Friday, May 29, 2009

Signs: Visual vs Verbal

In a previous post I laid out different ways to communicate with signs, from fastest to slowest. Signs using images are faster to process than signs made with words. Said a different way, a good image can convey information more quickly than a set of written instructions. That might make intuitive sense, but here's a quick experiment to prove the case.

Take in this image. I have no idea what it would be a sign for. Maybe one that shows how awesome white pants and docksiders are. Anyway, look and count to ten, then turn your head away and start describing what you saw.

Did you draw the full picture with words in ten seconds? How about fifty seconds? Think about more details you saw. Can you keep talking about it for five minutes?

While the image isn't exactly a sign, it makes the point. What took ten seconds to soak in with your eyes took much longer to describe with your mouth. It also shows another thing about pictures: they display information densely. A thousand words, that's cake. Pictures can hold way more data than that, gobs of information that our brains process faster — and often more clearly — than words. When we untangle an image with language, the process is slow and prone to error.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


With ice cream season getting into high gear and our last gelato shipment of the year coming for Father's Day, I'll hand the reins over to guest blogger Tim Miller who recently made gelato with our resident ice cream maker, Josh. Here are some excerpts from his visit plus photos. Take it away, Tim.

The history of gelato dates back to the 16th century. As most stories go, it is credited to Bernardo Buontalenti, a native of Florence, who delighted the court of Caterina dei Medici with his creation. Italians are certainly credited with introducing gelato to the rest of Europe. Sicilian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli was one of the first to sell it to the public. Summoned to Paris in 1686, he opened a café named after himself called Café Procope which quickly became one of the most celebrated haunts of literary France. In Italy meanwhile, the art of traditional gelato making was passed on from father to son, improved and perfected right up to the 20th century, when many gelato makers began to emigrate, taking their know-how to the rest of Europe.

The “mix” that Josh uses for each flavor was made prior to my arrival with fresh milk, cream and sugar. I learned that different mixes are used depending on the flavor of gelato that will be made. Fruit flavors such as strawberry are made with a mix that includes more fat since fruit is naturally fat free. Flavors like nocciola (hazelnut) and peanut butter are made with a mix that has less fat since nuts contain more fat.

I start my shift by helping label the many pint cups that will be used for selling gelato to some of the Creamery’s guests. The cups are dated on the bottom with an expiration of two months out. The Creamery also makes tubs of Gelato and “trays”. The trays are used by stores that sell Gelato from cases and are dated a month out expiration since they are exposed to higher temperatures while sitting in the cases. Josh has a spreadsheet he uses to determine how much Gelato of each flavor he needs to make today.

As the machine is churning and freezing the gelato, Josh starts breaking up pieces of burnt sugar that will be mixed in as it comes out of the machine. Josh says that he makes the burnt sugar next door at the Bakehouse. He puts a mix of sugar and water in a kettle, and cooks off the water to make burnt sugar syrup that will be blended into the mix before freezing. He also cooks sugar into dark pieces that almost look like smoked glass. This is his favorite because of its depth of flavor and because it's not too sweet. There’s almost a coffee flavor, due to the bitterness of the burnt sugar.

I soon get the opportunity to get my hands dirty scooping Gelato into the pint cups that I was labeling earlier. I start with Dulce de Leche that was made earlier. It looks SO delicious that I just want to scoop it out of the container with my hands and shovel it in my mouth!! Instead, I try to get it into the cups. Josh explains that I need to be careful to not overfill the cups and to use a paper towel if there is spillage (more on this later). After filling a sheet tray with some cups, I take them into the freezer where we rotate the old stock to the front and place the new stock behind. The freezer reminds me of that episode of “I Love Lucy” where Lucy gets stuck in a freezer and finally comes out with icicles hanging from her nose. Every time I step in, I get a little bit of panic, thinking “What if this time, I can't get out?"

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sliding Scales: Is Bigger Worse?

Two Buck Chuck is a wine you can buy at Trader Joe's for about two bucks. It's made by Bronco wines, an outfit operating out of California's central valley. They started bottling the wine less than a decade ago. Just recently they sold their four hundred millionth bottle.

The absurdly low price, the incredibly high volume. In the wine industry the numbers that Bronco posts are freakish on both ends of the spectrum. They were the cause of a major uproar when the wine debuted and thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled on stories about them since. But are they the sign of something good or something bad? Is Two Buck Chuck the work of a populist making wine more democratic? Is it a shark's errand that screws grape growers and workers? Is it plain vanilla capitalism, the output of an opportunist profiting on all the hard work others have put into creating California's wine reputation? Or is it a sign of the apocalypse? I can't tell you for sure, but from a distance, it kind of looks like all that and a bag of chips.

The question it raises is: can a food company be big and be good? In our corner of the food industry it's attractive to make small a kind of fetish. The smaller the business, the smaller the output, it can appear more authentic. We get caught up in the romance of the story. Does that make the food taste better? But if Two Buck Chuck is bad — I'm not saying it is, but let's say for argument's sake — is it bad because it's big?

I've been in the caves of Fort Saint Antoine where they store sixty thousand wheels of Comté at a time. Barracks for soldiers who waited out the Prussian wars, now filled with shelf after shelf of identical cheese. The operation is immense. The cheese is amazing. You'd experience the same thing if you visit the aging halls for Parmigiano-Reggiano. Gigantic operation, incredible cheese. Take Zingerman's itself. We used to be ten people. Now we're four hundred fifty. Did we get worse as we grew? Does the food taste better? Is one route inevitable? Must growth be a route to mediocrity? Can companies avoid it? How?

I've got a bottle of Two Buck Chuck here and I'll try some soon. After all, that's one good thing about food. While there are loads of considerations to take into account in deciding to support one kind of business or another, in the end, when the wine splashes across your tongue, if it doesn't taste good it's over.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cane sugar is a "throwback."

Today NPR had a piece on the new "throwback" Pepsi and Mountain Dew sodas. They're soft drinks made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup. Supposedly they taste better — a little less sweet.

Cane sugar sodas have been a cult thing for some time. I think it was six or seven years ago the first time I heard someone say "I buy  imported Mexican Coke in glass bottles," Mexico being a place where they still make soft drinks with cane sugar. In fact, I'm pretty sure the entire world makes soft drinks with cane sugar. The U.S. did, too, up until the 1970's.

What happened then?

In the 1970s, as part of a new agricultural policy, the federal government placed tariffs on imported sugar and subsidies on corn. Since most of our cane sugar was imported, it promptly got very expsnive. Corn, now subsidized, got cheap. Corn can be turned into sugar, but it's usually a lot more expensive than just buying cane sugar. That's why the rest of the world uses cane. But when corn syrup became cheaper in the U.S., soda makers — along with lots of other food manufacturers — switched. (While we use cane sugar in most of our foods, you'll often find others baking with corn syrup because it's cheaper.)

That simple market distortion — a tariff here, a subsidy there — has created a lot of strange effects. We now grow corn across the Midwest, much of it for sugar production. Compared to cane sugar, manufacturing sugar from corn creates a lot more pollution and uses more oil. Meanwhile, the countries that grow cane sugar — primarily poor economies in Central America and Africa — can't sell us what they make. Their sugar would travel further, but it would be made with far less pollution. It would also taste better. (This is a good example of how going "local" can get very complex very quickly.)

If you're interested in the strange tale of corn in America I highly recommend Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and the documentary it inspired, King Corn.