In the early 1950s, the Betty Crocker Company introduced a cake mix so that people could readily make excellent tasting cakes at home. No muss, no fuss: just add water, mix, and bake. The product failed. “The cake mix was a little too simple. The consumer felt no sense of accomplishment, no involvement with the product. It made her feel useless.” Betty Crocker solved the problem by requiring the cook to add an egg to the mix, thereby putting pride back into the activity. Adding the egg gave the act of baking a sense of accomplishment, whereas just mixing water into the cake mix seemed too little, too artificial.

Donald A. Norman, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things

We are such sensitive creatures. 

Cook, ladies, cook

It’s complicated being a lady in business with mostly men.  

To what I imagine is the dismay of my alma matter, Wellesley College, I’m not very vocal about the role of women in business.  Not because I don’t believe in gender equality, I do, but because it’s just so complicated to iron out all my own misgivings on the topic let alone communicate my position in a concise, thoughtful and convincing way.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself nodding along with Gabrielle Hamilton in Blood Bones & Butter where she describes working with men and the love-hate relationship she has (and I have) with other women doing the same.

It was not until I opened my own place that I realized how present and ongoing the struggle to be female in a professional kitchen had been. It’s like the hood during service. Everybody talks about the heat in a kitchen, and the heat, without doubt, is formidable. It’s a powerful opponent. But for me the real punisher is the exhaust hood, with the suction so powerful that it sucks up all the metal bound filters from their spots and bangs them against the lip of the hood. The big mechanic kick of the fan belt starting up, the unified clank of the filters rising — like a Rockettes kick, all in unison — then followed by eighteen draining hours of heavy-duty vacuum hum, over which orders are barked, dishes are clanked, pots are slammed around, and the stereo blasts. Then finally at midnight or one, after the disher has turned off the fryer, someone turns off the hood and a profound silence descends. I never realize how much space the noise of the hood takes up in my mind and head — that heavy vacuum sound — until I shut it off, and total bliss and relief set in.

In the same way, when I opened my own restaurant, I enjoyed such an absence of boy-girl jostling that I only then understood that, all through my entire work life, I had been working a double shift. I had been working the same shift as my peers, with all of its heat and heft and long hours on your feet. But I had been doing a second job all along, as well —that of constantly, vigilantly figuring out and calibrating my place in that kitchen with those guys to make a space for myself that was bearable and viable. Should I wear pink clogs or black steel-toe work shoes? Lipstick or Chapstick? Work double hard, double fast, double strong, or keep pace with the average Joe? Swear like a line cook or giggle like a girl?

Meanwhile, the parsley needs to be chopped, and the veal chops seared off. There is, still, the work itself to do.

Keep reading

An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies

“Eat where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed" 

Mixed in with tributes to pit barbecue (the greatest American culinary innovation and the first real slow food), Tyler Cowen analyzes the human and environmental impact of various in vogue consumer behaviors such as buying locally and boycotting genetically modified food. 

He endorses the environmental benefits of modern agribusiness and genetically modified foods (lower pesticide use and less overall land use) as well as the humanitarian benefits, saying that "figuring out a way to feed all the hungry people in the world should be the number one concern for the everyday foodie.”

India, for example, has a slow growing agricultural sector relative to overall economic and population growth – you can see this reflected in their poverty figures where 50% of children suffer from malnutrition.  This is bad news for India, not to mention our shared global future, and is something that could be remedied should India adopt a few practices employed by modern agribusiness.

“Rich countries do not need GMOs, but poor countries do.”

Another place that could benefit from some combination of GMOs + industrial farming is Africa.  African farmers are the biggest losers from EU bans on GMOs.  70% percent of all Africans are farmers, but land efficient pest resistant crops do not get grown there and GM food aid is refused for fear of ‘contaminating’ crops for export, all to keep from losing the EU markets. This, Crowen argues, is the opposite of thoughtful consumerism.

In the end, “most people, even well-informed people, don’t have a good sense of how much an afternoon drive in a Mercedes contributes to the climate change problem relative to buying a batch of flown-in asparagus or subbing in a steak for a chicken breast."  Cowen ends his book by proposing a handful of policy changes, which would result in food prices that more accurately reflect the "real” social and environmental costs of production. Real food prices would relieve the consumer from having to understand complex systems in order to make decisions about what to buy.

Dwight Garner from The New York Times said, “Reading Mr. Cowen is like pushing a shopping cart through Whole Foods with Rush Limbaugh."  Michael Pollan was there too, peaking out at me, horrified, between chapters praising GMOs and condemning locavores. Nevertheless, "An Economist Gets Lunch” served as a reminder to revisit my assumptions often. To quote physicist Freeman Dyson, “The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am accustomed to being in the minority. If I could persuade everyone to agree with me, I would not be a heretic.”

The Hunger Games

I just read The Hunger Games.  It was fun.  Lots of young adult fiction themes, dystopic future, kids fighting against adults and the grownup world, first loves and so on.  

There is a deeply creepy side to the story about government instituted surveillance which is edited down into broadcast entertainment for society.  Because people enjoy the entertainment they put up with the surveillance (and the horrors of the game). Rather than fiction, this feels suspiciously like a criticism of our social networked times. 

Rob Horning puts it nicely:

The creepy voyeurism and exhibitionism of [Facebook, Twitter etc.] it is palpable, no matter how much of a digital native one might be. Still we play along reluctantly with it and believe no one else has any interest in putting a stop to it all… we come to think Facebook must be for all these other people, but we have to keep consuming it too.