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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

 
Food: The Next Step

by tristero

I made butter from scratch over the weekend. Man, was it hard! Here's what I had to do:

1. Leave a pint of heavy cream out overnight.
2. Pour slightly soured cream into a mixer and whisk it for about 10 minutes.
3. Butter.

Tastes great and it's cheap.* But it's not the cost that got me thinking. It was the trivial nature of the task.** That got me marveling about how damn silly and inefficient our food manufacturing is today. Granted, butter-making is not the best example of inefficiency, but, but... why not more locally made butter? Isn't that all of the same piece with the crazy economies of scale that make it cheaper to import (crummy) garlic from China than grow the stuff 75 miles away and truck it to Manhattan?

Since I am the first to admit I don't know a thing about most of this, I left it there. But, amazingly, it turns out people that do know a lot about food are thinking much along the same lines:
[Farmers markets] have had a revolutionary effect on the way food is grown and marketed in the United States. Still, at a most generous estimate, less than 2% of fruits and vegetables are actually sold at them. So how can they move beyond that?...

What about turning what are now floating street markets into permanent structures? The space that isn't used by farmers on non-market days can be used for other local small businesses as well, turning the farmers market into a permanent hub for the whole community.

That leads to blends of farmers markets and more commercial enterprises, such as the Ferry Building in San Francisco and the Oxbow Market in Napa. These are essentially high-end food markets selling everything from coffee to culinary antiques, but they also offer space for farmers to bring in their produce on a daily or weekly basis.

Like I said, none of these ideas is perfect yet, but can't you see a glimmer of possibility?

At the Hollywood farmers market, they've used grant money to build a commercial kitchen. Not only does it produce lunches based on farmers market produce, but it also serves as a development kitchen for farmers who are looking for secondary uses for produce — say someone wants to play with turning potatoes into chips, or fruit into jam [or cream into butter!]. They also use it to teach classes that introduce the underprivileged to the benefits of farmers market produce and how to use it.
Cue the inevitable comment: "it's all well and good to 'introduce the underprivileged to the benefits of farmers market produce' but local produce is too expensive even for most of the middle-class to eat on a regular basis."

Yes, that's more or less true right now. The problem is that the current food manufacturing and delivery system in the United States simply can't last much longer - meaning a few decades, certainly not much more than fifty years. Soon, the price of fuel is gonna make that (crummy) Chinese garlic incredibly expensive. Our present diet is creating profound public health crises - that's plural; it's not just diabetes, y'know. And that's for starters.

These tiny, elitist-sounding ideas may not (or if you prefer, probably won't) scale up to become central to a new food delivery system. But they're part of a serious effort to change something that is seriously broken and, to coin a phrase, not sustainable. Big Food may find Parsons' ideas laughable, and for all I know, they're right. But something has to change radically.

And soon.


*Prices from an online retailer (no reason to plug them; email me if you must know), roughly equivalent to the prices I paid here in Manhattan:

Organic heavy cream 1 pint: $3.49
Organic butter 1 pound: $5.99

1 pint cream ~ 14 oz butter

Homemade organic butter: $.25/oz
Industrial organic: $.37/oz

It's much cheaper if you buy conventional cream. I used organic because I read somewhere that the processing of conventional can interfere with the creation of butter. BTW, if you don't have a mixer, go here.

**No, I'm not suggesting that everyone make butter. Creating food from scratch is becoming a serious hobby of mine; that's the only reason I did it. That said... I gotta say it's hard for me to come up with reasons not to make your own butter - unless you're some kind of obsessed foodie who affects a preference for the flavor of butter from a particular herd of cows or something... Hmm...I wonder...can you actually taste the difference? Must find out, must find out...


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