Archive for the ‘Fall 09’ Category

Listening, Learning

In last week’s New Yorker, an article entitled Testing, Testing, written by Atul Gawande, details the author’s optimistic perspective on the Senate’s new health care bill.  Gawande highlights and applauds the bill’s inclusion of pilot programs reminiscent of those responsible for transforming American agriculture in the early 20th century.  “While we crave sweeping transformation,” he writes initially, “all the bill offers is [these] pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments.  The strategy seems hopelessly inadequate to solve a problem of [such] magnitude [as that of our health care system].  And yet…history suggests otherwise.” 

Gawande goes on to explain that agriculture was, like health care, a ridiculously expensive and yet crucial sector in the early 1900s, when “more than forty per cent of a family’s income went to paying for food…and farming was hugely labor-intensive, tying up almost half the American work-force.”  The author credits former “agricultural explorer” Seaman Knapp, hired by the USDA in 1903, with getting farmers to farm differently through efforts that started with a pilot program.  Knapp’s work began in Texas, where he encouraged a single farmer to test out a list of simple innovations, including “deeper plowing and better soil preparation, the use of only the best seed, the liberal application of fertilizer, and thorough cultivation to remove weeds and aerate the soil around the plants.”  The success of this initial program led other farmers to follow Knapp’s guidance, leading to similar “demonstration farms” across the country and to the establishment of the USDA Cooperative Extension Service, employing seven thousand extension agents nationwide by 1930.  Other USDA pilot programs led to comparative-effectiveness research, investment in providing farmers with weather forecasts, seasonal statistics, and tremendously helpful information broadcasting.  Gawande claims that the “hodgepodge” of pilot programs led to ultimately successful change, in that agricultural productivity increased dramatically, food prices fell by over fifty per cent, and farming came to employ only twenty per cent of the workforce by 1930.  “Today,” he goes on, “food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force.  It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history.”

Testing, Testing makes several worthwhile, take-home points.   The author characterizes the reformation of the health care system (like the transformation of the agricultural system) as a problem which is not “amenable to a technical solution,” or a “one-time fix,” but rather one that requires a process of change.  He recognizes farming and medicine as both involving “hundreds of thousands of local entities across the country.”    And he encourages his readers to resist their cynical reaction to the government, writing that his solution is one in which the government “has a crucial role to play,” to guide the system, rather than running it.  He rather shockingly fails to mention, however, the failure of the agricultural transformation that is his model for modern day health care reform. 

The failure of the 20th century agricultural transformation is made manifest in the one product that (appropriately enough) both farming and health care would ideally generate: human health.

Over the past century, food prices have indeed gone down, agricultural production has indeed gone up, and America has, on paper, been relieved of devoting to agriculture the significant force of labor formerly required by farming.  This was all considered a success for several decades, until obesity, diabetes, early sexual maturity, and E. coli food poisoning (along with dozens of other health problems) were recently recognized as the effects of industrial agriculture.  The modern American diet – of highly processed foods made with high fructose corn syrup, meat from animals injected with antibiotics and hormones, and genetically modified foods not quite approved for human consumption – is one of the main causes of our deteriorating health.  Not to mention that industrial agriculture has irreparably damaged our nation’s environmental health, has dangerously demolished biodiversity, and still employs a fantastically under-paid, under-represented workforce of undocumented immigrants.

Gawande perhaps deserves the benefit of the doubt, for his article is optimistic, and encourages the American people to see more in the new health care bill than 2,074 pages that do not “even meet the basic goal that [we] had in mind: to lower costs.”  But his comparison begs for the recognition of what went wrong in the transformation of agriculture, because of a lack of holistic thinking, of preventative solutions, of respect for resources.  This time around, unless we are careful, the price drop and the productivity increase will still not provide the one thing we all want more than a smaller bill.  It will not provide us with health.

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This is one in a series of short essays related to Myers’ work as a Forager for a chef in New York City.  Each essay is focused simply on sharing something she has learned through her work, and is followed by photos taken while on the job.

The farmers market at Union Square comes to life four days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.  Everyone who knows that and hears about my job wonders within five minutes – Where do you go the other three days of the week?  And while there are more than fifty farmers markets in the five boroughs, I visit only a few others, only on occasion.  My regular market routine revolves around Union Square.  The reasons for this are many, and include habits and logistics on both sides of the equation.  We, at the restaurant, have a relationship with the farmers at Union Square, we are accustomed to the market’s schedule, it’s the most convenient of the greenmarkets, and it has the most products and variety of all the Greenmarkets in Manhattan.  That said, we might meet new farmers, adjust to the scheduling, and broaden our definition of convenience, if the benefits would justify the effort.  For now, they don’t.

For over twenty-five years, Greenmarket has built up a network of retail farmers markets for city consumers.  These markets – with their distinct regulations, cooking demonstrations, and vibrant atmospheres – are by far the primary source for local food for individuals and families in New York City.  As more and more restaurants have begun to focus their menus on local, seasonal products, farmers and chefs alike have come up with new systems and venues for collaboration.  Farmers like Guy Jones at Blooming Hill Farm take orders from and deliver directly to chefs in the city; delivery companies like Upstate Farms and Basis Farm to Chef bring in products from several farms without losing track of each product’s origin; local purveyors, including Saxelby Cheesemongers and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, offer wholesale quantities of regional meats and cheeses to chefs throughout the city.  But many chefs focused on regional food still go to a Greenmarket and pick out fresh, local products themselves.  This allows them to speak with the farmer, to see what they’re getting before they get it, to learn about the variety each farmer is offering, and to buy products that have truly been harvested, produced, or processed  not more than a day or two in advance.

As a representative of a restaurant, shopping at the Greenmarket in Union Square, it’s important for me to know which farmers will be at the market each morning, what products they’ll have available, what their wholesale price or discount is for restaurants, and what they have coming into season.  Several farmers allow chefs (or foragers) to call in their orders a day or two before, so we exchange phone numbers, discuss what we’ll be looking for, talk about what will be available one week to the next, and coordinate harvesting, packaging, and pick-ups accordingly.  There’s a sort of a system, but one that’s frustratingly inefficient, if endearingly homemade.  The new website What is Fresh is a great (independent) guide to the greenmarkets, and helps me stay informally conscious of who has what where, but otherwise I have very little way of keeping track of the farmers at more than one market.

The improvement I imagine does not cut out personal relationships and conversations, nor the ability to pick out produce as you buy it, nor the education and collaboration that comes of marketplace interactions.  The system I seek requires a bigger regional market – still a public, physical place where buyers and sellers gather and exchange, but one that is established to accommodate wholesale quantities of food and to offer much more information to buyers and sellers alike about what to bring, expect, and request.  It is a market of a different scale, open every day, during the day, in a reasonably central location.  It isn’t the Hunts Point Market.  It isn’t a place where messy commerce is hidden, conducted at night, made ruthlessly efficient and large-scale.  It would be a place where farmers could be in touch with consumers without having to be present at the marketplace all the time; where they could sell a lot more than they would ever bring to a Greenmarket; where they could come if they wanted to meet people with whom to collaborate, as well as compete; a place where they could talk about the things they need, and find some of them.  The labor, schedule, and delivery systems necessary for such a market will require complex, new infrastructure and management, but it is high time we took this step to strengthen our local food system. 

The last New Amsterdam Market of the season is on December 20th.  I will be there.  And if it ever does one day grow into the market I describe, the market I imagine, I will be there every day.

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Efficiently Exhausting

This is one in a series of short essays related to Myers’ work as a Forager for a chef in New York City.  Each essay is focused simply on sharing something she has learned through her work, and is followed by photos taken while on the job.

My job is entitled Forager, but could also be referred to as Food Procurement Agent, Food Cost Tracker, Inventory Taker, Food Source Researcher, Food Purchaser, Market Maiden, or maybe just Errand Runner when We’re In the Shit.   At one point or another, I must act as all of the above.  While it can be frustrating to tackle tasks for which I feel unprepared, it is satisfying to maximize my usefulness, and I‘ve found that nearly everyone at the restaurant must be capable of many things.  This fact fits, really, into a certain principle of minimized waste.

The restaurant seems to require a sort of waste policy, whether in the kitchen, the front of the house, the walk-in, the dry storage, or the office.  Regardless of environmental priorities, we minimize waste because of money, space, and time.  I must be able to fill in various roles so that we don’t waste time delegating a task to more people than that task requires.  Just as I must be able to choose produce, call purveyors, pick up orders, know prices, know the content and source of every item in the walk-in and in dry storage, be able to cost out recipes, and be able to fly to the ends of the earth for an ingredient when necessary – so must all the people at the restaurant be able to fill in every nook and cranny that may need filling for the restaurant to roll.  It is an exhaustingly smooth machine when everyone willingly and quickly accomplishes everything they are capable of doing.

Avoiding food waste is of course a familiar priority, but the restaurant works on a very different level from that of the individual who takes only as much as they can eat and keeps freezer-size compost bins.  The kitchen and prep room don’t even have trash cans.   They have recycling bins and compost bins.  While the quality of food is paramount, the size and shape of meat, fish, produce, and dry goods contributes to waste management, particularly considering yield, space, and time.  Round shallots take longer to slice than torpedo shallots, long-necked butternut squash yields more seeds and less meat, smaller fish have a greater bone-to-flesh ratio than larger fish (but you also pay for the weight of the cleaned-out guts, which are larger on larger fish), and certain cuts of meat arrive with much more bone or fat or skin than others.  Many of these calculations don’t even refer to “waste” per se, as the seeds on squash are used in certain dishes, and the fish bones are used for stock.  The fat on meat is practically gold.  It’s barely about what goes in the trash bin – as I said, we don’t really have those – and more about waste of time and space.  The smaller squash also require more cleaning and chopping.  Smaller fish might be served whole and so don’t need to be filleted (which takes time), the different cuts of meat might be sold for more, so paying more for fat you’ll cut off and use for flavor is ok – you can charge more for the plate.  We get our fry oil picked up by Tristate Biodiesel – they make it easy, they come at the right time, and hell it needs to go somewhere.  Everything’s a calculation, and often a calculation made to avoid waste.

Space management is an incredible thing – the kinds of containers used, whether they have handles, have tops, can stack, can seal, hold smells, are easily cleaned, are easily labeled, can handle heat, can slide through doorways, can fit into ovens.  Products arrive in boxes, cans, bags, and crates, and different sizes and shapes fit on shelves, last the proper amount of time, keep things fresh, can be reused.  All these things are considered to avoid waste, and to avoid wasting time, money, and space.

In the office, all the printed menus from one night are used as scrap paper the next day.  Messages are sent by email or text or intercom.  Recipes, menus, programs, and schedules are on an idisk that can be accessed by every computer, so rarely do they need to be printed.  The office doesn’t work this way because the restaurant is environmentally savvy, but because this is efficiency – time-wise and money-wise.

Plastic bags are an interesting issue.  I have learned that saving plastic bags from the farmers market is a bad idea.  Moisture is ever-present, and one-day-old moisture makes for a bad container for freshly foraged food.  Since I’ve started using the tricycle, I can use two sturdy bins for much of the produce, and the shelves inside for cases of apples (reusable cardboard boxes), pints of tomatoes (I return the pints), and the zip-loc bags we use for herbs in the restaurant (which I do use new, but at least the herbs go straight into the container they’ll need for the walk-in).  I have not found a solution for arugula and watercress.  They go into a plastic bag at the market, and go out of it ASAP at the restaurant, to be washed and stored in a dry container that gives the greens space.  I would need a cabinet three times larger to have the proper containers inside it for those.  But in general, I am gradually minimizing waste – and saving time in the kitchen, and saving money on the cabs.

So I feel like there’s a certain waste policy.  Maybe this is just what it’s like to work in a restaurant.  I simply know I’m impressed.  The energy of the building may not be perfect, but the use of the energy of the people, and of all the things we buy and cook, is pretty damn good.



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