Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why government should not compete with small business

This past Saturday, I placed an ad for a cook in the Free Press. A little one column, inch and half long ad. I debated whether I was going to spend the extra 10 bucks to put a border around the ad.

On the same page, Manitoba Lotteries Corporation places an ad for cooks and servers. Four columns wide, complete with logos, frivolous swoopy lines and plenty of dramatic white space. This is followed by a second 4 column ad for one of the restaurants at one of the government-owned casinos.

When small business and government compete, we don't compete at the same scale. I could
never spend the money on such extravagant want-ads, yet we are essentially looking for the same people. Government run operations don't have to follow the same sets of rules as small business.

I am not one of those anti-tax, small government, american-talk-radio-listening-to right wing reactionaries. I believe in big government. I support universal healthcare and feel it should be expanded. I support social welfare, I believe employment insurance should support more people, I think public utilities should be publicly owned, I drive on our highways and enjoy our parks. 

I feel that we should decide which areas should be privately owned and which should be publicly owned. And we should maintain a clear distinction between the two. We need to keep them separate. Government should not compete with its citizens for the same sales dollars or even staffing.

It seems obvious that the entertainment and hospitality industries should be taken care of by private business. Government involvement in this area seems ludicrous. Movie theaters, restaurants, night clubs, cafes, sports bars, pool halls and any other entertainment and hospitality business should be owned by private business.  And yet, the government sees fit to run large scale entertainment venues, complete with restaurants and bars, in the form of the casinos. These casinos were built on a scale that most private investors would only dream of. (In fact, when the First Nations opened their casino on Brokenhead, Manitoba Lotteries limited their size to reduce competition with their own casinos) And, these casinos compete directly with small business in Manitoba.  Although the concepts are a little different, when citizens are deciding where to go and spend their entertainment budget, they must choose between McPhillips Street Station and Bistro 7 1/4. (Just ask which has the bigger marketing budget)

Beyond the question of scale, there is a question of regulation. Manitoba Lotteries, who runs the casinos, gets to decide who will be their competition, how big they can be, and under what rules they must follow. The Manitoba Liquor Control Commission decides who gets to sell alcohol, how much they must charge, when they can be open.  There is an inherent conflict of interest when a government body is allowed to regulate the industry which it profits from.  The MLCC should regulate the liquor industry, but should not retail alcohol. And the casinos should be privately owned and run by the mob, just like in the good old days.

And so, when cooks need to decide where to go work, they need to choose between the big four column ad promising better pay and benefits to deep-fry chicken fingers, or the little ad promising the chance to cook duck confit and pork belly for people who really love food. 

p.s. I decided to go with the $10 border

Sunday, August 23, 2009

In praise of ugly fruit

Why can't you get a decent tomato at a supermarket? People complain that you can't get a decent tomato in January, but I have little sympathy for that. It's january, people! Tomatoes in January have to travel all the way from the antarctic.  What I am talking about is why you can't get a decent tomato in August.

Sure there are those crazy "vine-ripened" tomatoes where they leave little pieces of the vine still attached as some sort of evidence that this thing came from a plant. But do we need to pay those prices?  And even the best "vine-ripened" tomato can't compete with a backyard tomato in august.

This time of year, the supermarkets should be over-brimming with piles of juicy, red, locally grown tomatoes.  But last night, when I ran out of my local tomatoes from Vic's and was forced to send one of my boys to S-way to buy tomatoes, he returned with wooden, pale and completely juice-less fruit.

When I was a boy, my father returned from a trip to africa with a big roll of Guava fruit leather.  Much to the dismay of my family, I think I ate the whole roll. I couldn't get enough of that sweet, almost floral, gauva goodness. Until recently, I had never tasted a fresh guava. On my first trip to Mexico, we stayed at an all inclusive resort. On the buffet everyday they had a wide selection of beautiful fruit, mangoes, papayas, pineapples, melons and little green round fruit.   I asked what these fruit were and was told they were guavas.  I was so excited. Finally, twenty five years after my first guava experience, I was going to try the real thing. "blah". These little green fruit were completely bland. None of those unctuous, floral, tropical fruity flavours I remembered. I was utterly disapointed. Crushed. A precious childhood memory dashed upon the rocks.  It was like discovering that Santa Claus was a lie.

The next year I returned to mexico and stayed in the old part of town. There was a little hole in the wall grocer just down the hill from our condo. Clearly this store catered strictly to locals.  There was a big basket of ugly yellow fruit covered in brown spots. But the aroma grabbed me. It brought back a flood of childhood memories? Are these guava? I asked. "si senor". Is this how you are supposed to eat them? I asked. She had no idea what i was saying. Eventually between my three spanish words and her 3 english words we determined that these guava were perfectly ripe. I bought a big bag, took them back, and ate. All my guava dreams were realised. All those flavours I remembered came flooding back. Joy. Bliss. A revelation came to me in the shape of ugly fruit.

The all-inclusive resort had to appeal to North American sensitivities. The fruit had to be firm, green and blemish-free. That is how we like to buy our produce north of the Mason-Dixon. We don't want mishapen fruit, we reject squishy tomatoes, and we would rather buy green bananas than bananas with brown spots on them. But when buying food, what is more important, the look or the taste?

For decades, through careful breeding, (I am not even talking about GMO stuff) we have been developing produce that meets the requirements of a mass, supermarket audience. Fruits and vegetables are deveoped for colour, consistency of size and shape, and for shelf life. Taste never enters into the equation. As a result, we have bins full of perfect tomatoes with no flavour.

Another problem is that our produce, especially tomatoes and tree fruit, is all picked to early. Fruit is harvested under-ripe and then allowed to ripen in warehouses. Food service distributors don't even talk about ripening, but use the term staging: "ship stage 3 tomatoes".  And the fruit gets put on the supermarket shelves still under ripe. Pears aren't really tasty until they are soft, yellow and starting to go brown. But the produce manager wants to sell them bright green and rock hard.  When his pears go yellow, he throws them out. And because we buy groceries in large carloads to last us a week or more, we want to buy the fruit underipe, so it can sit in our fridges without going bad. 

The solution is to stop shipping tomatoes so far. The stores should be buying them from the closest place they can procure them. Then they can buy them ripe. We the consumer should shop daily, go to small markets instead of doing the big supermarket shop. 

And we should start demanding ugly fruit.

a song by guy clark:
Ain't nothin' in the world that I like better
Than bacon & lettuce & homegrown tomatoes
Up in the mornin' out in the garden

Get you a ripe one don't get a hard one
Plant `em in the spring eat `em in the summer
All winter with out `em's a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin' & diggin'
Everytime I go out & pick me a big one

Homegrown tomatoes homegrown tomatoes
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can't buy
That's true love & homegrown tomatoes

You can go out to eat & that's for sure
But it's nothin' a homegrown tomato won't cure
Put `em in a salad, put `em in a stew
You can make your very own tomato juice
Eat `em with egss, eat `em with gravy
Eat `em with beans, pinto or navy
Put `em on the site put `em in the middle
Put a homegrown tomato on a hotcake griddle

If I's to change this life I lead
I'd be Johnny Tomato Seed
`Cause I know what this country needs
Homegrown tomatoes in every yard you see
When I die don't bury me
In a box in a cemetary
Out in the garden would be much better

then I could be pushin' up homegrown tomatoes

Sunday, August 9, 2009

chanterelles and revolution

I had a customer in the other day a customer came in and said to me, "we need a food revolution!"

She had a few too many to drink, and was an old friend, so I humoured her kindly. But she is right. She was looking back to the great food revolution in southern california, led by Alice Waters as a culinary Che Guevara. She felt it was time for southern manitoba to experience a similar revolution.

At the time, I was thinking about blogging about Chanterelles. I was also thinking about blogging about the farmer's market. Somehow, all these things started to come together for me. And although I haven't quite figured out how they all tie in together, ideas are starting to form.

John Ash, a famous chef and one of Alice Water's co-revolutionaries, said in a talk he gave in winnipeg a few years ago, that we, the consumers, have to start demanding better. (we'll hear more about John Ash's in future blogs) He said how we in the rest of the world say "it's easy to eat locally and organically in Southern California". But he describes a California before the food revolution. The food production industry was dominated by large farming operations producing food for mass market consumption. The bulk of the food farmed was destined for the canneries and the frozen foods factories. It was chefs like Alice waters and others who started demanding something better. They started talking to farmers and small time producers and making connections. They also started demanding more from their big suppliers as well. This small group of consumers changed the culinary landscape for themselves and the rest of North America followed.
And so is it time for Manitoba consumers to demand better? Our retail market is dominated by the big 3, (superstore, safeway and sobey's). The bulk of the produce we buy comes from california or further afield; even when local produce is available. Our beef comes from alberta. Even a lot of our own fresh water fish is processed in China. Looking for pickerel cheeks? Good local product. Chances are they are coming from Europe or Asia.
What's the problem? We grow the stuff, why can't we buy it? The food chain can be divided into 4 pieces. The grower, the distributer, the retailer and the consumer. The problem lies with all of these people.
Manitoba growers tend to be stubborn. It is easier to do things the way they have always been done. I once went to a free range chicken producer. I was representing a fairly large buying group of restaurants, including a major downtown hotel. I asked for free range chickens to be raised to a size the chef's could use, 2-3 lbs. The chicken farmer said, "no, I raise 6 lb birds". He explained that a lot of the cost of a chicken was in the start up cost. So I told him we would pay more per pound for the birds if we could have the size we need. "nope, we raise 6 lb birds". So I said to him, we would pay the same amount of money for a 2 lb bird as he would make for a 6 lb bird. "nope, we raise 6 lb birds.". His papa raised 6 lb birds, his papa's papa raised 6 lb birds, and be damn sure he was gonna raise 6lb birds. Growers that try to change things tend to be seen as fringe element nut jobs. Gauge the reaction you get when you talk to a conventional egg producer about Nature's Farms free run aviary system. Apparently hens liked to be cooped 3 to cage.
Distributors, as a whole, have a hard time supplying local products. They have national accounts, that need consistent supply. Why? Why can't I order local corn when it is available and get corn from georgia when that is all there is? It might just be laziness disguised as logistics. The problem may lie in the fact that the food distribution network is dominated by a few huge multinational conglomerates. And the other distributors have to compete with these huge companies. These big (American) companies have buying and growing contracts with major farming conglomerates. If FoodCorp Inc. had to pay local prairie farmers a fair price for their green beans, this would cut into their profits.
The retailers have the same problem. They need nationally available products and consistent supply. Again, I ask why? Whole Foods Markets in the U.S. are able to operate with a committment to local products. Each store would look a little different, but that is okay. If my local safeway sold Manitoba lamb when it was available and New Zealand lamb when it wasn't, I would be okay with that. Instead of promoting consistency, the supermarkets could be celebrating diversity. We would only have to convince one of the big three to do this, the other two would be forced to follow. The other option is just to stop shopping at these monster markets. Smaller, local retailers are better placed and more willing to support local producers. Shop at Vic's, DeLuca's, Marcello's meats, Gimli Fish, Tall Grass and any other corner grocer you can find.
But the biggest problem will always be the consumer. As long as we are content, nothing will change. If we don't demand local products, they won't supply them. As long as we are happy to buy organic lettuces, in gas flushed plastic bags shipped hundreds of miles on diesel trucks from southern california and think we are doing good by buying organic, nothing will change. If lamb racks that have been cryovac'd, frozen, warehoused, put on huge ocean freighters, shipped 3000 miles, warehoused again, put on diesel trucks and shipped to the supermarket warehouse to be distributed to your local grocer are good enough for us, they will be good enough for the supermarket purchasers. We need to ask, "where is this coming from?" How was it grown? Who picked it? How much packaging do we really need? Why can't we get fresh food?
So in the middle of all this walks my mushroom lady. An adorable little Croatian woman who goes out, by herself, into the woods of southern Manitoba and forages wild mushrooms. She brings me porcini, lobster mushrooms, matsutakes (if I am lucky) and most of all chantrelles. As I am cooking up these beautiful little fungi, I wonder, why can't we get better food here? It all grows here. Why are there so few artisan cheese producers? We have cows? We have sheep and goats? Why doesn't anyone raise ducks, make foie gras, raise guinea hens or squab? Why can't I find heirloom tomatoes? Why doesn't safeway sell saskatoons? Why do all the people making sausages in this province make only 3 kinds of sausage? There is more to life than pepperettes, farmer sausage and kielbassa. Why? Why? Why!
Maybe it is time for a food revolution.
You know what we need? A real market. A market that encourages competition. A market filled with diverse producers all vieing for your dollars. A year round daily market. Don't get me wrong, I love the St. Nobert Market and other local farmers markets. I was just at the Assiniboia market and found some great meat producers. But Saturday, is at the end of the week for me. I want to buy my fresh produce tuesday morning. In fact, I want to go to my local market everyday and select the fresh food I want to enjoy on any given day. I think we are the only major city in Canada which doesn't have a real year round market. We could follow the model of the Atwater market in montreal. Inside they have year round market stalls. During the growing season the market spill out into the parking lot to accomodate all the local farmers. A year round market would say to the big retailers that we are no longer content. It would challenge them to do better. A year round market would provide us with the fresh local products we need. By encouraging free competition on a small scale, it would challenge growers and producers to create new and better products. Local dairies would have a venue to sell farmhouse cheese, local butchers could create new and delicious charcuterie products. Food would get better and better.
So consumers, it is in your hands! Demand better! Buy Local! And demand better food from your local producers.
Consumers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your shopping carts.

Be sure to check out the comment below, very smart and insightful.

If you can get your hands on fresh chantrelles (try deluca's) here are a few quick recipes.
Chantrelles, Polenta and a poached egg.
sautee chantrelles with garlic, butter and fresh parley.
add a splash of white wine, reduce
make polenta, (follow pkg direction, cook it long and slow), keep it soft like porridge
top polenta with sauteed chantrelles
top with a poached egg (one per person)
garnish with grtated parmesan.
Pan Seared scallops with chantrelle chowder
sautee onions, diced bacon. add diced potatoes and chantrelles.
Add chicken stock and simmer until potatoes are tender
add heavy cream, season with salt and pepper
dry large scallops and sear in a hot pan until golden.
serve shallow bowls of the chowder, top with scallops.

Chantrelle Pasta with arugula and blue cheese
Boil penne or other short pasta. (gnocchi would work as well)
sautee chantrelles in olive oil with garlic and a pinch of dried chilies
toss penne with arugula, sauteed chantrelles and crumbled blue cheese
(this would also be good if you added cream for a sauce)