It’s what the market will bear.”
Fuel is a factor. “Whether it gets here by mail or truck that has to be reflected in the costs,” she said, although she admitted that those selling Island produce are also charging high prices.
At The Bite, clams are shipped in from Ipswich and owner Karen Flynn said she pays a $3 fuel surcharge on produce consignments. And her prices are comparable to other clam joints on the Island, such as the Quarterdeck in Edgartown and Giordano’s in Oak Bluffs.
“We are starting high,” Mrs. Flynn said of this season’s prices, adding a warning shot: “They always go up over the summer.”