Friday, March 25, 2011

I see batches: The Death Star

In Star Wars the Empire batched their military like crazy. For example, they created the Death Star. Like most batching, it was probably sold in a meeting with the Emperor as "an efficient choice." After all, why do lots of small attacks one at a time when you can do them all at once out of a laser beam as big as a planet?

We all know how that story goes. A typically tragic tale of batching. One mistake—that thermal exhaust port—was multiplied by a zillion.

More on batches here.

This is how the phone call goes when you have to tell your boss the Death Star blew up.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I see batches: Nuclear Power


In lean operations terminology a "batch" happens when you're not producing something one at a time. It's when you make multiples of something identical all at once. Usually batching is done to be more "efficient," efficiency being defined as the lowest production cost per unit.

Like binge drinking (another form of batching), batches have strange side effects. One is that when things go wrong they go really wrong. Any error is multiplied by the size of the batch. The bigger the batch, the bigger the error.

You can spot batches everywhere. For example, electricity is often created in large batches. Whether it's made from coal, natural gas, or hydroelectricity, almost all electricity is made in the biggest batch possible. And nuclear power plants are the biggest batchers of them all. It's not one home making electricity for itself. It's one plant making electricity for multiple cities. A typical nuclear plant produces enough power for nearly a million homes.

The nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan made me think about batches and how, when you batch radioactive power generation, you can create some horrific errors, multiplied.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Peace Corps Food Entrepreneurs

The Banaue rice terraces in the Phillipines are over two thousand years old.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed a number of folks enter the food industry after stints in the Peace Corps. Of course there are far fewer of them than there are artists and musicians,  the clan who form the rank and file of the food world. But the Peace Corps folks I know are entrepreneurs and, without exception, they are driven like maniacs. They start with a mission. They develop really cool food businesses from scratch. Their undertakings are almost comically difficult (making and exporting chocolate from ultra-steamy Madagascar is one). These folks show the positive side of globalization that too many in the food world overlook.

One ex-Peace Corps food entrepreneur is Mary Claire Hensley. She was in the Corps in the Philippines, circa 1976. She was the first white woman to ever set foot in her village, called Uma. Almost 30 years later she started a company to bring some of the three hundred indigenous Philippines rices to America.

The rices she focuses on are sun dried, mostly organic (though not certified), grown on a stunning series of terraces. The terraces are ancient. They look like glowing green and gold puzzle pieces, stacked in tectonic layers. The work of Mary’s company helps repair them, helps keep them in use, and helps get farmers a meaningful price for their rice.

Some numbers are important to the story. The poverty line in the Philippines is $250 per year and subsistence farmers—which this area has a lot of, since rice is the number one business—usually fail to achieve that level. The standard price for their rice is 20 cents per kilo. Mary’s company pays $1.35-$1.80 per kilo. Her price immediately guarantees a wage above the poverty line.

Mary tries to make a market for this rice. Last year she sold all they made. They’d like to make more. That’s where we come in. We’ve committed to buying a farm’s worth of rice this year between two types: Tinawon White (Mary's favorite) and Kalinga Unoy, which has a ravishing brick orange color. We just got them in and put them on the website.

JFK announced the Peace Corps from the steps of the Michigan Union in 1960.
Check out the hats.

I don’t know if there are significant numbers of Peace Corps volunteers starting food businesses. I hope there are. I know I’m kind of biased, being in a food business located in Ann Arbor, where JFK gave the speech announcing the Corps. But the social mission of the Corps plus the social mission of great, traditional food seem like a natural match.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mountain Cheese Bloodlines

Mountain cheeses, no matter what country they’re made in, often share traits. They’re cousins, united by geography, climate and the techniques these harsh places demand. You can easily taste their bloodline connection.

Mountain cheeses can be big. In the hills among the Emme valley, two hundred plus pound wheels of Emmentaler, the original Swiss cheese, are produced. In the Jura region of France, northwest of Geneva, eighty pound wheels of Comté are turned out. Note that these are their finished weights, when they’re over a year old, after tremendous evaporation. When they’re first formed they can weigh up to fifty percent more.

Why are they so big? The answer, in large part, is winter. Mountain cheeses were traditionally a source of protein during cold months. They needed to be durable, they needed to last, since winter’s length was unpredictable. An eighty pound wheel of Comté will easily last until spring without spoiling. An eight ounce wheel of Camembert will not.

Mountain cheeses are sweet and floral. The sweetness is partly due to the bloodline process they share during making, where the curd is cooked. The floral aromas are thanks to the bloodline of the milk, which in the best cheeses comes from summer mountain pastures, called alpage in French. The L’Étivaz we sell is alpage. It is only made during summer, when the cows are in the mountains, eating an array of wildflowers the likes you and I haven’t seen since the Sound of Music. Imagine how good you’d feel if you ate flowers all day. That’s what happens to the cows. Their diet directly affects the flavor of the milk, which in turn flavors the cheese.

Most mountain cheeses melt beautifully, thanks to the curd cooking process. In spite of Courtney Love's advice to the contrary, I highly recommend it. Mountain macaroni and cheese is grand, and, grated on top of boiled potatoes and set under the broiler for a minute, these cheeses make a delicious bubbling cheese blanket. Try a Comté grilled cheese, made on buttered, griddled farm bread, with a grind of Tellicherry black pepper and maybe a couple thin slices of radish. If you have a vintage fondue set—available right now at your local Salvation Army for under a dollar, I'm sure—mountain cheeses are the ones you want to use.