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The cult of local: a cult of one

August 16, 2011 1 comment

Hi. My name is Jim, and I’m a locavore.

Last week, we had dinner at my Mom’s house.  She made asparagus.

Last night, we had dinner at my in-laws.  They made a salad.  With lettuce.

Tastes like chicken. A couple heritage breed birds from one of our coffee customers. You can tell just by looking these are not your ordinary supermarket chickens. One bite and you'll never go back to those insipid birds made ubiquitous by Perdue and Tyson.

A decade ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about either of those meals.  Both were good, but not great.  This month, they both seemed wrong.  Because neither asparagus, nor lettuce, is in season right now where we live.

Today, a friend sent me a link to this article, about the challenge of eating locally.  Not to spoil it for you, but the author concludes that eating well locally is becoming more difficult because consumers are demanding cheap food, and industrial food is cheaper food, a theory that used to resonate with me. (After 5 years of operating an artisan food business, I now think most consumers are just stupid – at least a little – when it comes to food, which is not exactly at odds with the article, just a little more cynical. We agree that whatever the root cause is precisely, stupidity or cheapness or both, that our shitty industrial food supply our own Goddamned fault).

I was also inspired by an opinion piece in Lucky Peach on what constitutes “authentic” food.

This series of events caused me to think a little harder about WHY I eat the way I eat.

So first, how do I eat?  Well, I haven’t purchased fresh food at a traditional store (e.g., a grocery store) in many years.  Whole Foods gives me the heebie jeebies.  Trader Joes is an utter fucking mystery to me, with their shitty, over-packaged, over-processed food they try to pass off as “gourmet”.  When it comes to meat, I’ve started buying whole animals from farmers who will allow me to dispatch them myself, because even farmers’ market meats come without offal, and the mediocrity of the butchering makes me insane.  Our vegetables come from purchase or barter at farmers’ markets and CSAs where we sell our coffee.  I obtain raw milk  whenever I can, conveniently, and when I can’t, I don’t drink milk.  It’s safe to say that I should be a poster boy for the local food movement, and on some days, I am.

Usually, when I encounter a locavore, it’s a person who has a cause, a mission, to convert others to their way of thinking. “Don’t you get it, man? Industrial food is ruining everything!” is the usual refrain.  I suppose that, in the beginning, I bought into that, to some extent (and I still  believe it’s true).  But as I come to accept, and even embrace my particular style of obtaining and eating food, I realize that “the Cause” is not what motivates me.

Selfishness motivates me.  There, I’ve said it.

I eat the way I eat because it’s in my own self-interest.  I really do believe it’s better for the planet, it’s better for small farms, and it’s better for communities.  But at the end of the day, it’s better for my family, and for me.  That’s why I do it.  I feel better (physically), and it’s less expensive (really, it is).  But perhaps most importantly, it tastes better.  People like to eat things that taste good, and locally produced fresh food almost always tastes better than industrial alternatives transported from far away.

Why do I promote local eating?  Because in order to serve me, producers need some critical mass of customers.  So it’s in my best interest to be sure they have them.

Does this make me a bad person?  Maybe, in some circles.  But I’m guessing that if the cause-oriented locavores abandoned their missionary work for the sake of missionary work, and acknowledged their self-interest, the Cause would advance more rapidly, too.  Because all of those esoteric arguments about local economies, healthier planets, etc, etc , while likely true, are not as effective as SHOWING somebody that by eating locally, they will feel better, have more money, and oh by the way, enjoy the taste of their food more.

Just sayin’.

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Why the great (Raleigh) food truck debate is bullshit

January 26, 2011 2 comments

How popular are food trucks?  Google the term, and you’ll get just over 27 MILLION results.  In 0.16 seconds.  The Food Network had a contest, and show about them.  Durham has Only Burger, the first place I had a fried green tomato and pimento cheese burger (brilliant, in case you were wondering).  Yeah, any reasonable person will tell you they are wildly popular, the new new thing, as evidenced by the selection of the shiny and earnest Tyler Florence as host of the Food Network show.

But food trucks are not popular everywhere, with everyone.

Today in Raleigh, there was a “hearing” of sorts on the advisability of food trucks downtown; apparently they are currently verboten.  I read about it over at spoonfedraleigh, where there was a nice summary of the positions of people on both side of the issue.  Since there didn’t appear to be an opportunity to comment over at spoonfed, I figured I would use my own blog to comment on the debate.

Because most of it is bullshit.

Here’s what’s legitimate: safety concerns.  Pedestrian safety, diner safety, worker safety.  But here’s the thing – we already have laws about all of those things.  Trucks are currently not allowed to run over pedestrians.  Food purveyors must comply with established standards that assure food safety, today.  And last time I looked, OSHA still mandates conditions for workers.  It doesn’t matter whether the restaurant is on wheels.  Or not.  If there is some aspect of current safety regulations that is inadequate because it did not anticipate mobile operators, then update it.  But once again, this looks like a case, by and large, where existing regulation is up to the task.

What’s not legitimate are calls for protectionism.

Things change.  All the time, in every industry.  New products supersede old ones.  Business models evolve to suit consumer preferences and leverage technology.  If these weren’t facts, we would still be buying our music on wax cylinders instead of renting it for our Zune players.  Change in business is as inevitable as the change of seasons.

And so is the resistance of the incumbents.

Cries of “Foul!” dominate the airwaves.  “I have so much investment”, “The new guys aren’t following the old rules”, and “Somebody’s gonna get hurt if we let this newfangled stuff gain a toehold” are the same tired refrain heard from every dying entrenched operator, in every industry vertical, since the dawn of time.  Scribes said it of printing press operators, I’m sure.  Horse sellers used it to frighten early adopters of the automobile.  And we all know the story of music, video and telecommunications in the last decade.  Go see how crowded your local Blockbuster is these days, so you aren’t too surprised when you see the “For Lease” sign in the window (maybe we should ban streaming video?).

Food trucks are the new Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.

But make no mistake: in no case does the government have any business determining which products, operators, or business models succeed, try as they might.  That’s the job of consumers.

At this point, you may be tempted to think I am a huge fan of food trucks.  Or worse, an enemy of brick-and-mortar restaurants.

The truth is I’m neither.  As a small business owner myself, I understand probably better than most the issues and emotions around this debate.  But as John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things”.  And the facts are that both models in this debate are here to stay, even while some restaurants will fail, regardless of their mobility.  And that the people who are deciding this issue are not the people who should be deciding this issue.

Most food trucks are bad restaurants on wheels.  Most restaurants are bad restaurants on concrete.  I generally favor a good meal of simple ingredients prepared with care in a mom-and-pop bistro setting.  But I’m not opposed to a great taquito obtained on the side of the road.  There is room for both in my world.

The choice is not (or should not be) up to politicians.  It’s up to consumers.

It’s simple, really.  If you don’t want food trucks, don’t buy food from them.  If you want more bricks-n-sticks restaurants, patronize them.  And in either case, persuade your friends to behave in the same way.  Because the ones that stay will be the ones with customers, and vice versa.

But don’t let some pointy-headed bureaucrat decide what your options are, as a consumer or a business owner.  Tell them to stick to their mandate, and assure the public safety.  And then they are to get the hell out of the way.

About us:
The author is an owner of Muddy Dog Roasting Company, a boutique coffee roastery in Morrisville, NC.  We are a brick-and-mortar establishment.  We also sell our wares on the road.  We compete with mega-corporations, and micro-operators in low-rent garage shops.  Our customers can go many, many places to obtain substitute products.  They choose us because the want to, and they can.  I fear the day when that choice is removed from them.  If you like great coffee from independent operators, and want to Stick it to the Man, please check us out:

http://www.muddydogcoffee.com

Introducing the Java Joe Sandwich

November 7, 2010 Leave a comment

NOTE: This is a cross-post from our coffee blog, one of those topics that fits equally well into both blogs.

Necessity is the mother of invention, or so the saying goes.  Turns out it’s true, as I discovered once again Saturday morning.

Here’s Farmer Tim whipping up a batch of Java Joe Sandwiches. I love Tim – he’s like the perfect combination of Dilbert and The Marlboro Man

Every Saturday morning, we venture out to farmer’s markets around the area to sell coffee.  While we’ve come to like something about each of those markets, it’s safe to say that the Western Wake Farmer’s Market has become all of our favorites.  One reason for that is we get to set up next to Grandview Farms, purveyors of fine grass-fed, grain-finished beef (contrary to the preferences of so many “Neuvo  Foodies” running around these days, I prefer my cattle finished on grain).  Tim has established a bit of a tradition with the vendors that adjoin his freezer-filled butcher shop on wheels by cooking up burgers for all of us around 11 AM.  When we launched Muddy Dog Coffee BBQ Dry Rub this past summer, he started seasoning the burgers with our rub.  We thought it couldn’t get any better than that.  We were wrong.

This past Saturday was a miserable market day, there’s just no other way to say it.  The unpleasantness of a steady, cold rain was compounded only by the fact that we were loaded down with twice as much inventory as normal since this was to be the day of the WWFM craft sale, too.  All of this is simply an elaborate excuse for the fact that Tim forgot to thaw the burgers.

So at 11, we were cold, hungry, and without our usual lunch. But that fast thinkin’ Tim is a  farmer, after all, and they are an adaptive breed prone to improvisation of all types.  And so it was on this cold, rainy Saturday that Tim invented the Java Joe Sandwich.  We were gonna call it the Mudwich, but we thought that to be a less appealing name, and figured that those fellas over at Manwich might have a problem with it, too.

The Java Joe Sandwich is a thing of beauty: a loose-meat (aka “sloppy joe”) sandwich made with Tim’s ground beef, our BBQ rub, and water.  Nothing else.  No cans to open.  No ingredients you can’t pronounce.  Just pure beef and coffee rub.  And as we discovered Saturday, you don’t even need to thaw the beef.  One pound frozen beef into a skillet.  Four or five tablespoons of rub.  Keep adding water as the whole thing cooks, up to maybe a cup or a little more.  That’s it!  And you wind up with a delicious sandwich.  It doesn’t get better than this.  Till it does.

Java Joe Sandwich. A thing of beauty.


http://www.muddydogcoffee.com

The best yogurt I’ve ever eaten

October 31, 2010 2 comments

Now THAT'S yogurt

Yesterday I bought yogurt from Dorian West, co-owner of the Hillsborough Cheese Co.  We’ve been buying cheese from Dorian and Cindy for years now, but yesterday was the first time he ever offered me yogurt.

This morning I had a small serving.

Wow.  That’s really the best description of it.

I never knew yogurt could be this good.  Thick, creamy, tangy.  Unbelieveable, really.

Buy some at the Western Wake Farmer’s Market. And get there early, cause you’re gonna have to beat me there for it.

Which coffee goes best with great yogurt?
http://www.muddydogcoffee.com

Roasted Grits, Roasted Cornmeal available again

October 30, 2010 Leave a comment

NOTE: Cross-posted from our coffee company blog.  Readers here are probably less familiar with these products.  Imagine traditional grits, and traditional cornmeal, only made from *roasted* corn.  That’s what we’re talking about here.  These products take it up about a thousand notches, with lots of sweet, nutty goodness you just don’t get in the traditional version.

They’re finally back – roasted corn products – roasted grits, and roasted cornmeal.

Many of you will remember that we offered these products last summer and through the spring.  At that time, we produced them in collaboration with another party – we did the roasting, they did the milling.  I’ll spare you the painful details, but this year it was necessary for us to become “vertically integrated”, as they taught me to say in business school.  In other words, now we do it all except grow the corn, and I’m working on that, too.  I mean if you’re gonna do it, you may as well do it all, right?

While it’s expensive, vertical integration is not without its benefits.  We are now completely in control of the product, including its formulation, i.e., the types of corn we use, how they’re roasted, how they are blended, screen sizes of the sifters, etc etc.  We now have a mill that is appropriately sized to our demand pattern, so it’s efficient to run and we’re not killing ourselves trying to sell more than the market will bear.  We’ve re-engineered the traditional sifting system and come up with something that’s about 4x as fast in a quarter of the footprint (to be fair, the technical work on that was done by a couple of friends with only minimal input from me – shout-out to Alan and Dave!).  I had a season to think about how to roast corn better, more efficiently, and came up with some process innovation that almost completely eliminated waste and fire danger while allowing me to achieve a darker, richer roast.

Our 2011 Grain Dealer License. This process was enough to turn the biggest liberal into a Republican.

We also jumped through the extra hoops required to be a licensed grain dealer in North Carolina, and we think we’re just a few weeks away from harvesting the crop we contracted in Eastern Carolina.  This is not just any corn – it’s an heirloom Peruvian purple corn, grown without chemical inputs (which is why we’re so nervous right now – because of the heirloom varitey, dry summer, and organic methods, we expect a low yield, how low remains to be seen).  Less than 30% of North Carolina’s milling operations are also licensed grain dealers, so they are restricted to where they can purchase their corn.  We’ll be able to buy directly from North Carolina growers, something that the majority of millers are not legally allowed to do.

Anyway, the first output of our months-long effort will be available tomorrow at Western Wake Farmer’s Market, or place your order online.  We expect to have some fits and starts with respect to meeting demand the first week or two, but we should settle into a pattern shortly.

Stone grinding mill in action
Our custom designed turbo sifter in action. That’s roasted cornmeal coming out the bottom into the tub.

Need Roasted Grits?
http://www.RoastedGrits.com

Need Roasted Cornmeal?
http://www.RoastedCornmeal.com