The New Food Architects

Let’s say you’re a professional designer and you’ve just been hired for a major project.  Your task is to improve an extremely common and simple object.  Something every person you know already owns, uses, and likes.   Something like a chair.

You might start slowly, by thinking about the function of a chair.  “Well, I guess to be sat on,” you’d say.  Okay, well they pretty much all get that right.

So you brainstorm a little more.  What other things could it do?  You’d probably decide to add some cool features like heating pads, or vibrating cushions, or surround sound.  It’ll obviously need a USB port somewhere.  And you’d for sure make it beautiful, with the best materials you could find (double points if they’re locally sourced).  Then, after you finished, you’d take a step back from your masterpiece and you’d say to yourself, “I did it.  I improved the chair.”

But you’d be wrong.

The chair

Last night I watched an incredible documentary on Charles and Ray Eames, an architect and a painter who, in the early 1940s, redesigned the chair.  What was so awesome to me was how they approached the project.  Unlike this post’s straw-man premise, the couple didn’t think about how cool their chair could be, but how far it could reach.  For the project – and for their entire career – their motto was simple: “The best for the most for the least”.  The chair they ultimately designed was beautiful, comfortable, and cheap.  True to their goal, it was so widely purchased that the Eameses almost singlehandedly ushered in a revolution in American design.

The jump from the Eames chair to a revolution in food may not be obvious, but its there.  The food world is lucky enough to be full of talented architects like Charles Eams, all itching to redesign the stale system.  Still, it seems like too many of them are focused on growing food upward, rather than outward.

Consider that over the past 20 years, US sales of organics foods have grown from $1 billion to over $26 billion.  That’s a huge success for the industry.  Yet over the same period of time, US obesity has tripled from 11.6% to 33.8%.  One in three American adults is obese.  In other words, the foodie rich are getting richer as the poor get poorer.

Graphically, I imagine the landscape looks something like this.

Basically, for those with the means and the interest to eat well, the world is increasingly bursting with options…which is great.  I mean, check out how many people are eating awesome stuff.  But the graph clearly doesn’t paint a perfect picture.  And for architects looking to make a change, I figure there are two main ways to do it.

Option 1: Lower the Awesome Food Threshold

These architects are the ones engineering 20 calories out of the skinny Frappuccino, or adding extra fiber to your whole-wheat ice cream sandwiches.  By introducing cooler and cooler food options into the market, they incrementally raise the right side of the graph.  Some of the innovations may be a bit redundant, but as a designer, pushing the upper frontier is a pretty fun place to be.

But how many people do these innovations actually help?

Considering the dismal state of our nation’s health (including the limited access to healthy foods in many parts of the country), the work of these designers may lose some of its mystique.  What the food world needs is more architects like Charles and Ray Eames, people bent on making the best for the most for the least.  In that case, the future of food might look more like…

Option 2: Improve the Base Eating Conditions

…this.  It may not be as sexy, but the most needed innovations won’t happen on local farms or in artisan kitchens.  They’ll happen with frozen produce and over cramped apartment stoves.  Focusing energy on the left side of the curve will allow a huge number of people to view food differently, improving their health and their lives in the process.

Luckily, there are brilliant architects out there working on just this.  They’re people like Mark Bittman, who proves that fast food is no cheaper, no more convenient, and no more delicious than a meal prepared at home.  Or Jamie Oliver, who’s using his celebrity status to budge federally funded school lunches.  Or my recent professor, Dr. Brian Wansink, whose research cares more about the size of the plate than what’s on it.

But I guess the bigger point is that there’s still a lot more to do.  The systems thinking needed to restructure the way Americans eat is a massive undertaking, and demands the collective effort of an army of geniuses, dreamers, and leaders.  There’s no shortage of these people out there right now – they just need to adjust their focus to the left side of that graph.

Watching this documentary didn’t teach me a thing about food, but it got me thinking about the process of change itself.  Revolution doesn’t just happen, it’s designed.  Big picture stuff.  I feel it coming, and can’t wait to bust out of school and really join this new class of food architects – bringing the best for the most for the least.

The F-Word

I have been reading an awful lot about Foodies lately.

An assignment for school has me analyzing 25 online food articles.  Some are written by true “gastronomes” (Item: Did France’s Le Fooding movement just snub Guy Savoy?!) while others take a grittier approach (Silk moth caterpillers = good eating!).    Despite their differences, one characteristic has been painfully universal: it’s all sort of embarrassing.

Take that with a grain of Himalayan Pink Sea Salt.  Writing about food is obviously something I really care about.  There are many writers who do good by drawing attention to certain issues, and many more that grow personally from thinking through what they eat (taking into account the the occasional fluff).  But what about the writer who masks gluttony as appreciation?  Or the smug celebrity chef who’s fences keep the public out?  Foodies may be fun, some may be talented, but often, they’re wolves in Curried Lamb’s clothing.

That’s why it was so refreshing to read B.R. Myers’ Atlantic article, The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.  Basically, it’s an informed rant against pretentious food writing.  And while Myers’ argument has no shortage of gross generalizations, it shines a spotlight on a trend that may harm as much as it helps.  Take the following (glorifying) passage from the Best Food Writing anthologies:

I watched tears streak down a friend’s face as he popped expertly cleavered bites of chicken into his mouth … He was red-eyed and breathing fast. “It hurts, it hurts, but it’s so good, but it hurts, and I can’t stop eating!” He slammed a fist down on the table. The beer in his glass sloshed over the sides. “Jesus Christ, I’ve got to stop!”

Enlightening?  Without a doubt.

Pumpkin Friday and Critical Nonsense

1. Louis, 2. Allen, 3. Hester, 4. Grand, 5. Rivington, 6. Suffolk IIX, 7. Elizabeth (I named them, too.)

Dedicated readers may remember a weird little phase I went through this time last fall:  I carved pumpkins, constantly.

Every Friday morning I would wake up extra early, carve a Jack-o-Lantern, and display it on a busy intersection a block from my apartment.  Pumpkin Fridays were social experiments.  They were meant to answer 2 questions:

  1. How long could a shiny new Jack-o-Lantern survive in one of the most trafficked and drunken intersections in Manhattan?
  2. Could I move the needle of the Lower East Side’s festivity meter by introducing a steady stream of gourd art?

The answers, respectively, were about 2.5 days and maybe a little.  But it turns out they weren’t the important questions anyway.  The real insights of Pumpkin Fridays were in how they affected me.  I have to admit, that month and a half was especially grueling.  The jack-o-lantern process – even when streamlined – is long and messy.  You’d be surprised how badly a pumpkin a week can carve into your own free time (and sleep cycle, as it were).

Still, there was something intensely energizing about the whole thing.  So much so that as I remember it now, I feel that same electricity charging me up again.  Not because the pumpkins were making a splash in the community, not because they were particularly well done, not really because they were important in any way.  In fact, I found the process so exciting for just the opposite reason – carving the pumpkins had no immediate value.  It was an act of pure, impulsive, creativity… and zero reason.  Acting on that impulse – and freeing myself from the constraints of utilitarian time management – was one of the most refreshing experiences I’ve ever had.

It’s pretty wild how often being in this program has made me forget that lesson.  Time is very precious here, and when any resource starts to thin, it’s the superfluous nonsense that gets chopped first.  But what if the superfluous nonsense is what keeps you going?  Exhibit 1: It’s October 6th and my pumpkin count is still at zero.  Exhibit 2: How many new eating goodly posts have you read since September?  This blog may be a huge time drain, but it’s also one of my greatest sources of inspiration.  It sucks how easily the really important stuff can get reasoned away.

This is the last day before fall break.  I’ve got a midterm in an hour, a couple projects to hand in after that, and I’m out the door.  In the days to come, I really hope to rediscover my balance between what’s sensibly critical and what’s critical nonsense.  Of course – seeing as how I woke up early to study, but ended up writing about pumpkins instead – I might be well on my way.

“You know what I want.”

The wecome aesthetic of the LES.

For the first time in a long time, I’m writing from what used to me my captain’s chair: NYC, the Starbucks at Delancey and Allen, seat by the window. I’m in the city for a couple days while on break, and let me tell you it is good to be back. Last night I finally got to hang out with my old roommates at Laura’s new restaurant – Ellabess in Nolita – a very cool place. I ordered “The Capri”, a house cocktail made with vodka, muddled peach and cucumber, St. Germaine, and sparkling wine. It was a total powerhouse… really awesome. Drinking it took me back to my own days behind the bar, specifically to lessons learned from one of my favorite regulars.

the view from the chair

This guy’s name was Alan. Now as a bartender, as I’m sure is the case with a lot of service jobs, you encounter a ton of personalities. Over time, and especially with alcohol, it gets to be pretty obvious which ones float to the top and which ones don’t. Alan didn’t just float – he was like a styrofoam ball. For all intents and purposes, picture country music legend Kenny Rogers (menwholooklikekennyrogers.com). Too Santa Clause-y to be cool? You’d be surprised. When Alan sat down at the bar, owned it. Continue reading

The Price of Corn: Ups and Downs (Part 2 of a 3 Part Series)

Courtesy of annamiars.com

So now that we know the deal with the futures market, let’s talk about the actual price of corn.  Actually, let me first answer what may be a blaring question: Why corn?  In fact, why talk about any of this at all?

Answer: corn is crazy important.  On the national level, it’s by far the most significant of any crop: subsidized twice as heavily as the next highest and taking up more land than Mississippi and Florida combined.  From a dietary standpoint it bears even more weight: thanks to our monocultured diets, 70% of the organic matter in our bodies can be directly linked to corn.  It’s in our soda, our cereal, and our Slim-Fast.  It’s in the burger, the bun, the cheese, the ketchup, the mayo, and the bacon AND the beer.  It fuels our cars, polishes our floors, sides our houses, and lights our streets.  America doesn’t run on Dunkin.  It runs on corn.  Lots of it.

You may be wondering: why do we pray so dutifully to “the golden chaff”?  Welcome to the history of corn subsidies… Continue reading

Buying the Farm

The first box of the season

I’ve written a bunch about how eerily miraculous modern produce is.  About how any day of the year, you can make a smoothie with California strawberries, Ecuadorian bananas, and Florida orange juice and not give it a second thought.  The supermarket may be convenient, but it’s also cheapened a lot of nature’s specialness.

What I’ve written about less are the alternatives to this system… I guess because they’re not as obvious.  Today, though, I’m happy to write that I just took a step towards valuing the farmer… I  joined a CSA.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  It’s basically a contract made between the farmer and the surrounding community: before the growing season starts, community members “join” the CSA (i.e. pay for a season’s worth of produce – in my case, half a year).  Paying for everything up front does a couple of good things: it prevents people like me from chickening out later on, it gives the farmer some financial reassurance in performing a not-so-profitable undertaking, and it promotes more diversified, more interesting, and healthier crops (farmers aren’t constricted to growing “what sells”).

A very untamed salad.

Still, it’s the paying up front that was the hardest part to personally overcome.  The whole thing basically comes out to $10 a week (I’m splitting a $20 box with a friend) – a figure I’d drop at Wegmans on groceries, no questions asked.  The thing is, that ten bucks looks a lot different when it’s multiplied by 23.  A lot different.  I found myself hemming and hawing about it, even when I knew it was the right thing to do.  Luckily, peer pressure won, and so did the farmer.

And so did I – my first box came last Thursday, and it was a total score: a ton of mixed greens, fresh dill, bib lettuce, chives, and the piece de resistance: tiny little wild strawberries.  I’ve never had strawberries like this before… super good.

Ridiculous

The CSA is no doubt a good thing.  I can tell you off the bat eating this produce has been much more enjoyable than the stuff I got at the supermarket.  There’s just an extra something – slightly better quality, much better perceptions – that makes everything more special.  Plus, knowing that I’m doing good is an important part of it all.  Words like sustainability and community are thrown around like crazy these days, but it really does feel gratifying to take tangible steps towards those mega-concepts.

The next step is figuring out how to make this concept more mainstream.  The ideas behind farmshares are solid – it’s their hippy-extremist perception that prevents a lot of people (like me) from reaping the benefits.  All in time.  For now, expect more updates on my CSA.  Not because I’m bragging, not because I’m trying to guilt you into joining one – because I’m legitimately excited to open my box next Thursday.

The Good Stinky

Mmmmm...

“I wouldn’t do that.”  This was the advice of Phil Lee, owner of the Kimchi Taco Truck I visited yesterday in Murray Hill.  He had caught me reaching for the hot sauce – apparently an unnecessary addition to his homemade kimchi.  “It’s stinky.  It’s good stinky.”

Now I’m by no means a kimchi connoisseur.  And, frankly, stinkiness doesn’t usually strike me as a strong selling point.  But there was no arguing with Lee’s conviction.  It had instantly erased the stigma.  Stinky was good.   Continue reading