Posts Tagged ‘cyclical’

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.



Read Full Post »

It took a crisis in Cuba for urban agriculture to take over.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 cut off nearly all agricultural imports to Cuba, including pesticides, fertilizers, farming equipment, and food.  Not only did organic farming increase, by necessity, but Cubans began cultivating a significant percentage of their food in urban areas.  The government encouraged them to do so.  And in 1998, the city farms in Havana alone produced an estimated 541,000 tons of food for local consumption.  These included 8,000 officially recognized production units cultivated by over 30,000 people.  The population of Havana is 2.2 million.  Today, some neighborhoods in the city produce 30 percent of their own subsistence needs.[1] 


A significant growth in urban agriculture in the US is worth considering for several reasons.  For one thing, such cultivation would be small-scale, and thus would encourage local consumption (the most local, from one’s own garden).  But urban food production would also contribute to community food security, would rescue biodiversity, provide local jobs, create a complete cycle of nutrients and waste, aesthetically improve urban spaces, and increase the freshness and variety of the ingredients in the urban diet.  Increasing a community’s food security would ultimately mean creating a strong, regionally based food system that wouldn’t rely upon imports, or foods that could be prevented from reaching people in times of war or crisis.  Plant biodiversity would thrive as people learned to grow the specific varieties of foods native to their land, varieties that are everywhere disappearing as cities expand and farms consolidate.  Such biodiversity would mean too a greater variety of foods and nutrients, which would contribute immensely to the health of those who ate them.  The complete recycling of nutrients and waste within single households would have an immense, positive environmental impact on food-producing communities.  And, urban spaces could be so much more beautiful!

The next question then is how we in the US might cause a bit of an agricultural revolution in our country akin to that which the end of trade with the Soviet Union caused in Cuba. 

pict5585.jpgWorking at Added Value’s Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn has been a personal (tiny) contribution of mine to the growth of urban agriculture in New York.  The hundreds of community gardens throughout the five boroughs are consistently inspirational.  Just Food trains community members to start up “City Farms” throughout the New York area.  And the people working them, and eating the produce they’ve grown themselves, understand the value and joy of providing even a small portion of their own daily sustenance. 

As for California, I’m gradually acquainting myself with the various organizations at work to increase food production in the Bay Area.  Spiral Gardens runs a Community Farm in South Berkeley, producing food for volunteers as well as low-income seniors in a nearby housing complex.  City Slicker Farms helps low-income West Oakland residents build and maintain backyard vegetable gardens.  Beyond supporting and operating four productive gardens in North and West Oakland, People’s Grocery is collaborating with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center (SAGE) to increase food cultivation in their recently opened 15-acre Agriculture Park in Sunol, which will grow fresh produce for West Oakland residents.  SAGE has developed an “Agricultural Parks Toolkit” as a “comprehensive guide for public and private landowners who want to establish agriculture as a valued urban-edge amenity.”  UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development has been working with SAGE to develop a policy framework for “New Ruralism,” a concept meant to strengthen the emerging synergy between the new urbanism/smart growth movement and the sustainable agriculture/regional food systems movement.  The Alemany Farm cultivates food on four and a half productive acres, right in the city of San Francisco. 

pict5591.jpgFor a personal take on these efforts…your author here is still a student.  So for the moment, three UC Berkeley courses are contributing to the urban ag vision.  Land Use Controls” is supplying an understanding of the complex laws and organization behind zoning, subdividing, property taxation, and the influences of infrastructure on land use.  Cartographic Representation” is providing skills with which to artistically, persuasively map out what could really happen on urban territory.  And “Urban Forestry” is lending a little more hands-on knowledge about what urban growth actually requires.  Meanwhile, I’ll be eating foods every day that are all grown quite nearby.  Altogether, that’s a personal start.

And this is personal stuff, urbanites.  It’s your property, your garden, your hands in the dirt.  You yourself might never grow enough to supply even an entire meal, but you can contribute to a change in the food system, one that would immensely benefit your community and it’s local health, economy, and security.  Call me crazy, but I believe those are the areas that currently concern our population the most.


Also, my friend Adam Brock recently wrote a (more detailed, less Annie-style-sentimental) four-part series entitled “Why Cityfarming?”  Check it out.


[1] Murphy, Catherine.  Development Report No.12: Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis.  1999. 

Read Full Post »

My sister was concerned that an essay based on political theory and poetry might turn out a little heavy for Thanksgiving. The sources of my thoughts today are theoretically Hannah Arendt and Wendell Berry. Arendt was a German Jewish political theorist, and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Berry is a farmer and prolific writer, the poetic voice of modern agrarianism. They are not so heavy. I hope I might convey something of the weightless depth with which they write. And while I will work with the words of Arendt and Berry, I consider them now only because of the beauty of the trees on my street this morning. Before going home to the soups and the bird and the pecan-laden pie crusts, and the coma of gluttonous fullness only cured by a walk in the crisp late-night air…it seems appropriate to write of unprepared, under-analyzed beauty.hannah.gif

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote that Aristotle “distinguished three ways of life which men might choose in freedom.” These three ways of life had in common that “they were concerned with the ‘beautiful,’ that is, with things neither necessary nor merely useful: the life of enjoying bodily pleasures in which the beautiful, as it is given, is consumed: the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds.”Arendt wrote also on the way Greeks viewed mortality, in their cosmos where everything but humans was immortal. “This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line, in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.”wendell.jpg

Upon returning to Kentucky after six months in California, Wendell Berry wrote Notes from an Absence and a Return. He wrote of walking on the woods floor, and being reminded of “the sense, joyful if anything is, of time passing beautifully, of time passing through beauty, fulfilled in it in degree and detail beyond calculation, and so not wasted or lost. Walking among all these flowers…One is aware of the abundance of lovely things – forms, scents, colors – lavished on the earth beyond any human capacity to perceive or number or imitate. And aware of the economy, the modest principle of the building earth under the dead leaves, by which such abundance is assured.This is the enemy in man’s ‘war against nature.’All these places of unforced loveliness, whose details keep touching in my mind the memory of great paintings, now lie within the sound of the approach of an alien army whose bulldozers fly the flag of the American economy (hardly the economy of the topsoil). This country is an unknown place suffering the invasion of a people whose minds have never touched the earth.”Berry wrote that the redeeming aspect of his sense of involvement with and responsibility to the earth “is that it does not stand alone, but is only part of a process, a way of life that includes joy. Not always or necessarily or even preferably the dramatic joy of surprise – though that is one of its possibilities – but the quiet persistent joy of familiarity.”ginko.jpg

Walking down my street this morning in Brooklyn, where the fall yellows and reds shown bright and clean from an overnight rain, the thoughts of Arendt and Berry drifted round me, as though sounding quietly from the two books in my backpack. “The life we want is not merely the one we have chosen and made;” Berry wrote, “it is the one we must be choosing and making. To keep it alive we must be perpetually choosing it and making its difference from among all contrary and alternative possibilities.”What I heard, in these words, on my street,was that we may choose and make a life concerned with the beautiful, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds. Man’s war on nature is a result of the rectilinear life that we choose instead, in which we value only that which is necessary and useful. Our sense of involvement and responsibility need not be a battle, as we so often frame it, the activist struggle of strength and victory. Our involvement and responsibility is a way of life, that includes joy. This quite, persistent joy of familiarity may be one we feel at the Thanksgiving table tonight, or it may not. But I write in the hope that this joy, as the familiar beauty of the trees on my street, might remind us we have a choice: to join the immortal cycle acknowledged by the Greeks, and live in its dance, of unforced loveliness.

Read Full Post »