May 19th, 2015
Along the way in the 20th Century, western culture went from being a word-based society to an image-based one. In many ways, this is like the difference between drinking coffee and drinking wine — one focuses the intellect and the analytical, and the other heightens the emotions. Ideally, you’d have a nice balance of both, but the discovery that it’s much easier to sell the eye on a purchase than it is to sell the brain means that we’ve been on a one-way trip to Imageville ever since. A cursory look at, well, anything, will tell you that this approach has its drawbacks. But it’s tough to get cultures hooked on feeling back into the thinking game, so a smattering of sly folks have hit upon a different project — attempting to retune the eye’s sensibility to the less-than-perfect.
I first heard about this last year, where French supermarket chain Intermarché launched a very clever campaign that used humor to make the ugly fruit and vegetables attractive. It turns out that a startling percentage of food grown is rejected as trash because it doesn’t live up to certain standards of beauty. Intermarché reversed this by showcasing the ugly stuff, to universal delight.
This has now come to the States in the obligatory form of a startup. But in a refreshing change, this Bay Area startup is located very much on the wrong side of the silicon tracks in Oakland. It’s called Imperfect and they’ve successfully completed an Indiegogo funding campaign in order to begin operations this summer.
Of course, they’re working in California just as the drought of the millennium digs in its heels, so things are going to be interesting. But I’ve got my fingers crossed, because ugly fruit and veg doesn’t command grocery store prices, which means that they can bring real food to the food deserts of Oakland at a price that doesn’t force people to make a choice based on cost. Combine that with their other inaugural delivery zone of Berkeley, overflowing with cost-, hip-, and climate-conscious millennials and Imperfect may well hit the sweet spot of those in need and those interested in defining their selves through their purchasing choices.
Imperfect doesn’t mention exactly how they’re going to make their deliveries, but I hope that they don’t suffer the transportation blind spot that afflicts so many right-minded actions. (Most wince-inducing recent example: Seattle’s “kayaktivists” challenging Shell Oil’s arctic drilling rig in kayaks composed almost entirely of petroleum.)
So Imperfect might do well to take a look at Germany, where a genuinely good idea is taking root, under the name of Kizekaufhaus. That untangles into something like “neighborhood department store” and the notion is to combine the convenience and efficiency of online shopping with the local economy smarts of spending your money with your neighbors, who will then have cash to spend on you.
In Kizekaufhaus, the buyer goes to what looks like a typical web shopping front-end for some predatory mega-operation. But what’s on the back end is really a co-op of local businesses which, between them, carry almost all the things you’d need. Whatever you order, it’s all gathered up and then delivered via a low-carbon electric cargobike — even faster than one of Amazon’s would-be delivery drones can decapitate your poodle. Now, I know, so far you’re thinking “I sure get the beauty, but where’s the ugly?” The “ugly” so to speak, is that Kizekaufhaus’ cargobikes are piloted not by “typical digital native hipsters,” but rather by locals with some miles on them — that’s right, seniors. For the customer, the delivery riders are the real face of Kizekaufhaus, the place where they make contact and who better to put in that role than people who’ve had more years practicing making friends than being friended?
Quite separate from the eminently civilized Germany of today, there’s the frightening Germany of yesterday. World War II was a very long time ago, but it clearly still casts a shadow, at least to judge by how often Nazis pop up as movie fodder. However, a much less well known footnote of that past has returned, and it, too, is interested in fodder.
They are the Cows from Heck, so to speak, bred by two brothers, Lutz and Heinz Heck, in a program which began in the days of the Weimar Republic. Their goal was to bring back the extinct auroch — which, in case you’re not familiar with it, was Europe’s primordial wild cattle, paintings of which ennoble the walls of Lascaux Cave. The auroch was huge, six feet at the shoulder, pushing 2,000 pounds in weight and built for speed and power, with immense horns. In short, it was everything you’d imagine for an ice-age mammal — similar to modern versions, but more. The auroch, however, didn’t vanish with the mammoth — it survived until the 17th Century, when the last one was killed in Poland.
Heinz and Lutz set out to see if they could find auroch-ish traits in ancestral breeds of cattle that descended from the aurochs, and blend them in such a way as to bring the auroch back. This project, with its emphasis on a genetically pure past and weird science, inescapably attracted the attention of the Nazis — specifically, Hermann Göring who, when he wasn’t secretly building up the Luftwaffe and pilfering old masters, loved hunting wild game.
With his patronage, the Hecks blended Spanish fighting cattle with Corsican cattle, with a half score of other heritage breeds and eventually they wound up with two lines of cattle that weren’t aurochs, but had a variety of auroch-y traits. The Berlin line didn’t survive the war, but the ones living in the Munich zoo did, which is why we still have Heck cattle and why, in 2009 British farmer Derek Gow was able to bring some to the British Isles for the very first time.
Gow isn’t an ordinary farmer; he’s made a specialty of giving a home to at-risk species and so the rare Heck seemed to fit right in. Only — they’re mean. Really mean. So hostile that the British press has inevitably tagged them as Nazi Cows. “Far and away the most aggressive animals I have ever worked with,” says Gow. “They would try to kill anyone.”
Gow discovered that the animal park he’d gotten them from wouldn’t take them back, so the Nazi Cows were sent — with some difficulty — to the sausage-makers. But not all of them. The calmer ones still roam the Devon countryside, quietly evoking a deep and primal memory of when even farm animals were awe-inspiring, beautiful and lethal in equal measure. In looking at them, we can faintly feel what our cave-painting ancestors well knew, and which we would do well to remember, that nature is bigger and meaner.
Dan Barber is the chef behind Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. He was in the vanguard of farm-to-plate, and he’s a miracle worker with whatever the land yields at any given season — a brilliant demonstration of how much better our food can be without the massive and wasteful system we currently employ. But — regrettably and unintentionally — he’s also a poster boy for the notion that good, local food is a ridiculously expensive luxury good, ultimately niche and useless. But he’s working hard to redeem that with his new pop-up restaurant called “WastED.”
No, it’s not cannabis cuisine, it’s education about food waste in the most memorable way imaginable — by putting that waste on the menu and on the plate. Hannah Goldfield of the New Yorker dined there a couple times and it’s worth vicariously dining with her.
What strikes me most strongly is not the fact of food reuse in restaurants — there’s an entirely subspecialty of La Cuisine devoted to turning yesterday’s dregs into today’s special — but the wonderful baldness with which the WastED menu defines what’s for dinner. “This is trash,” the menu stolidly declares, and then it arrives in succulent form. Barber’s experiment emphasizes how ultimately mutable our food sensibilities are, which is another way of saying that they are completely culturally controlled.
Another way of thinking of that is to understand that our tastes have already been mutated, so to speak, into accepting as normal what is not, and never has been in any previous era. The gratuitous richness of the continent that our ancestors stumbled into bred a contempt for the kind of naught-goes-to-waste ethos that had ruled for all of human history. But though that ethos had ruled, the hunger to waste had always been there. Harvest festivals, royal feasts, the fantasy of the cornucopia — all of these celebrations of food have at their core a complete disregard, almost a contempt, for food. It’s a fantasy, a dream of not being slave to digestion, almost pathetic in its impossibility — but all too easy to understand. For almost all of history, to be human was to know hunger. What better revenge than to demonstrate that you could take it or leave it — and here was a land that could allow you to indulge that lethal fantasy.
The trick, of course, was that we lived the life and then we exported our gloating in the form of a cultural fantasy that everyone wanted but no one could afford, not even, in the end, ourselves. But, dammit, we were awful good at exporting the fantasy, so let’s raise a glass of yesterday’s champagne distilled down to a sherry and toast the notion that we can make dining on dregs the next big thing everywhere.