Monday, July 14, 2008

Travel Tip: Internet Maps To Go, Cheap.

A friend of mine has a neat travel trick. He takes pictures of his computer screen Google maps with his digital camera, like this. When he needs to get directions he looks up the picture on the camera. Using zoom and scroll he can read the map really well. Neat, cheap option to owning a smart phone -- or buying maps!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Good Design: Hours of Operation

The days of the week abbreviations look strange because they're French. From Montreal.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

True North

Eric Farrell recently observed, "It's weird to 86 a product because we prepped too many of one size and not enough of another."

It's a very plain, direct statement. It goes to the heart of lean philosophy. And it's worth a little thought. While the problem seems simple, the solutions are complex.

Before I get into why it happens and how to solve it the first thing to note: it's a common problem. When you shop for a small T shirt and all they have are mediums it's the same problem. When you want the mint green iPod but they only have black and white it's the same problem.

What's the root cause of the problem? In each cases a product is made ahead of its need. Whether it's in our kitchen, at the t-shirt factory, or in China, the need was forecasted and products were made accordingly. When we forecast need it's always inaccurate.

What's the root level solution to the problem? That's the hard part! It's so difficult Toyota puts it at the heart of its work, calling it True North: Make each product as needed, on demand. A customer asks for something then it's made. In other words--and here's where it always plays tricks in my head to write it:

the only way not to run out of something is to not have it,
to make it when it's needed.

If that sounds hard it's because it is. More like impossible. That's why Toyota defines it as a direction (true north), not a location. Toyota isn't there and will never be (though they're closer than other car companies). The pursuit of True North causes many problems and loads of interesting intermediate solutions, too. I'll go into more detail about them on a future post.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Nitrate Cured Salami

I spent a few minutes this week talking to Francois Vecchio, the man behind the crespone, finocchiana, cacciatore and felino salamis we carry. He gave me a chemistry lesson on salami making that I thought was worth sharing.

People are often worried about meat cured with nitrates. Is it a valid concern? I’ll get to that in a minute. First let me explain how nitrate cures meat. Welcome to a brief voyage through high school chemistry with apologies to mad scientists if I get any of the specifics incorrect.

Sodium nitrate NO3 is added to salami ingredients before they’re stuffed into the mostly air proof casing. Inside, the bacteria and microbial organisms live in an anaerobic environment—no oxygen.

Their activity sucks one of the three oxygen molecules away, turning sodium nitrate into sodium nitrite NO2. Sodium nitrite is unstable and aggressive to microbes. It’s the compound that does the real work of curing, making it safe for us to eat.

While it does its job another oxygen molecule is leeched off. What’s left is nitric oxide NO. This fixes the pigment color, keeping salami red. This molecule is safe.

Even though we started the cure with NO3 we ended up with NO. While Francois adds 150 parts per million of sodium nitrate to start the cure, only 2 or 3 PPM are left. The traditional thirty day curing process eliminates the substance.

So if cured salami doesn’t have any sodium nitrate or nitrite left, why are people afraid of it?

While traditionally cured meat doesn’t have any sodium nitrate/nitrite, non-traditionally cured meat may. During the middle of the last century, in between inventing Twinkies and Cheese Whiz, food scientists deciphered the chemistry that I just explained. Until then it’d been a two thousand year process that no one understood – people just knew it worked. The scientists correctly identified sodium nitrite NO2 as the money molecule. It did the majority of the curing work. NO3 didn’t seem to do much, so they experimented with adding NO2 directly to the meat, cutting NO3 out of the game. It worked. It saved time. Meat could be cured almost overnight. It could go to stores faster. It was a huge success.

Sort of. The problem is when the cure is rushed, NO2 doesn’t disappear like it does when you cure traditionally over thirty days. It’s still present in the meat. NO2 is a carcinogen.

That’s the reason people are worried about nitrate cured salami. Meats may be cured with sodium nitrite – not nitrate – and rushed to market when the nitrite carcinogen is still present. This isn’t true for the salamis we carry.

What about the “no nitrate” meat at supermarkets?

Nitrates are necessary for curing meat. You can’t cure without them and keep meat pink and safe. But if nitrates are necessary for curing meat, how can places like Whole Foods carry meats they say are nitrate free?

The trick is celery. It’s high in nitrates. Concentrated celery juice is used in the curing, instead of the naturally occurring mineral sodium nitrate. The FDA allows it to be called “Natural Flavor” instead of “Sodium Nitrate.”