99, Penny Lane

Food - Bee Wilson knows of one hot foodstuff that is priced exactly right

There is a new, but strangely familiar kind of shop to be found on shabby high streets all over Britain. They spring up overnight and vanish equally fast. Their design is makeshift and they sell piles of coloured plastic storage bins, all priced at a pound or so, and calendars decorated with bluebells and dormice. In among all the tat, there are people clustering round peculiar items of food: jars of Heinz barbecue sauce with Cyrillic script on the label, multipacks of jammy dodgers, bags of oddly named crisps and random packages of trail mix and monkey-nuts.

These chaotic boutiques are the modern-day equivalent of the penny bazaar. But did the penny bazaars sell food? If so, what kind? If you tried to set up a penny food mart now, you'd probably charge 99p. The 99p bazaar. And what a weird selection of edibles you would assemble if you had to stick to that price.

A few commodities valued at 99p are absurdly nourishing, if not very nice. You can get ten large battery eggs for 99p, which would make a basic supper for ten toddlers, five slimmers, three hearty eaters, two truck-drivers or one Mr Greedy. Better than the equally dismal 375g of turkey mince or two gammon steaks which are marketed at the same price. For some cheap carbohydrate along with your cheap protein, you might opt for four puff-pastry steak, kidney and onion pies, three large pillow-shaped Cornish pasties or an economy "quiche" with tomato, cheese and ham.

If nothing else, these items would sit quite easily together in the 99p bazaar aisles. Other foods of that price are more incongruous. Listing them is a bit like writing the Chinese encyclopaedia described by Jorge Luis Borges. This imaginary book divided animals into a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, and so on. The 99p bazaar, similarly, would include a) manufactured by Sunny Delight, b) finest duck and orange pate, c) soft scoop anything, d) garlic butter products in pairs, e) large fruits, f) St Marcellin cheese (normal price), g) Crottin cheese (reduced price), h) small useless items in multiples of six (mini-cheese, mini-pastries, mini cereal boxes).

Ninety-nine pence is a protean price. Sometimes, it seems cheap, sometimes expensive. Sometimes it is heralded with luminous low-cost stickers. Sometimes it goes unremarked. You can buy a kilo of rhubarb or bananas, a jar of ginger preserve or a tub of curry powder for 99p without a second thought. Ditto organic celery, organic cucum-ber,organic tomatoes, two organic little gems, six chocolate button cakes, 12 frozen Yorkshire puddings, three Um Bongo drinks, a medium tub of spring onion sandwich filling, a large tin of tuna or a small packet of butter. But when you buy three Mullerlight yoghurts for the same price, it's suddenly meant to feel like remarkable value. You're meant to leave the store patting your own back pocket for the loose change you've saved, as in the ad.

But there's one food currently costing 99p that really makes sense at the price. Grey Poupon Dijon mustard, in the lovely bulbous jars. It's cheap enough to seem like an "affordable luxury", yet expensive enough to reassure you that the contents won't rasp. One jar keeps going for ages, but not so long that it goes off before you finish it. Too many other 99p foods, such as the tat in those peculiar boutiques, fall into two undesirable extremes: so cheap it must be nasty, or not cheap enough at any price.