A Driving Hunger — If You Don’t Have The Memories, You Never Hunger For The Food
June 5, 1994
By Terry McDermott
IT’S SUMMERTIME, and the living is easy. Let’s get in the car and ruin the whole thing.
The summer driving season is upon us, which means entire families are about to lock themselves into surface-to-surface missiles and launch across the landscape, looking for fun, finding misery.
There are two reasons to drive. One is to get somewhere, which, if not sensible, is at least sometimes necessary. The other is to move very quickly under bright night skies, sniffing juniper on the high desert air just after a squall has spent itself, profitably, on the revivification of the plant kingdom.
Why it is you would complicate either of these experiences with eating is, to me, inexplicable. I think you need two things to drive, three if you count the car. Very strong coffee and very loud music. People who ride with me often end up with frayed nerves and injured eardrums.
What they seem to want, instead, is food.
Driving makes people, especially passengers, want to ask how far they’ve come, how far they have to go and when they can stop to eat.
My father had an answer to this. He would strip people of all their defenses, not to mention appetites, by getting them up at 2:30 a.m. for a 300-mile trip.
I don’t mean to slight the distance. Three hundred miles when and where we grew up was a big deal. There was to us something thrilling about it. In 300 miles you could get to four states. You could get to five major-league ball parks. You could get lost several times.
You never quite knew if you were going to get there. You didn’t know (a) if the car would make it or (b) if the parents would.
We would awake early, hit the road in a stupor and no matter where we were going, we would stop at midmorning in Beloit, Wis., for an unlimited pancake breakfast.
Beloit, a nondescript town on the western edge of the rust belt, seems to have been the Rome of the Midwest. All roads led there. We followed most of them, stopped for pancakes, then left, heavy with flour and hope.
I haven’t the will for my father’s solutions or his sense of ceremony. I have only his impatience.
This means when I drive I want to drive. I do not want to stop. I was thus completely unprepared for my wife’s insistence, on our first long car trip, that we stop for dinner. We had left Portland after work on a Friday night, bound for San Francisco.
This is in the best of circumstances an ambitious agenda. To confound it completely by stopping 45 minutes out of Portland to search for food in Salem was more than I could comprehend. Then to insist that the food be edible was unreasonable. I suppose I said this. I suppose further that I should not have. To get between Millie and a meal is to inflict great psychic trauma.
I was, typically, unaware. I thought she was hungry for noodles. I knew nothing about the solace they would have to be soaked in. She has mellowed, somewhat, but then every meal was an emotional event, replete with the possibilities for unbounded joy and millennial disappointment only significant occasions can command.
To me, food was fuel for the road. To her, it was fuel for the spirit.
It is not at all unusual in the Chinese households where she grew up to be in the midst of a seven-course dinner and begin discussing whether yesterday’s dim sum was better than last month’s and what the next night’s meal ought to be.
This has only a little to do with the food. It has to do with the emotional content of every meal that has come and gone before, with whom and where it was eaten. It has to do with memory.
Taste derives primarily from two distinct physical processes. One, called olfaction, is the trapping and sorting of gases and vapors in the nasal membrane. The other, called gustation, is the work of the taste buds on the tongue sampling flavors as they roll by.
What is missing from this rational view of taste is the taster. What the eater brings to the table is at least as important to taste as what’s on it.
The olfaction and gustation occur in an instant. The psychology of taste takes a lifetime to acquire. Everything we put in our mouths is cross-referenced with memory. Like some bizarre card catalog, you look up noodles and in addition to an explanation of water, eggs and flour, you get footnotes.
See also Franco-American Spaghetti, which at our house was mixed with ground beef and onions and served over potatoes, which reminds you of Jack Simplot, the potato king from Idaho who grew up in Iowa, which reminds you of chickens being butchered in the backyard, which takes you to a market in Guangzhou, which is cross-referenced to noodles, chilled Szechuan in peanut sauce.
See also Beijing, where you ate them, and where the best meal you had was duck, taken at a table with a chain-smoking soccer team.
And so you see a duck at Green Lake and you get a sudden inexplicable hunger for chow mein.
I can remember at various times in my life being ravenously hungry for meat loaf, for cold weather, for my mother’s vegetable soup. I have been hungry for broccoli and grilled onions. I have never been hungry for chicken fingers and carbonated drinks in cardboard cups.
Here’s a substitute for the cardboard and a guarantee of goodness, Millie’s mother’s chicken, the best road food I’ve ever eaten. It has the advantages of being equally tasty hot or cold, of being bite-sized, of being reminiscent of summer picnics and winter rains and everything in-between.
It can be eaten with one hand, satisfying speed; it will linger forever, satisfying memory.
MEE’S GARLIC FRIED CHICKEN
3 pounds chicken wings
Salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
3 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons dry sherry or rice wine
7 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 inch ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup flour
1 cup vegetable oil
- Chop the chicken, on the bone, at the joints. Wash and dry.
- In a bowl large enough to hold the chicken, combine salt, sesame oil, sugar, soy sauce, dry sherry, garlic, ginger, cilantro and egg.
- Marinate the chicken in the sauce In the refrigerator, overnight if possible, three to four hours if not.
- Return to room temperature.
- Coat with flour.
- In a deep skillet, heat the vegetable oil to 375 degrees. Add the chicken 8 to 12 pieces at a time. Do not overcrowd the pan. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown and cooked through.
- Remove, drain. Repeat until all the chicken is done.
- Go for a long drive, preferably at altitude.
Los Angeles Times
The Sage of Fortune Cookies
* A quest to discover why the ubiquitous little messages so rarely predict the future anymore leads through a byzantine world of secrecy and suspicion to an unlikely oracle.
We arrived here seeking enlightenment–true enlightenment, not some guru’s pale imitation but genuine illumination, the real thing, the easy thing, the wished-for, dreamed-of blinding flash of unearned knowledge, the stunning insight that knocks us–all Pauls en route to Damascus–clean out of the saddle.
We speak, in other words, of fortune cookies, the slight, curvy sugar wafers enfolding the wisdom of the ages.
Maybe that’s a stretch. Truth be told, fortune cookies were never the font of much wisdom: mere after-dinner entertainments. Who, after all, could ever take seriously an anonymous message tucked inside a sugar cookie?
Quite a few people, as it turns out, which leads to our current mystery:
Something dreadful has happened to fortune cookies–they almost never contain fortunes.
Think of the last time you opened a cookie. What did the message inside say? Think of the last 10, 50, 100 times. They weren’t real fortunes, were they? They were aphorisms, or silly clichés, or small pieces of lame advice. Or, more recently, perhaps a veiled threat. One recent fortune received in Los Angeles warned: “Choose your enemies wisely.”
What happened? Who took the fortunes out of fortune cookies?
We think Steven Yang knows. We have come to his locked door to find out.
The sun shines from its perfect sky. Mendell Street is fogless in the early morning light. The circumstances couldn’t be more clouded.
As ancient institutions go, the fortune cookie is not all that ancient. The Chinese fortune cookie was invented in the United States sometime in the early part of the 20th century, probably by either a Japanese American gardener in San Francisco or a Chinese American cook in Los Angeles.
There are suggestions that it has antecedents among Chinese moon cakes, which carried hidden messages in the 14th century. Given the 600-odd-year gap, these seem like feeble attempts at undeserved authenticity. Even if they are true, the similarities between the moon cakes, made from lotus nut paste and used to plan an insurrection against Mongol occupiers, and the little gold cracker that arrives on your tip tray is slight enough to melt beneath the dimmest of lights.
Whoever invented the cookies, they remained regional California oddities until 1948, when a San Francisco truck driver, Edward Louie, devised a machine that partly automated the labor-intensive process of making the flour-egg-sugar-and-water confection. Louie then partnered with a local restaurant that began the tradition of serving the cookies as complimentary desserts.
Others improved Louie’s design, and the more automated cookie production became, the greater the distribution of the cookie. The machine now sold most widely throughout the United States was invented by Yong Lee, a Korean-born engineer in Massachusetts, who complains that it was the single worst thing that ever happened to him.
“Wasted all my productive years on it,” he said.
Up through the 1970s, most of the cookies sold in the United States came from California. With the introduction of Lee’s machines, production spread throughout the country and into Canada, Mexico–even China. At one point, more than two-thirds of the fortune cookies baked in the United States were made on Yong Lee machines, which have a “Babes in Toyland” quality to them.
A spigot squeezes dough onto round metal griddles. A turntable passes the dough through a gas oven. The cookies bake in about 30 seconds and remain pliable enough to be folded for another 15.
When a cookie comes out of the oven, an arm drops a fortune into the middle of the warm wafer, then presses the cookie down through a slot, which has the effect of folding it in half. Two more arms then press the cookie over a metal rod set at right angles to the slot, folding it again in the other direction. By the time the cookie tumbles down a conveyor into a box, it has hardened with the message inside.
Today, most large American cities have at least one and sometimes as many as a dozen fortune cookie makers, most of them small, family businesses. With some exceptions, most cater to local markets.
“The low margin has kept bigger companies out of the business,” said Donna Tong of Peking Noodle Co. in Los Angeles, the largest California producer and one of the biggest in the country.
Lee estimates the national output at a billion cookies a month. This seems exaggerated, for the simple reason that fortune cookies are mainly an American item, and in order to consume a billion of them a month every man, woman and child in the country would have to eat Chinese food once a week.
It’s a cutthroat industry, said Greg Louie, Edward’s grandson, in which “nobody trusts anybody.” Research for this article supports the notion.
Told that a reporter had visited Peking Noodle, a competitor expressed surprise.
“Peking let you walk through? I’m shocked. They never let anyone in,” he said. He paused, lowered his voice and asked: “What’s it like?”
Conversations with other fortune cookie people tended to go like this: Cookie? Big secret.
Various people tried to explain what exactly was being kept secret.
The machines, they said.
But doesn’t everybody have the machines?
The recipe, they said.
But aren’t they all basically the same recipe?
The messages, they said.
Well, how can messages be secret when they’re read by the thousands every day?
Big secret. Goodbye.
As invariably happens when industries grow, specialization occurs. When inventor Lee began shipping his machines all over North America–later followed by a Japanese-made machine that increases production sixfold–many of the mom-and-pop bakers who bought them had little knowledge of what to put inside the cookies. They were businesspeople, not soothsayers.
Many cookie makers simply stole fortunes from one another, accumulating what amounted to an almost universal stock of fortunes written by early cookie pioneers. These were lifted from sources as diverse as the Bible and Poor Richard’s Almanac, and translated into a kind of mock “Confucius say” language.
“In those days, they were all farmer phrases,” Greg Louie said. “We changed over the years, borrowing from Bartlett’s, Yiddish sayings, wherever.”
Lee built a stock of thousands of the traditional fortunes and began selling them very cheaply to the people who bought his machines. That’s when the problems started. Fortunes that seemed perfectly acceptable in one part of the country suddenly became offensive in, say, Decatur, Ga.
“Message says: ‘A handsome young man is in your future,’ ” Lee said. “Southern old lady take it very seriously and complain. They’re afraid of young man. It’s a joke. Still they complain. They don’t take it as a joke.”
It wasn’t just Southerners. Everybody complained: feminists, grammarians, Asian Americans.
“Had to get rid of a bunch of messages,” Lee said. “It all became nonsense.”
Clearly, a wholesale rewriting of fortunes was needed, which brings us back to Steven Yang, a young Shanghai-born engineer whom Lee hired to sell his machines. Yang said he had no trouble selling the machines, but was having great trouble getting paid what he considered adequate commissions.
“Yong Lee has no money,” Yang said. “He say, ‘Next time, Steven. Next time.’ ”
So, in 1993, Yang quit and went into business for himself. He bought Chinese Yellow Pages for the entire United States and started calling cookie makers. Then he got in his car and went to see them.
He sold them fortunes. He didn’t have the wherewithal to start manufacturing cookie machines, but he spied an opportunity in the message business, which was little more than a sideline for Lee. Yang made copies of all the messages he could get his hands on and went to work taking Lee’s message customers away from him.
He set up a printing operation in San Francisco and started cranking out fortunes by the millions. Today, this little shop in a bad part of San Francisco is by far the nation’s biggest content provider for cookies.
printing, cutting and shipping messages all over the country. Sometimes, they sleep in the shop. He almost never lets anyone else in and, to preserve secrecy, doesn’t hire help.
“No one knows how we do this. Chinese are smart. They’re working for you, after one or two years, they leave, taking my business with him.”
Just like you?
He laughed. “Just like me.”
Yang consented to a telephone interview and, later, to a meeting on neutral ground, but never a visit to his shop. The key to his success, he said, is a method he has devised to cut labor costs.
“Over seven years in business, I never show to anyone. It is secret. No one knows how to pack the paper. We do very beautiful packing. I got a very special machine. I saw some company–one people cutting messages, five people packing. Make no money. I have one people cutting. One people packing.”
That’s the big secret, how the paper is packed? This is the reason you won’t answer your door?
“I’m very scared. Too many questions. You going to steal my business,” Yang said.
Lola, Bob and Good Grammar
After Yang figured out the economic key to success, his secret packing machine, he still faced the same dilemma that had perplexed Lee–the messages themselves.
“I copy all of Yong Lee’s messages,” Yang said. “It doesn’t work. Everything is so stupid. That’s no good. I don’t know how to write a message. So one time one lady call me from San Diego. I think she is a schoolteacher. She goes to Chinese restaurant. Opens cookie. . . . Very bad. Message really is for fun, isn’t supposed to make people angry.”
Yang, tired of the criticism, hired the complaining woman to rewrite the messages he had taken from Lee.
So a San Diego schoolteacher writes all the messages? Who is she?
“Lola, I think. I can’t remember. She doesn’t do it anymore. I lost her number.”
Yang eventually recovered Lola’s number. Except she isn’t Lola, and she isn’t a schoolteacher. Her name is Donna Jackson, and she’s a speech pathologist. Jackson said her principal complaint wasn’t the content of the messages, but their form–a singsong Charlie Chan English she found offensive.
“I didn’t know if they wanted them to sound that way or what. Some were incomprehensible. ‘One foot on the moon will be green,’ stuff like that,” she said. So she agreed to edit Yang’s messages. When she couldn’t even figure out what many of them were intended to say, she wrote new ones. Those she mainly lifted from a library book on astrology. She didn’t much care what they said, just that they be grammatical. This accounts for many of the messages you read that ascribe personal qualities to the reader. For example, “You are kindhearted, hospitable, cheerful and well-liked.”
The grammar corrections did little to slow the pace of complaints, Yang said, and after he lost “Lola’s” number, he grew desperate, asking everybody he knew to write new messages.
One day, driving in San Francisco, he saw a place advertising various small-business services–copying, printing, proofreading. He stopped and asked the owner if he would like to write fortunes. The man said, no, he wasn’t really in that business, but he had a writer friend who might. The friend called, met Steven and initially agreed, for a dime apiece, to write 1,000 messages, a deal that would make him the most prolific fortune-cookie fortune writer in history.
Yang thinks we want to steal his packing machine. All we really want to know is who this guy, the sage of San Francisco, is? Yang can’t remember.
How about the name of the business who referred him?
“It’s an English name,” Yang said.
Maybe it had the word “Printing” in it, he said. Calls to more than a hundred printers yielded nothing.
Then Yang, helpfully, said that maybe it’s not listed as a printer, but a copy place. They had copy machines. More calls, more puzzled people who knew nothing.
This went on for weeks.
One day, Yang, by now eager to help find the fortune-writer as a way to throw us off the scent of his precious packing machine, remembered that the business was on Geary, a street that cuts almost entirely though San Francisco, from the Pacific Ocean to the bay. No matter, this was progress.
More calls. Nothing.
Finally, Yang remembered that the shop was near a particular hospital. A quick check of the neighborhood turned up a place called Bob’s Typing Service.
That’s it, Yang said. Bob is the man who knows the man who wrote the fortunes.
“Bob’s Typing Service,” said the woman on the telephone.
“Bob sold the business. He doesn’t work here anymore.”
That’s what she said. She might as well have added: It’s not Chinatown, Jake. It’s fortune cookies.
Yang’s messages come in four broad categories: a few genuine fortunes, aphorisms, advice and those zodiacal descriptions of personal attributes.
A true fortune is one that predicts the future. Here’s one of Yang’s, for example: “A financial investment will yield returns beyond your dreams.” Although, in this dot-com age, it might be hard to imagine what could conceivably qualify as being “beyond” one’s dreams, this is undeniably a fortune.
‘You possess a rare beauty,” more typical of Yang’s current offerings, is not.
It’s a nice thing to say. It might even be true, but it is not a fortune.
Neither is this:
“Pay less attention to your living conditions and more attention to your life.”
This grim admonition was among the fortunes written by the great and elusive sage of San Francisco, the man we finally tracked to Bob’s Typing Service, now absent Bob.
The people at Bob’s, amused, called the original Bob, Bob Cristoph, and relayed our ridiculous question. Unlike everyone else connected to the fortune-writing business, Cristoph actually keeps track of names and phone numbers. He remembered Yang and the man he referred to him. The sage was revealed–a bookkeeper named Russell Rowland. Rowland was eager to talk. Rowland’s day job is in accounts receivable at an advertising agency. At night he writes novels, four of them to date, one of which–a Montana ranch saga–is scheduled to be published next year. A couple years ago Rowland was moonlighting as a proofreader for Bob’s Typing Service. The ad agency job was only part time. So when Bob called and asked if he’d be interested in some extra money writing fortune-cookie fortunes, he said yes.
Yang offered him a dime a message: a hundred dollars for a thousand fortunes. Rowland later countered with a quarter, and Yang preemptively raised it to 30 cents.
“I suspected I was in trouble when he was so eager to go higher,” Rowland said. “So after the first 200, I called him and told him we needed to renegotiate, and he jumped all the way to 70 cents!”
Rowland eventually wrote 700 new messages, quite possibly the highest output in contemporary fortune cookie history. Given the distribution of Yang’s fortunes, Rowland is probably America’s best read and worst paid novelist. If it were his novels people were reading, he wouldn’t care about the lousy pay.
Rowland is tall–tall enough to be a sage–and kindly-looking enough too, with a soft, round face, glasses and a high, wise forehead. He lacks the self-importance we might want in our oracles, substituting a disconcerting Montana prairie aw-shucksness.
Rowland’s been around–in the Navy, where he learned to type, in Montana where he learned to sell shoes, and Massachusetts, where he started to write. He’s had a rough couple of decades. Even the one unqualified success, the acceptance of his novel for publication, dwindled into ambiguity when his publisher was bought by another, his editor fired and his book stuck in limbo for a year. The new publisher eventually agreed to bring the book out, but not until next fall, which will be three years after it was purchased.
Rowland is not a grudge-bearing man, but his difficulties have expressed themselves in the fortunes he wrote for Yang.
He said he tried in his fortune-writing career to give people a sense of hope. Perhaps, but his particular brand of hope can come across as fatalism. For example, one of his fortunes says: “Be confident enough to dance badly.”
Another reads: “Pain indicates injury, while a painful sensation indicates growth; learn to distinguish between them.”
Still another warns: “After today, you shall have a deeper understanding of both good and evil.”
Nobody’s complained about that one yet, maybe because they don’t really want to contemplate what it means.
The list goes on in the same vein. At times, Rowland’s fortunes read like themes for
novels–tragic novels. Rowland tried to be funny, he said, but discovered he didn’t know how, and in the end wrote what he felt.
He said he had not set out to eliminate fortunes from fortune cookies, but realized what he was doing as he did it.
Reflecting, perhaps, the role that change has played in his own life, he said: “I don’t like telling people things are going to change their lives.”
Yang, for his part, doesn’t really care what the fortunes say so long as nobody complains. He doesn’t even read the messages. He has about 2,000 of them now. They’re rotated periodically, with about a quarter in circulation at any one time. He is always on the lookout for more.
“I pay 30 cents,” he said. “Can you write some?”
It’s a measure of the economic velocity of our world that a two-person operation in a cubbyhole office in San Francisco cranks out most of the fortunes read across the continent. It’s a measure of the strangeness of that same world that the principal criteria of those fortunes be that they not offend a single person anywhere in it.
Instead, with cosmic irony, the fortune-writing business has been turned over to a man who, despite kind intentions, is apt to end up unnerving everyone.
Where’s Confucius when you need him?
Los Angeles Times
Saturday November 13, 1999
* Career path’s twists lead geneticist on a quest to put flavor back in the fruit.
Kanti Rawal, a plant geneticist, came to California almost 20 years ago and soon thereafter embarked on a great, strange, tomato-breeding adventure that included forays into biotechnology, corporate takeovers and yellow ketchup. Rawal’s still here. The ketchup isn’t. Here’s his story.
It is the story of how at the end of the 20th century we have come to eat what we eat, including tomatoes that taste, as Rawal puts it, “like cardboard.”
Beyond tomato particulars, it is also a story that reflects the transition of farming from sole proprietor to vast industrial undertaking–as well as a story of human progress, and its discontents.
It is, in other words, a story of California.
The obvious question you might ask of a man who would make yellow ketchup is why? The short answer is someone asked him to.
Rawal is a small, energetic man, with dark wavy hair going gray, copper-brown skin as luxuriantly deep in color as polished leather. His face, at 54 years old, has the guilelessness of a child and he exerts an all-in enthusiasm to match.
In 1981, Rawal gave up a tenured position on the University of Colorado faculty–he was beginning to “sink in its comfort,” he says–and went to work for Del Monte, one of the country’s oldest and largest food processing companies. At the time, Del Monte was going through a difficult period, falling behind competitors on a number of fronts. One specific concern was the company’s failure to keep pace with competitors that had moved their tomato growing operations to California.
Del Monte originated in California, but most of its crops, and in particular its tomatoes, were grown in the Midwest. Tomatoes, up to the 1960s, were a seasonal crop eaten fresh or processed into ketchup. Cuisines that made extensive use of tomatoes–specifically Italian and Mexican foods–were little more than novelties in most American kitchens. When that changed, so did the demand for tomatoes.
To meet the surging demand, big tomato growers–Campbell’s, H.J. Heinz and Hunt’s–moved tomato operations west to California to take advantage of new harvesting and processing methods that cut costs sharply. Del Monte was caught unawares. The company had failed to recognize that California’s Central Valley, after subsidized irrigation became broadly available in the 1960s, was the most efficient place on the planet to grow almost anything.
“It’s the world’s largest natural greenhouse,” Rawal says. “The productivity of any crop that grows here is the most in the world.”
Which is another way of saying it is by far the cheapest place to grow tomatoes.
Large food companies typically breed their own varieties of plants suited to the uses of their produce and the location of their planting. An Indiana tomato wouldn’t necessarily work on a California farm. Similarly, a tomato picked by hand–as tomatoes had always been–might not fare well in the metal maw of the new mechanical pickers being used in California. The machines remove tomatoes from their vines by scooping the vine up off the ground and shaking it.
From the tomato’s point of view, the effect isn’t much different than being hit with a baseball bat. This tomato needs to be tough. It also needs to ripen at the same time as all its brother tomatoes on the vine, since the picking machine scrapes the entire plant out of the ground.
Del Monte hadn’t developed new tomato lines to meet these demands.
Rawal at the time was not a tomato specialist, per se. His doctoral work had been in wheat, with subsequent field work in African black-eyed peas. But he is a plant geneticist, and genetics is almost alone among the sciences in being governed by a single, powerful, overarching theory: evolution. You don’t have to understand a specific species to understand the forces that control it. You need only understand the general rules governing natural selection.
“My first project was to make sure Del Monte had a standing in tomatoes in California,” Rawal says. “It was a very interesting problem. You had to come up with a variety that does not disrupt the process: One, you have to have a tomato variety that will give you multiple products. Two, you’re stuck with the machinery. And three, in contrast to the Midwest, the farmers have a choice. You have to give them a reason to grow your crop. So the crop has to be high yield.”
Rawal had come to the United States from southern India in the 1960s for graduate study under renowned geneticist Jack Harlan, who instilled in students a sense of almost missionary obligation. Rawal became a ready convert, a pocket-sized, longhaired, bearded, radicalized Indian teaching assistant hopping off a motorcycle to teach Illinois farm boys about the life-saving power of wheat seeds. Then came Vietnam and its powerful disaffections; the zeal receded into benign pragmatism.
He became a problem solver. Give him a puzzle, he would try to solve it. Del Monte gave Rawal tomatoes. He went to work
Mr. Tomato in a Deep, Deep Rut
If you need tomatoes, you go see Charley Rick.
More precisely, you go to UC Davis to the C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center, the earth’s largest repository of tomato seeds, named for its creator and genial overseer, the world’s foremost authority on tomato varieties.
Davis is a quiet, flat, friendly place, ideal for bicycles and tractors. It is one of a handful of locations around the globe where modern agriculture has been invented. As such, it is routinely praised and damned, often for the same accomplishments. Its scientists are lauded for boosting crop productivity and accused of creating food that, in the process of being re-engineered, has been denatured, robbed of taste.
Charley Rick came here as a young man at the tail end of the Great Depression. He was fresh out of Harvard and looking for a job. Any job, he says. He got one in what was then called the Department of Truck Crops. The chairman told him it might be interesting to look at tomatoes, paying particular attention to what are called bull tomatoes–mutant plants whose vines grow vigorously but produce no fruit. Rick dutifully took a trip through the tomato test plots.
“Nobody ever paid them any attention because why would you want to study something that doesn’t produce. It’s a curiosity,” Rick recollects. “I felt the same way as everybody else. It’s interesting, but. . . . A month later I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. ‘My God, Rick, you better get out there and study these things.’ ”
What Rick found in the specific case of bull tomatoes was an indication of something much larger and long overlooked: the tomato’s tremendous natural variation.
“By the end of that season, oh man, I had quite a collection of material. I just had two decades of work laid out for me. It was absolutely phenomenal.”
The two decades eventually became almost six. The study of bull tomatoes led Rick to the door of the plant’s genetic diversity. On the other side of that door lay a great wide world centered in the Andean highlands of Chile, Ecuador and Peru, where tomatoes originated. He became concerned that there was no consistent effort being made anywhere in the world to preserve this tremendous genetic legacy.
On the contrary, contemporary agricultural practice tended to reduce diversity, not enhance it. Farmers want predictability, not difference. Species were disappearing almost as he watched. Rick organized hunting expeditions to the Andes. By day, he would scour the countryside for new tomatoes. At night, in camp, he would extract the seed, preparing for transport back to Davis, where he eventually amassed the world’s most diverse collection of tomato seed, which is to say the future of the tomato on earth.
In a superheated world where youngsters are told they will change jobs about as often as they change oil in their cars, Rick has stayed put, building and tending this great bank of genetic possibilities. He’s a lanky man who wears running shoes and leaves his bush hat on indoors. Today, long after retirement, he comes to the university every day and does pretty much the same things he’s been doing for the last 60 years.
Rick’s legacy, the Tomato Genetics Resource Center, is housed in a plain concrete building called the Annex. Inside is a small room with a smaller 42-degree closet that is the vault in which the seeds of more than 4,000 varieties of tomatoes are kept. They are stored in plain envelopes, sorted chronologically into drawers. Several species stored here have gone extinct in the wild.
They’d be gone for good if Rick hadn’t brought them back home to this closet.
Kanti Rawal talked to Rick about developing new tomato lines that would stand up to the rigors of modern harvesting and processing equipment. Rick steered him toward likely tomato types, and over the course of the next two years Rawal crossbred tomatoes until he came up with plants that did exactly what Del Monte wanted.
By 1985, Rawal’s new tomatoes helped Del Monte establish itself in the stewed tomato and sauce businesses, but the company’s ketchup was tanking. The advent of home tomato sauces had cut sharply into ketchup consumption and Heinz was routing all competition in the market that was left.
At about this time, Del Monte was taken over by the hastily arranged conglomerate that would become RJR Nabisco. Rawal was placed on a corporation-wide new product committee and it was there, on a conference call, that the question of what to do about ketchup was raised.
Del Monte’s market research people had turned up an avenue of attack. The researchers had determined that young people, especially teenagers, dislike sharp, pungent foods. Mustard, for example; they hate mustard. That was OK with Del Monte since it wasn’t big in the mustard business, anyway. The researchers also said that one thing young eaters did like was brightly colored food.
If Del Monte had something sweet and bright, it could sell that.
Rawal thought about that for a while.
How about this, he proposed: We could make a yellow ketchup and attack Heinz on two fronts: We could invade their ketchup business on one hand and cut their market share in mustard on the other.
The marketing people were thrilled, but they wondered: How do we make ketchup yellow?
It’s simple, Rawal said. You make it out of something yellow, bananas, for example. Banana ketchup? Well, yes. Rawal had previously helped a Del Monte Philippine subsidiary develop a yellow condiment out of ripe bananas that were otherwise being thrown away. Ketchup is a combination of vinegar, sugar, spices and some solid. There are ancient recipes that use almost anything but tomatoes–walnuts, mushrooms, gooseberries, even anchovies–as the solid ingredient.
What Rawal didn’t know but soon found out was that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was not a big fan of ancient recipes. If something was going to be called ketchup, it had to be made from tomatoes.
Well, he said, let’s make it with yellow tomatoes then.
This is the kind of idea that often emerges when people are encouraged to think outside the box (or bottle, as it happened). Never mind that this was probably silly on the face of it. It sounded good at the time. It was new. It was great. And, most important, Heinz didn’t have it.
Rawal was told to go for it.
“The first thing I did was call Charley Rick again. I said, ‘I’m looking for a yellow tomato I can use for processing, to make ketchup.’ He laughed and asked me what I was smoking.”
Rick told Rawal that yellow tomato mutants were fairly common. About one in 100,000 naturally occurring mutations is yellow. And there were in fact, yellow tomato seeds sold commercially to home gardeners. But a backyard tomato would never hold up to the rigors of the ketchup business. The new tomato had to be a firm variety. All the tomatoes on the plant would have to mature at the same time. And they had to have the correct balance of sugars and acids. What Rawal needed were the exact qualities red processing tomatoes had, only in yellow.
Rawal, if he had chosen, could have attempted to make the yellow tomato in a laboratory. Color is determined by a single gene on Chromosome 6 of the tomato’s DNA. Rawal could have attempted to splice the yellow gene into one of the red tomatoes he had previously developed. But he is not a big fan of biotechnical solutions, which he thinks are susceptible to public disapproval and more difficult to achieve in any event.
He quotes an old Indian proverb: Why try to eat the honey with your elbow if you have a spoon.
The spoon in this case was simple, classic Mendelian genetics. He set up a breeding program starting with yellow mutant seed from Rick’s gene bank and standard red processing tomatoes. Crossbreeding tomatoes is extraordinarily simple. You grow the two varieties you want to cross, then physically rub the pollen from one onto the stigma of the other. In a month or so, you’ll have a live hybrid in your hand.
The difficulty is in knowing what that hybrid will be–which characteristics of each parent it will have. Even more difficult is getting the desired characteristics into the succeeding generations. It’s a fairly laborious, time-consuming process. There is simply no way to make the plant grow any faster than it wants.
Rawal was able to use Del Monte’s resources around the world to give him a virtually endless growing season. He started the hybrids in the company greenhouses in San Leandro, in the San Francisco Bay Area, then followed the sun to Guadalajara, Mexico; the Central Valley; the Philippines; the Imperial Valley; and Stockton. The effect was to squeeze six breeding seasons into a single calendar year.
In eighteen months, by the summer of 1986, he had the tomato he wanted–a yellow Roma–and enough seed to plant a 100-acre test plot near Modesto.
“It was quite a sight, all the golden and yellow fruit,” he says.
Del Monte processed the tomatoes into paste that fall–a gorgeous golden paste that would make a gorgeous golden ketchup. Rawal had a label designed, a bright, sunshiny label, with yellow edging into orange. All he needed now was the money to produce enough seed for a real crop the next year.
He never got it. That era of junk-bond-built companies like RJR Nabisco was coming to an end and the pieces were coming apart, dealt off as quickly as they were assembled. The Del Monte pineapple business went to the Japanese. A Mexican drug king bought the fresh produce business. The new products committee was disbanded. Within six months, Rawal left the company, packing his expertise off to a new subsidiary of a French cement company that decided it wanted to get into biotech.
That didn’t last either.
So he started a small company called California Hybrids. He was the sole employee. He began another breeding program, this time aimed at something even harder to achieve than yellow ketchup. He wanted to breed tomatoes that taste good.
The Painted Tomato
Kanti Rawal hands over a tiny yellow gumdrop of a tomato, so small you can pop it in your mouth whole. Bitten, it explodes with an intense sugar-candy sweetness.
“I’m totally surprised when it comes to the flavor of the combinations,” he says.
Then he scurries off to the next row.
It’s more than a decade since the cement boys gave him his walking papers. Rawal has been working with tomatoes, mostly yellow tomatoes, ever since. He has spent the time in places like this, a small test plot in a field outside Gilroy.
“Look,” he says. He plucks a medium-sized orange fruit from the vine. He cuts it open. Its insides are a brilliant crimson, so red it hurts. He looks up, seeking recognition of this marvel, takes a bite, tosses it aside, then bops off to the next row, the next plant, the next taste.
He’s accompanied in the tomato plot–chased, would be closer to it–by Yiran Yu, a geneticist who has made the jump from the science of plants to the science of money. Yu’s become an entrepreneur and is interested in buying some of Rawal’s seeds. The Chinese market beckons. Dr. Yu hasn’t much time. Dr. Rawal has many tomatoes. One more variety he wants Yu to see, to touch, to taste. At one point, Yu sighs and says: “If you’re in a hurry, never go out with a tomato breeder.”
The plot is not much larger than a big suburban backyard. It’s stuffed with more color, shape and size differentiation than you’d see in a supermarket in a decade: tangerine tomatoes, blood red tomatoes, brick reds, lemon yellows, pumpkin oranges, tomatoes the size of softballs, of jellybeans, and everything in between. The tastes are a riot of sweets and sours, no two alike. Cherry tomatoes, Rockys, Sun Drops and Romas.
To think that out of this profuse exuberance, supermarkets sell tomatoes as tame and uniform as the contemporary tomato makes Rawal wonder.
“How can they have no taste at all?” he says.
With the tomato as with many things, the qualities–taste and flavor–that made the thing what it was were lost in the process of improving it. An oft-cited Department of Agriculture consumer survey shows more dissatisfaction with tomatoes than any other food item.
There is broad agreement that the answer lies not so much in the tomatoes themselves as in what is done to them. In 1975, researchers at UC Davis demonstrated that spraying green tomatoes with an organic gas, ethylene, makes them turn red. Such tomatoes could then be picked while they were still green (and thus firm enough to withstand the rigors of transport), stored, then gassed red just before delivery to markets.
That is now the predominant means of handling tomatoes. Most tomato scientists think the tomatoes have the same inherent flavor, but it never develops because the fruit is picked before maturity, before crucial flavor chemicals can act.
“Ripening is a sunshine-induced process,” Rawal says. “Gassing won’t do it. We end up with a green tomato that looks red. I call them painted tomatoes. Painted with gas.”
By the end of the day at the test plot, Rawal looks as if he’s been painted. To show you the seeds inside a big beefsteak, he simply crushes it in his hand. His shirt front is splattered with the juice of dozens of tomatoes he has picked, sliced, squeezed and tasted.
Rawal experimented with more than 250 tomato varieties, looking for one that could withstand contemporary practices and recapture the lost flavor.
In the end, he was faced not so much with finding flavor as choosing among many different ones. Almost all of the tomatoes in his plot taste better than any store-bought tomato you’ve eaten in 20 years. As eager and proud as he is about what he is growing, he is suspect of the food industry’s ability to capitalize on it. He has 29 different kinds of tomatoes in this one little plot. A normal supermarket might stock two–red Romas and red beefsteak. They’re bought on price, merely as commodities.
Rawal decided the only way to get his tomatoes to market was to do it himself.
Farmers, who at the drop of a John Deere cap will tell you how much they prize their freedom, are governed by more rigid laws than anyone on earth. Nature knows nothing about clemency or parole. Farmers battle mainly by imposing regimes on the balky land. They call these regimes farms, but out here in the Central Valley they’re very much closer to factories.
To look at this land as it must have looked a century ago and see a great fertile basin would have been lunatic, like landing on the Sea of Tranquillity and saying, “Yes, the sofa goes here.”
The valley is gridded into fields like crossword squares and pancake flat. The dirt-hugging towns are built of cinder block so low to the ground they look like they’re trying to duck the sun, which pours down here in the same way the rain might somewhere else. It has volume and texture and makes your head hurt.
Yet California’s great Central Valley, virtually a desert, has been transformed into an assembly line of food. It is 430 miles long and 75 miles wide and generates more than a quarter of the country’s produce. California’s agricultural output has quintupled in 30 years, doubled just since Rawal started working with tomatoes. It dwarfs that of old Bread Basket states.
Before farming, almost all humans were engaged in the production of food. Now, in an advanced industrial society, almost no one is. In California, the biggest farm state in the biggest farm country, farmers and ranchers comprise less than 1% of the state’s 33 million people.
The sheer volume and variety they produce are incredible: 90% of the nation’s broccoli, Brussels sprouts, celery and nectarines; all of its artichokes, almonds, olives and prunes. There are melons, garlic, lemons, limes and nectarines; onions, bok choy, sweet corn, red peppers, green peppers and alfalfa hay.
“I’m trying to think of what they can’t grow here,” says John Guido, who has been put in charge of growing Kanti Rawal’s tomatoes.
Guido is an unlikely farmer. His big white crew cab Ford, with its laptop and hands-free cell phone, is as much office as transport. Guido is built like an offensive lineman from a small school. At 27, he is rounding and balding all at once. He has sad eyes and a squeaky voice, which has a constant sort of mirth in it, like a guy getting away with something. Which, of course, he is. This isn’t a job, it’s a blast. He eats the dust, smells the fresh-cut hay and cackles at his great fortune.
Guido’s parents were professionals, city people in Monterey. He ended up at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo studying ag business because his best friends went there. And he fell in love with it. Fresh out of school he went to work for a big tomato processor, which is how he and Rawal and a couple of other men became partners.
They never considered planting anywhere but out in the valley. It is, as Rawal says, “a God-made greenhouse.” There is high heat and no rain from April through October, perfect tomato weather. The 30-degree day-to-night temperature swing kills the bugs. The dryness kills the fungi.
The productivity of the place makes the economics crazy. The label on a bottle of ketchup costs as much as the tomatoes inside and the transportation twice that. The people who plant and pick the fruit are paid half what the man who mops the produce aisle makes.
Guido has a crew of 18 pickers working a field full of Rawal’s yellow Romas. They come out early. Layered in fleece and cottons, they look like a track team out for a morning workout. They work two to a row, combing through the plants, picking into 10-gallon buckets. They dump the buckets onto the carpeted trough at the front of a 40-foot-wide platform on wheels, pulled by a tractor. On the platform, luckier workers, in the shade of a canvas awning, sort, clean and pack the fruit straight into cartons for store delivery.
By nightfall, it will be at a wholesale center. It will be on the produce aisle by morning and on the table by dinner.
Guido planted just enough this year to test productivity and market appeal. To hold down costs and determine the tomato’s durability, they handled this year’s crop as if it were headed for a paste plant. As a result, their costs are a third those of other fresh market growers and they’re selling the Romas for triple the market price. Low cost, high price. No wonder Guido is smiling.
They divided the harvest into three parts, sending portions to grocery stores, others off to be dried or diced. The new yellow tomato passed every test. It will be coming soon to a supermarket near you.
They planted 30 acres this year. Next year maybe 500.
At this rate, how far off could yellow ketchup be? Maybe in two years, Rawal says. Then he pauses and grins.
Or maybe never? he’s asked.
Yes, he says, maybe never.
He knows that his is a faint whisper of a dream, maybe even a silly California dream. At this point he doesn’t really care because he has already done something good. He has made a new tomato.
THE SEATTLE TIMES
Winter foods, in other words. Big, recognizable animal parts. Things with bones in them. Whole roast birds. Chops. Stews. Chewy breads. Hard fruits. Hearty soups so thick you need a fork to eat them. The dentist sat there in an office filled with bustling women, diplomas, certificates, posters of talking toothbrushes and the basic food groups, telling me about cave men.
Throughout what he called his little song-and-dance, the dentist held in his hand and occasionally referred to a 300-year-old jawbone of an American Indian. He talked about the perfect arch the jaw described. He said the teeth on the jaw had never known fluoride yet were cavity-free. He noted the jaw’s large size, which he said was no accident, but the product of a life lived to the full extent of its genetic possibility.
I imagined little bits of DNA flexing their muscles, making their little double helixes bulge.
Chew, some master gene would call.
Chew hard, the genes would respond.
The dentist ran his fingers lovingly over the ancient teeth, several of which were ground down by all that chewing, rubbed away to half their original height. The tops of these teeth were flattened, eroded like river rocks down to a round smoothness.
Look at that, the dentist said, pointing at a pair of molars that had fused. You think sugar or bacteria could get in there?
I looked. The tops of the teeth were melded into impermeability. All the cracks were filled in.
Doesn’t look like it, I said.
Not a chance, he said.
I tell you this as a sort of preemptive attack on cute food. There are times to be cute. The table in winter is not one of them.
This is my favorite season to eat. You can sock it away and feel some hibernal warmth. This isn’t just eating. It’s satisfying ancient needs, defending the body against what Camus’ Mersault, alone on his deathbed in a prison cell, called the benign indifference of the universe.
Chomping with Prudhomme-ian appetite on some slow-roasted loin or soaking up the last of a wine-rich stew gravy with a good, hard bread, I think, Yes, this will get me through.
Through what is no longer important. Winter is not something we worry much about dying in anymore, but the urges to outlast it are there, vestigial watchtowers of self-defense.
In spring, we’re anxious, pent-up and malcontented. We’re en route. There’s no time to stop. Nothing is fresh yet, nothing available until the first of the early crops comes in and then it’s asparagus, which is good, sometimes very good, but hardly soul-satisfying.
Summer belongs to the pickers and nibblers, food that can be eaten without sitting down.
In autumn, we eat in greedy celebration.
But winter, in winter we eat for protection. By late winter, which in the Northwest begins about now and lasts through May, we can and will eat anything, sometimes everything.
We eat to satisfy hunger, but also to placate memory. To feel good again. To be full, which is to say, not empty.
All this makes brisket an an ideal winter dinner dish.
I got this recipe from friends who got it out of a back issue of Town and Country magazine. It is attributed to Mary Yturria and is the least cute, most real-life recipe I’ve ever seen. No scant teaspoons of this or that exotic and expensive something. No conversions from ounces to milliliters. This is a recipe you can shop for at Costco, with measurements for people who learned to add two and two on a calculator.
A bottle of this. A bottle of that.
Given this rather approximate approach, the recipe is easily adjusted. I leave out the salt. There’s enough of it in the Worcestershire and pepper sauces. I usually substitute red-pepper flakes for the fresh hot pepper and double (or if it’s really cold, triple) the amount. And I use only about two-thirds of the vinegar.
Mary suggests uncovering the brisket for the last half-hour or so to cook away what liquid the brisket hasn’t absorbed. I usually serve this with rice and like to save enough liquid to serve on the side as a sauce.
The leftovers can be sliced for sandwiches or shredded for tacos or simply reheated with the leftover rice.
There is something perverse about describing Tex-Mex food as perfect wintertime cookery, but this dish meets the two chief criteria of great winter food: It fills the belly with food and the house with warmth.
We’ll make it through.
1 beef brisket, at least three pounds
1 10-ounce bottle of Worcestershire sauce
1 2-ounce bottle of hot-pepper sauce
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon chopped hot red pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 pint vinegar
1 stick of margarine (1/2 cup)
1. Choose a roasting pan or casserole dish that is big enough to hold the brisket but not so big the beef looks lonely in the bottom of it. The meat will cook better and stay moister if it fits snugly in. Line the pan with foil, then place the brisket fat-side-up in it.
2. Mix Worcestershire, hot-pepper sauce, black pepper, red pepper, salt, vinegar and margarine in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, simmer for 10 minutes, then pour all the liquid over the beef.
3. Cover and cook in a 325-degree oven.
4. Take a hike. Take a nap.
5. Four or five hours later, eat.
The rolling hills to the west of the Mississippi River Valley are one of the world’s` great fertile places. The soil is so dark and rich it sometimes doesn’t even seem like dirt. It possesses a density and a dampness that have more in common with chocolate cake batter than a potato field in Eastern Washington. This land pumps out corn and cattle and alfalfa and soybeans and oats in such prodigious quantities that when I was a boy families would make a very good living on a mere 120 150 acres. And I’m talking about real families here. Our seven kids was considered a middling amount.
So why can’t people there cook?
Oh, they prepare food, alright, and eat it in sometimes prodigious quantities. A typical breakfast in my aunt’s farm kitchen might feature a bowl of dry cereal w ith fresh berries, cream and sugar — for dessert. The breakfast itself — which wou ld be served at say 8 o’clock after three hours of work called chores, a kind of warm-up act to the day’s real labors — might start with fried eggs, a selection of meats including such tidy cuts as a loin cut pork chop, baked ham or ground chuck. It would almost always include freshly baked bread and homemade preserves, milk, coffee and juice.
Lunch, which was called dinner, would on a normal day be several times that large. On special occasions, say, threshing days when cousins and neighbors would gather at a different farm every day to cut and thresh oats, maybe 20 women — wives, daughters, cousins — would work in the kitchen from dawn until long after dusk preparing three full, heaping hot meals. Lunch on a threshing day would be served on planks laid across 50-gallon barrels and would include enough food to feed, oh, Wallingford, if everybody there was especially hungry. Most discussions of food centered on the amounts not the taste. To say that anybody gave conscious thought to the taste of the food while preparing it would be like accusing them of following fashion, which, unless you’re talking about whether to wear the green John Deere cap or the red Farmall, they most definitely did not.
I do not say these things to be cruel and do not intend them to be read as criticism. I’m one of them and would have remained so always had I not proved such a miserable failure at my chosen profession.
I had dreamed for most of my life of being a writer. The origins of this dream a re unclear to me, beginning maybe when reading John Tunis’s “The Kid From Tomkinsville,” or “Tom Sawyer,” but I don’t know. These are guesses. As I got older the dream became more elaborate. I knew where I would live — above a rocky coast — what I would wear — dark turtlenecks — and what I would smoke — a carved pipe with a curved stem.
I imagined the titles of books and, this was the best, the blurbs that would go on the back cover announcing me as the voice of a new generation. Needless to say, I never actually wrote anything.
Still, I nurtured the vision through adolescence, through four long years in the military, through college and graduate school and a procession of very bad jobs. I wrote scores of research papers in school, hundreds of news and sports stories afterward, political speeches and advertisements, even for a while direct mail solicitations. I was a professional writer, but none of this really counted. My wife at the time hated all of it. So did I. Beneath the surface charm of this stuff, which was plentiful, I knew it wasn’t really writing.
So in the winter of 1979 we set out from the Midwest for the rockiest coast imaginable — Oregon. We rolled into Portland in mid-winter in the midst of one of those famous Columbia Gorge ice storms, jobless and ecstatic. I had a source of income — a political consulting job that required no work. I had a pipe. I had a book to write.
I set to work on my little Smith-Corona portable on a novel about , well, that was a problem. It was about everything: peace, war, life, death, technology, Wittgenstein, innocence and the end thereof. This book was going to be a new beginning, not just for me but probably world literature as well.
My wife took a job with a local school district and I sat in the second bedroom of our suburban duplex apartment and began to type. I made elaborate outlines, character sketches, plot developments, scene treatments. I made everything except a story. All this stuff in my head didn’t seem so wonderful when it got t o the paper. At some point in my life I had promised myself that when I finally did write a novel, by god, it would be a yarn. It would have the intellectual content of a Bertrand Russell treatise, but it would be a story you could get lost in. Unfortunately, I did. Get lost, that is. Living in a strange town where I knew almost no one proved a double-edged sword. I had no diversions, but I also had no help. I slowly began to realize what the problem was: I had no idea what I was doing. Properly, this scared the bejesus out of me. I knew everyday when I walked into that room I was preparing to fail. I began doing what I think any normal person would do. I began avoiding the room.
I read an essay a couple of years ago by Michael Talent that was as insightful on the job of writing as anything I’ve ever seen. It was called The Talent of t he Room and it was about the one absolutely necessary skill you must have to write. You must sit by yourself all day in a room, alone. This might not be up there on a par with, say, welding structural steel on a skyscraper, but it’s a very hard thing to do.
I couldn’t just outright not go in The Room. I had to have an excuse. I began to cook. At that point my sole relationship to food had been on the traditional Midwestern male end of it — I ate, sometimes in prodigious amounts. I had no idea, really, how to cook anything.
I began searching for recipes and as I progressed a little I began looking for ever more elaborate recipes. The value of this elaboration was the more work the food preparation required, the sooner I could justify leaving The Room. The first really complicated meal I attempted was a Julia Child TV recipe for Veal Oscar — a hollandaise smothered concoction of veal and asparagus. If I remember right, I got the asparagus out of a can. This was a good indication of the overall quality of the dish, but I was undaunted. I didn’t know any more about cooking than I did about writing novels, but it didn’t matter. The cooking was not work. It was an escape from it. It was play. And so it has remained. I learned about cooking in the best, if not the most efficient, way one should learn about anything — through simple curiosity. Because it was play and non-competitive, I was willing to try almost anything. This can lead to some spectacular failures and it has. I remember a coq au van that was so disgusting to look at I wondered seriously if aliens hadn’t abducted our real dinner and left this space rock in its place.
There have also been triumphs. The recipe below began life as a Pierre Franey version of Shoemaker’s chicken, evolved through research at home and in a Greenwich Village Italian restaurant into its current somewhat complicated but easily accomplished form. It’s a perfect dish for days when the writing goes poorly. It has a festive quality that you hope causes everyone to think you are a wonderful person whether or not the typewriter tells a different tale. And the novel? Everyone died in the end and so did it, page by page in a fireplace while dinner roasted companionably in the next room.
1 chicken, cut up for frying
1 lb. Italian link chicken sausage
2 dozen whole mushrooms
1 tbspn olive oil
2 tbspns butter four cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup Italian parsleyPreparation:
1. Place the whole sausages in a sauté pan with 1/2 cup wine. Cook covered under medium heat for 20 minutes.
2. Uncover and cook until wine evaporates and sausages brown. Set aside.
3. While the sausages are cooking, wash and dry the chicken. Reserve the back for stock. Dust with flour.
4. In the largest sauté pan you can find, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sau té the chicken under medium heat until golden brown and cooked through, about 20-30 minutes.
5. Deglaze the sausage pan with 1/2 cup wine, cook the mushrooms in the wine, covered, for five minutes.
6. Uncover and cook until wine evaporates and mushrooms brown, about one minute.
7. Combine the sausage and mushrooms with the chicken.
8. Melt the butter in the center of the chicken pan. Add the garlic to the butte r. Sauté briefly, about one minute.
9. Under high heat, squeeze the lemon juice into the pan; stir.
10. Add the final 1/2 cup of wine.
11. Sprinkle the parsley throughout.
12. Cover and cook 3 minutes.
Pacific Magazine, 1993
ONE ADVERTISEMENT FOR Starbucks, the Seattle coffee company, proclaims that the firm’s coffee buyers will “go to the ends of the Earth” to find the perfect beans.
This is intended metaphorically, the Earth being round and without end. The figurative end of the earth for Starbucks most days is onAirport Way South
, down the hall in the company’s tasting rooms. But still, as a description of the geography of coffee-growing, the ad is approximately correct.
It is, in fact, hard to imagine a place nearer the end of the earth than the Ijen Plateau of East Java, Indonesia.
Influenced perhaps by an image of idyllic desert isles with broad white-sand beaches and waving palms, we tend to think of islands as flat. In many parts of the South Pacific, the beaches are indeed flat. The islands are not.
Indonesia lies along a 5,000-mile arc between the Pacific and Indian oceans, exactly where the vast Pacific oceanic plate crashed into the continental shelves of Southeast Asia and Australia. The 13,667 islands of the archipelago were torn from the continents or thrust up from the ocean floor as results of those collisions a couple of million years ago.
Java, fourth-largest island in the archipelago, is a long, thin stegosaurus of an island, its smooth coastal plains interrupted inland by a roughly serrated backbone that runs its 600-mile length. The coastal flats are in many places swamps, where the seas don’t so much stop and the land start as the two intermingle. Ribbons of land enclose the ocean. Eventually, the land wins out and becomes solid.
Wet rice and sugar-cane plains shimmer in the Javanese haze. The roads are thick with people: farmers following water buffalo; children in Muslim veils and caps marching to school; small buses overflowing with people, bits and pieces of people protruding at every door and window.
The water disappears altogether as the earth rises and the abrupt hills become the mountains that form the backbone. The spine rises quickest and highest at the eastern end of the island, as if hunching up just before diving straight off into the sea again.
Crops are segregated by altitude. The rice and cane give way to rubber, then tobacco, then cocoa.
Finally, at about 4,000 feet, at the end of miles of twisted, rutted roads, beyond people – which is saying a great deal when you’re talking about Java, the world’s most densely populated place of any significant size, an island the size of New York state with 120 million people on it, where it is hard to ever be out of sight of the next village, or the last one – finally, when there is nothing else but monkeys scampering across the road and mountains, some of them still steaming, here is coffee country.
The coffee business is an immense worldwide enterprise. The up-country of East Java and a couple of dozen other places like it around the globe are at one end of the business. The coffee in your Sunday morning cup is the other.
In between, the business employs an estimated 30 million people – one of every 177 inhabitants on the planet.
Seattleites often seem to think they invented coffee and have a monopoly on it. This is definitely not Seattle.
WILLIAM UKERS INCLUDED these words in the opening of his encyclopedic 1935 book, “All About Coffee”:
“All nations do it homage. It has become recognized as a human necessity … Coffee has an important place in the rational dietary of all the civilized peoples of Earth. It is a democratic beverage. Not only is it the drink of fashionable society, but it is also the favorite beverage of the men and women who do the world’s work, whether they toil with brain or brawn. It has been termed `the most grateful lubricant known to the human machine’ and the `most delightful taste in all nature.’ ”
Ukers might have gone a bit overboard, though certainly not in describing coffee as a human necessity or democratic beverage, or even as the most delightful taste in nature. Those characterizations seem almost self-evident in Seattle, the de facto coffee capital of North America. Even here, however, the “rational dietary of all the civilized peoples” seems overbroad, a touch Euro-centric to modern readers.
But Ukers is neither the first nor the last to overreach in his claims for coffee. In his impressively comprehensive survey of coffee’s history, Ukers himself details many assertions more preposterous than his own.
It has been written, he writes, that Esau sold his birthright for coffee; that Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed it as a drug; that Helen, wanting something to drown her sorrows in, brought coffee back to Troy from Egypt; that coffee could cure dropsy, gout and scurvy, and prevent miscarriages; that it fosters insurrection, impotence and hedonism.
Wealthy Turkish homes of the 16th century employed full-time coffee stewards, and the failure of a husband to provide coffee for his wife was considered just cause (grounds?) for divorce.
An 18th-century German writer described coffee houses as “theatres for the exercise of profane eloquence.”
All of this for a drink of absolutely no nutritive value whatsoever, made by various methods of mixing hot water with roasted fruit seeds native to East Africa.
Coffee berries grow on large shrubs, eight to 15 feet high. The small, red, oval fruits are of a class known as drupes. Unlike other drupes, including cherries and peaches, coffee is consumed by throwing away the fruit, then baking, grinding and boiling the pits.
It is, upon consideration, an odd sort of thing to have ever come into existence. First, somebody had to find the fruit. They then had to cut through it to find the seed, remove the seed, remove two layers of skin encasing it, then dry, cook and pulverize what was left.
All in all, the process is more than a little less obvious than Eve spying an apple on the limb, plucking and handing it to Adam, who takes a bite, and says, “Oh-oh, this is good.”
The legends of coffee’s discovery reflect this. There are several.
One suggests the angel Gabriel delivered the original coffee plant to the Prophet Mohammed. Another maintains that a pilgrim was alerted to coffee berries by the particularly beautiful singing of a bird perched on a coffee tree. Yet another holds that an Ethiopian shepherd complained to the abbot of a nearby monastery that his goats were made unruly by eating coffee berries, whereupon the abbot fed the stuff to his monks to keep them awake during prayers.
Coffee originated in the uplands of Ethiopia and was first cultivated there by Arabs who had colonized the area. The Arabs later transplanted it to Yemen, whose port city of Mocha became the first of many place names to be associated with coffee.
The coffee trade was a closely guarded monopoly for more than a hundred years. The Arabs sold it throughout Europe but forbade the export of the plants themselves or the means to grow them.
Whatever the truth of the legend of the shepherd and the abbot, coffee did become associated with religious worship. It was common among 16th-century Muslim dervishes to drink coffee in preparation for worship.
Alternately promoted and prohibited, its use spread. It was introduced to Constantinople early in the 1500s and the demand soon outstripped the supply. Constantinople was turned into an early day Seattle. Coffee houses opened at a rate even Howard Schultz might envy.
They prospered, in fact, too much.
Soon, the clergy began complaining that the coffee houses had more customers than the churches. Prohibition once more followed. (If Seattle had clergy, perhaps there would be reason to worry. Maybe being unchurched and over-coffeed are connected, Seattle having one of the smallest percentages of church-goers and highest percentage of premium coffee drinkers in the nation.)
Historically, however, coffee prohibitions have been as apt to arise on political grounds as religious. Coffee houses in Turkey, Persia and England were at various times decried as hotbeds of sedition.
The Arabs were able to maintain their monopoly for only so long. Seeds were smuggled out to India, probably by Muslims returning from pilgrimage to Mecca, in the 17th century. Dutch traders took it from there to Ceylon and later the East Indies. One of these Indonesian plants was later given to Louis XIV of France, who raised it in a hothouse in Paris.
The French at one time tried to grow it in Dijon, but the crop failed. Cuttings and seeds from Louis’ hothouse plant then were transplanted to the Americas, forming the basis for all the coffees grown in Central and Latin America.
Coffee thrived in the New World, both as a plant and as a drink. The manifests of the Mayflower made no mention of coffee, but shortly after the ship landed at Plymouth Rock the first coffee dealer in American history, a Boston woman named Dorothy Jones, was licensed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony to beginning selling coffee.
It has been here since. William Penn recorded paying $4.68 per pound for green coffee beans. Ben Franklin owned part of a coffee house, which were quite the vogue in post-colonial America. One Boston cafe was seven stories tall, made of stone, marble and brick and cost half a million dollars to build.
By the 20th century, coffee had become part of the American culture. It was apt to be poured before water in most restaurants. Homes had percolator pots simmering on stovetops throughout the day. People drank it all day and all night. Even cowboys drank it around campfires.
There were songs about coffee. It was featured in paintings. It was so ubiquitous one name was insufficient. Coffee, joe, java, mud, mocha. By 1962, consumption of coffee throughout the country averaged 3.3 cups per day per person, man, woman and child.
But that was the peak. Coffee suffered, ironically, from its popularity. Advances in technology enabled national roasters to ship pre-roasted, pre-ground coffee across the country. Small roasters disappeared. Coffee became a prominent loss leader in supermarkets. As national competition stiffened, prices declined.
Large roasters, desperate to hold onto their shares of a shrinking market, cut prices still further and sometimes substituted lesser and lesser quality beans – bastardizing the coffee, is how one trader describes it – to compensate. Prices and consumption raced each other in a downward spiral.
“Every time somebody tried to sell quality instead of price, they got hammered back into the box they were trying to crawl out of,” says Dave Olsen, chief coffee buyer for Starbucks.
Simultaneously, many of the coffee-producing countries of the world had been thrown into disarray as the colonial era in Africa, Asia and Latin America shuddered to a close.
As colonial powers left or were thrown out of country after country, they frequently took their agricultural expertise with them. In many places, the local population did not have the training or financial wherewithal to pick up the work their colonial masters dropped. In others, cycles of war and revolution interrupted or stopped commerce altogether.
Post-colonial resentment in many countries led to the persecution, banishment and in more than a few instances murder of the commercial classes that had controlled the trade.
The result in so far as coffee was concerned was a disastrous decline in quality.
An era had passed.
By the 1970s, coffee consumption in the United States was well into a precipitous freefall that only now shows signs of bottoming out. As hard as it might be for people in Seattle to believe, coffee consumption is half what it was 30 years ago.
SEATTLE HAS BECOME A notable spot in the coffee world based largely on the phenomenal success of a single company – Starbucks – and its seemingly endless and still growing parade of followers.
Starbucks was founded in 1971 by three guys who at the time knew next to nothing about the business other than that they liked to drink good coffee and it was hard to find.
The three – Gordon Bowker, Zev Siegl and Jerry Baldwin – were at least as interested in achieving some sort of populist business ideal as amassing fortunes, which they seem to have done in spite of themselves. The goal was a sort of beverage variant of the “power to the people” ethos of the era.
The three hadn’t a clue they were entering a sinking market.
But there was a counter-trend just under way. Concentrated mainly in California, a kind of epicurean movement toward high-quality, locally produced foods was beginning. It was born largely in reaction to the homogenization of tastes implied by mass marketing, and at least in its early days emphasized quality, freshness and hand-crafting more than elitism and high prices.
“I never thought of it as the next big thing,” Bowker says. “We were just looking for a place to get a good cup of coffee.”
“I was a writer. I had just gotten a job and I had a paycheck and I thought: Now that I have money, what do I want to buy? What I wanted was, I didn’t want to drink any more bad coffee.”
Bowker began making regular trips to Vancouver, B.C., to buy coffee for himself, then for friends, then for friends of friends, until finally the U.S. Customs intervened with an explanation of the difference between shopping and smuggling. Bowker, Siegl and Baldwin decided to start a coffee company.
They scraped together $10,000, built a store in the Pike Place Market and prepared to provide good coffee to the good people of Seattle. They lacked one key ingredient: coffee.
They sent Siegl to California to find it.
Bowker recalls: “He called back and said, `I found the guy.’
“He found the guy all right.”
About the time William Ukers was composing his intoxicated account of coffee’s history, a young Dutch boy named Alfred Peet was embarking on an investigation of his own, one that would occupy much of the rest of his life.
Peet as a teenager in 1930s Amsterdam was sent to apprentice in a coffee trading house his grandfather had purchased as an investment.
“My grandfather was a butcher. He bought a coffee business. I don’t know why he chose coffee. He wasn’t a talkative fellow. I wasn’t an asking boy,” Peet says now.
Peet proved, however, to be an eager boy with an acquisitive mind. Amsterdam had been a coffee center since the 18th century and Peet soaked up the traditions and most of all the tastes. He became an accomplished coffee and tea man, working in the trading house and later in Indonesia, home of Java, synonymous with coffee.
He eventually found his way to the San Francisco Bay area, where he worked for a coffee importer.
“The stuff we were importing, I thought, `If I had to sell this, I’d be ashamed.’ ” That distaste led him to a decision, in the mid-1960s, to start his own business. He searched up and down the West Coast for a suitable location and finally settled in Berkeley, where he opened a small store, Peet’s Coffee and Tea, in 1966. He imported and roasted all of his own coffees, largely because there was no other way to get what he wanted.
“The first year I was here the only other specialty roaster on the West Coast was Boyd’s Coffee, in Oregon. The West Coast wasn’t much, really. Folgers, Hills Bros, S&W, there were a lot of roasters here, but they were all commercial.
“I never advertised. I didn’t even have my name on the door. I was roasting coffee. People came in because it smelled funny.”
Peet had opened his coffee shop in a residential Berkeley neighborhood, chosen because he would be surrounded by potential customers. Everything went well until new federal air pollution standards were enacted.
The new regulations forced Peet to move his roasting operation. He rented a warehouse in an industrial area and moved the roasting there, keeping the store where it was. He needed additional income, however, to cover the added expense of the warehouse rent. He began searching for a location for a second store and he also decided to begin roasting coffee for other retailers, something he had previously declined to do.
Woody Allen once said that 90 percent of greatness was showing up. Zev Siegl’s timing couldn’t have been greater. He showed up at Alfred Peet’s place exactly as Peet was looking for somebody to roast coffee for.
Thus was Starbucks coffee supply born, midwifery performed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
OVER THE YEARS, Peet went on to train dozens of people in the coffee business. It would be fair to say he has not been overwhelmingly impressed with most of them.
“I never saw so many people with high IQs so stupid,” he says.
Many, to put it mildly, were naive, especially compared with someone raised in Old World craft traditions.
“When Starbucks came and asked if I would roast for them I said I would, but on two conditions: One, when you get too big, you have to roast your own. And, two, each person would work in my store for at least a week so they would at least know how to answer a question.”
For all the changes the company has gone through in the intervening 22 years, and they have been many – its growth, its sale to marketing whiz Howard Schultz, its offering of public stock, its international stature – its strengths remain those Peet insisted on: good, fresh, high-grown beans, roasted dark and served by someone who knows what it is he or she is serving.
This is hardly a revolutionary concept, but in a coffee world of infinitely refillable, instantly forgettable diner mugs full of mud it might as well have been the second coming, which now is about how Starbucks promotes it.
As Dave Olsen puts it, “We didn’t invent coffee. We just started paying it some attention.”
That sounds a lot more purposeful than it was in the beginning, but Olsen embodies a corporate attitude at Starbucks that approaches arrogance, and would fall far over any restraining lines if it wasn’t cut with an evangelical enthusiasm.
These people love coffee. They have learned the truth and they are here to deliver it.
Starbucks these days is a kind of hybrid of its founders’ populist inklings, its current owners’ inspired marketing and the coffee traditions inherited from Peet and enhanced by Olsen, in particular Peet’s decidedly minority view of how to roast coffee.
Wine people politely discuss favorite vintages. Martini drinkers haggle over lemon or olives, shaken or stirred.
Coffee people argue roasting methods with religious fervor. How long, at what temperature, to what degree of doneness? These are not idle questions and the answers are variable.
For all the attention paid to the beans themselves and who grew them where, the single greatest variable most non-professional coffee drinkers will discern in coffee is something closer to home – right in the home, actually. How well was the coffee brewed?
The next greatest variable – and the last one the roaster has any real control over – is how the coffee is roasted.
A coffee bean is a chemically complex little piece of cellulose. Cooking it causes all sorts of things to happen. And different things happen to different degrees depending on how it is cooked.
Vastly oversimplified, the main differences are between light and dark roasted coffees. Green coffee is high in acidity. Roasting it removes acids. The more it is roasted, the more acid is removed and the more the sugars within the bean caramelize. To a point, this will make a coffee richer. Beyond that point, it can make a coffee taste burnt, which is what many people unaccustomed to darker roasts say they taste. Most roasters look for what they regard as the perfect balance between the acids, which give brewed coffee its most distinctive flavors, and the dark roasting that makes it pungent.
The roasting process is a matter of “steering between the lines all day long,” trying to keep within the curve that has been described by experience, Olsen says.
There is, as it happens, a geography to this. In the United States, the East Coast is the center of light roasting. Thanks largely to Alfred Peet, the West Coast, including Seattle, is dark-roast country.
One widely read consumer evaluation of different specialty coffees, not much referred to at Starbucks, expressed shock at the acrid taste of the company’s coffee as if it were a mistake rather than an intent.
Peet likens his roasting philosophy to the way a master carpenter handles different types of woods.
“I don’t roast dark because I want it to be dark. Coffee is like lumber. You have soft wood and hard wood and everything in between. If you have a hard bean coffee, that’s like oak. That takes a completely different roast than a soft bean coffee, which is more like pine. I adjust my roasting according to the beans.”
Peet no longer owns Peet’s Coffee and long since quit roasting for Starbucks, but both companies maintain his roasting style. At Peet’s, this produces what is likely the darkest roasting on the planet. Jim Reynolds, Peet’s chief coffee man, admits that even he is perplexed by some customer preferences.
“Our darkest roast is French Roast. It’s one of our most popular coffees and I don’t understand why. It has an almost burnt-toast taste to it,” Reynolds says.
Olsen says Starbucks’ darkest roast “approaches the combustion point of coffee. If it’s left uncooled out of the roaster, it will continue to roast and conceivably could catch fire.”
If you’re going to roast like this, Peet says, you’d better get some good beans to start with or you’ll have nothing left but ashes.
JAVA IS COFFEE-GROWING country, not coffee-drinking country. I once went into a hotel coffee shop in Java and ordered coffee.
Just coffee? the waiter asked.
Just coffee, I said.
The waiter looked at me quizzically, unsure of either my order or his English. He went to confer with the maitre’d. They came back to my table together.
Just coffee? the maitre’d asked.
Just coffee, I said.
The waiter headed for the waitstand, the maitre d’ for the kitchen. The shout went out.
Just coffee. He wants just coffee, the maitre d’ said.
Just coffee? the cook said.
Just coffee, the maitre d’ said.
Fifteen minutes later it arrived.
With a plate of bread. The Javanese couldn’t imagine someone sitting in a restaurant drinking coffee all by itself. Given the quality of coffee normally found here, that isn’t surprising.
When I and a photographer arrived this summer in the offices of the Association of Coffee Exporters in the East Javanese city of Surabaya, we were greeted warmly and served cold water, a plate of sweets and, of course, coffee. It was execrable.
Here, in the headquarters of one of the world’s great coffee-growing regions, we were being served, said our host, Nescafe. As it turned out, he was wrong. An aide rushed in to tell him to his relief the coffee was brewed, not instant. But the fact that he couldn’t tell the difference illustrates one of the great perplexities in the coffee trade:
Most growers don’t know much about coffee.
The basis of modern agriculture has long since shifted away from folk knowledge and custom curated by farmers themselves to science. The repositories of this knowledge have moved, as well. They reside in most countries within the government, where they are often seen as enablers of economic development, producers of money, not gourmet food and drink.
There are exceptions to this, of course, but coffee is not among them. Having never been an important part of the diet of people who grow it – having never been an important part of anyone’s diet, for that matter – coffee is purely a cash crop. It is grown to make money and it has often been cultivated almost as an industrial crop.
Indonesia is a notable example of this. Coffee is not native. It was brought here in 1696 by Dutch traders, who hoped to escape the Arabian monopoly by transplanting smuggled seedlings in the enormously rich soils of what were then called the Dutch East Indies.
Agricultural riches, in the form of spices, were what attracted European colonialists to Indonesia in the first place. The main produce of the islands were rice and spices – pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and mace.
The first commercial coffee crop was produced in 1711 and sold at auction in Amsterdam, where it fetched 47 cents a pound. (The commodity price of coffee on world exchanges this year has dipped as low as 40 cents a pound; so much for inflation.) Over the next two centuries coffee joined the spice trade as economic mainstays in the islands.
In the 19th century, the Dutch instituted a system of forced labor in Java that came to be regarded as a model – not, it should be noted, by the Javanese. Books were written about it. “Java, Or How To Manage a Colony” was the name of one admiring work.
Coffee growing flourished. Java, in particular, became so strongly identified with coffee production that its name became a slang synonym for coffee.
Others were less taken with The Cultivation System, as it was called, in that it effectively enslaved Javanese peasants. The classic Dutch novel, “Max Havelaar” (subtitled “Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company”) was written in protest by Eduard Dekker, a disillusioned Dutch colonial administrator.
D.H. Lawrence likened Havelaar to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It did not have the same effect, however. The Dutch clung to their plantations well into this century. They were finally nationalized by the Indonesian government in 1957.
The early Indonesian coffees were the traditional arabica variety. But the arabicas were almost completely wiped out by the rust-leaf pest. They were replaced by heartier robusta varieties, which are resistant to rust leaf.
The robustas, however, are widely regarded within the industry as inferior coffees – more productive, sturdier, but less flavorful. The coffee industry in Indonesia went into a long decline.
The only remaining arabica plants in Java are those that were planted later at higher altitudes, where the rust-leaf pest cannot survive. The necessity to grow arabica above 4,000 feet yet in a mild, frost-free climate with sufficient rain (an average plant needs more than 70 inches of water a year) effectively guarantees there is never going to be too much of it.
There are in all of Java only five plantations left growing premium highland arabica beans. All five of them are in the rich volcanic soils of Ijen.
THE CALL TO PRAYER from the village mosque echoes through the pre-dawn and is largely ignored. The call to work is answered. Coffee pickers gather in small platoons on the edge of Baru village, smoking, squatting, sitting on their bamboo baskets.
The pickers are heavily dressed. The cool mountain air seems cold here along the equator. Native Javanese long since quit the coffee-picking business, replaced generations ago by Madurese islanders who have emigrated to these East Java highlands.
Caps – a Red Hot Chili Peppers model is popular, but also represented are Nike, Guns N’ Roses, the Colorado Rockies and the state of Alaska – rubber boots over knee-high striped blue and white socks, a skirt, a shirt hanging over the skirt, another shirt over the first shirt, a sarong over all of it, a kind of proto-grunge look.
Squad leaders lecture. Pickers sit and wait for the light. They’re a mixed lot: men, women, children; whole families, old and young. As light leaks over the mountains into the valley, they move out over the river, disappearing into the trees, breaking off in groups of five and six.
Everybody argues over who should be picking where. It matters since they’re paid by volume. They all want to pick in the best places. The arguing is good-natured and is accompanied by a huge amount of laughing, joking, talking, giggling.
An old man controls the traffic with signals tapped out on a bamboo pipe drum he wears on a cord around his neck. He taps a constant stream of information. People move.
Once the pickers have moved deeper into the trees and can no longer be seen, the noise floats up the hillside above them, sounding like a huge flock of birds, chattering in the trees.
The rows are about 10 feet apart, with trees every six feet. Interspersed among them are taller broad-leafed poplars, planted to shade the coffee.
The coffee plants are from eight to 15 feet high. Some pickers carry small ladders to help them reach the top. Others climb up or bend the trees down to them.
The berries do not all ripen at the same pace, even on the same branch, and are supposed to be picked individually. Some of the pickers abide by this, some don’t and just strip an entire branch rather than pick individual cherries.
COFFEE PRODUCTION is a complicated, labor-intensive business.
Trees are planted in a nursery, then transplanted to fields. Three to five years later, they will begin producing in commercial quantities. In some regions, the trees produce throughout the year. In others, those with distinct wet and dry seasons, they flower at the beginning of the wet season and are picked at the end of the dry season.
When ripe, the coffee cherries are a deep red. Any one tree might produce 4,000 cherries in a year and, because different cherries on the same tree mature at different rates, an individual tree will be picked several times over about two months.
After picking, the cherries are sorted to remove those that are unripe or too ripe. What’s left is then weighed and trucked to a processing plant, where it is dumped into a water tank and soaked to soften the fruit.
After soaking, the berry pulp is scrubbed away by mechanical scrubbers. (This is true only for what are called wet-processed coffees. Dry-processed coffee is not soaked or scrubbed. It is spread in the sun to allow the pulp to dry. Then it is milled away, often by spreading it in the road so that passing cars, trucks and bikes will run over it, loosening the hardened berry.)
Once the berry is removed, seeds remain, usually a pair from each berry. The seeds are dumped into another tank of water, covered and allowed to sit, fermenting, for 36 hours. The fermentation converts a mucilaginous covering to sugars. It is akin to the process used to make alcoholic beverages.
“Except,” says Dave Olsen, “we save the barley and throw away the beer.”
The beans are then washed again to remove the fermented sugars and hauled out to drying yards, where they sit in the sun for up to two days and often receive additional drying in wood-fired drum dryers.
The drying yards at Blawan Plantation are a series of enormous concrete patios that sit out in front of the old colonial mansion.
The quarter-mile square of concrete is filled with acres of piles of golden beans. Kids, men and women, working in pairs and trios with wooden rakes and shovels, move through the beans, turning them.
Every shovelful of beans whispers its way off the shovel. The effect, with several dozen shovels working at once, is a sound like wind through broad-leafed trees, a sound just beneath hearing.
A plantation employee says the kids go to school from 7 a.m. until noon, then come to the drying yards to work. This seems reasonable, until you walk out to the yards in the early morning and see the same kids.
The patios are divided, so that each batch of beans is separate and the drying time can be monitored. With good sun, the beans will spend two days here.
On a part of the yard the beans are a startlingly darker brown, nearly black.
What are these?
Local consumption, a worker says, and laughs a sort of conspiratorial laugh. This might explain why no one here drinks much coffee.
The bean at this point is still covered with a final layer of skin (there are four coverings in total). It is removed in a mechanical huller, leaving, finally, green coffee beans.
The beans are sorted – sometimes by hand, sometimes machine, sometimes both – by size, and defective beans are removed. Hand sorting in East Java is done by warehouses full of women, picking furiously through bushels of coffee, bean by bean.
When strangers walk through the warehouse they face a fusillade of beans. Bing, a no-look pass stings my cheek. Pop, another one off the forehead. I turn to look to see where they’re coming from and all I see are smiles and fingers pointing to a little old lady at the end of the row.
When sorting is completed, the beans are bagged, usually in 60-kilogram, 132-pound gunny sacks, which are the standard unit of measure in the business. You buy so many bags of beans, not so many pounds, kilos or tons.
In the current market, producers will get 60 to 80 cents a pound for good arabica beans, all the way up to $4 for those in the shortest supply and the highest demand.
At 60 cents, even at 80, a coffee producer likely will lose money. He’ll pay the pickers and sorters each about a dollar a day, which works out to a dime a pound apiece. The rest goes to processing, fertilizer, transportation and equipment.
Almost everybody in the business agrees that green beans have to sell for at least $1 a pound for everybody involved to make money.
Goenarto Wahyoeno, manager of Blawan, reputed to be the best of all the Java plantations, takes me high up into the shadow of Ijen, to what he says are the best soils with the best coffee in the country. He replanted it five years ago and the trees are full of brilliant red berries and lots of them.
“You are the first man to see the secret plantation,” he says. “Not even my wife has seen it. I really love the coffee. I love the coffee. Then, I love my family.”
Goenarto is a man of enormous charm and good will. He has run government-owned plantations for 30 years and on the evidence of Blawan – with its hearty plants and eager workers – he knows what he’s doing.
But the “secret plantation” is exactly the sort of thing that makes coffee men like Alfred Peet and Dave Olsen cringe. Asked why the coffee is better, Goenarto points to the color of the berries, the luster of the leaves, the productivity of the plants. He does not mention the taste because he hasn’t tasted it.
All he needs do is look, he says, at the plants. These are a new variety he calls arabica usta, a type I’ve not heard of. Usta, Usta, he says. Finally, he fishes out a brochure describing the coffee. “U.S.D.A. Hawaii.”
Goenarto has planted the best land on the best plantation in Java with stock from the United States Department of Agriculture, which so far as anyone knows is not particularly renowned for its coffee expertise.
“A planter hopes to grow coffee,” Peet says. “It could as easily have been carrots. He looks at it as a commodity and a price. They are generally rather ignorant about the quality of the stuff.”
“It’s no different than what we did with tomatoes, right down here at Davis (site of the University of California’s famed agronomy department). It looks good. It grows well. You might just as well eat a rubber ball.”
“Oh, what I would give for the Javas of my youth.”
THE PLANE WAS AN hour late and we arrived two hours early on the advice of Javanese who had never heard of Toraja and so guessed it would be hard to get to.
They were right.
In addition to being late, the plane when it finally arrived was overbooked, overweight and underpowered. It was an old Dutch prop job that looked more like a rubber-band-powered-box than the slim, elegant jet-launched tube we tend to think of when we hear the word “airplane” these days.
The heat inside was intense, so much so that the couple in the last row seemed not to mind very much when a desk agent came onto the plane just before takeoff and escorted them away.
Overweight? asked the man, who was anything but. He had running shoes tied to the outside of his back pack and had the anorexic look of someone who used them.
With the skinny couple gone we took off and you had to wonder. Their combined weights could not have been more than 250 pounds – his wife was even thinner than him – and could that little weight really matter? Did their slim tonnage spell the difference between safety and disaster? If we were unsafe with them aboard, were we safe now? Those were not questions I wanted explored.
They weren’t. Except for a brief reconsideration when we suddenly halted because somebody forgot to shut the tailgate, we left. To say we took off would imply far too much forcefulness in the plane’s behavior.
We became airborne.
The winged box got up and flew north along the west coast of Sulawesi, another, more remote Indonesian island a hundred miles northeast of Java.
The land below was all terraced paddies. No people anywhere. Just water, rice and mountains. The latter held my attention, but the rubber-band box knew its way over and at times it seemed through them.
In a mercifully brief time we were coming up to Tana Toraja. The airport was a strip of gray on a patch of bright orange clay in the middle of an otherwise wet and completely green world.
It was the first time I had ever flown anywhere and did not descend at the end of the flight. We were still going up, it seemed, when we landed.
Toraja is distinctive, even by Indonesian standards. In a country that is 90 percent Muslim, it is animist Christian. The people are descendants of the great Khmer civilizations of antiquity.
They came here by boat centuries ago and built houses that reflect their maritime past. Toraja houses look like ships that have been swept ashore and accidentally landed on legs. They are grouped for the most part in tiny villages and you can see coffee trees dotted across the hillsides near them, by the dozens, rather than the thousands we were used to seeing on the East Java plantations.
No matter what part of the world it is grown in, coffee is grown in two distinct milieus. One is the plantation, which even on Java tends to be a more corporate endeavor, with the sorts of controls that implies. As a result, plantation coffees are predictable in supply and quality.
Some of the most distinctive coffees in the world are grown outside of plantations by individual farmers, who might have anywhere from a few acres of coffee trees to a few trees.
These coffees tend to be harder to find, more expensive to buy, and less predictable in taste. The plantations might emphasize productivity over taste but they produce consistent coffees. With coffees such as those grown in Sulawesi, buyers say they never know what to expect, but when they’re good, they’re great. The total production of the whole island of Sulawesi is less than a single plantation on Java.
Routinely, the single most expensive coffee Starbucks sells comes from here, Toraja land in southwest Sulawesi. Like Jamaica and Kona coffees, Sulawesis have become favored by the Japanese, and that has implications for both supply and price.
Coffee traders and buyers tend to agree that the most expensive coffees are not necessarily the best. Kona and Jamaican varieties command huge price premiums simply because of extremely small supplies.
Like many other goods these days, the prices have been greatly influenced by the growth of demand in Japan, which is – after the U.S. – the world’s second-largest coffee consumer. Jamaican Blue Mountain, when it can be bought at all, is going for up to $12 a pound.
“The Japanese came in and bought the whole mountain,” says Kurt Kappeli, a coffee trader with J. Aron of New York. “The price seems crazy, but people are paying it.”
The only large plantation on Sulawesi is owned by Toarco Jaya, a Japanese company that has also become a large buyer of coffees grown at nearby farms, whose average plot size is less than a quarter-acre.
Farmers in a small village a couple hours up country from Rantepao, the market town for the region, have been selling almost their entire crop to the Japanese.
Until this year, that is, when the Japanese buyers suddenly quit buying. The bottom fell out. Prices were cut in half, then half again. Nobody can even afford to fertilize, says Desa Bokin, a village chief, who points out the scrawny condition of his own plants as proof.
The sudden lack of interest in Toraja coffees by Toarco Jaya is a mixed blessing for coffee buyers from the U.S.
Litha Brent two years ago sold next to nothing to U.S. buyers. They couldn’t afford it. Now they can afford it, but quality is falling fast, Brent said.
Brent has been in the coffee business since he was 10, when he collected beans from small growers in Toraja and took them to market. He has since moved to Ujangpandang, the main port of south Sulawesi, and is now the principal exporter for Toraja coffees.
When we were at Brent’s warehouse his crews were packing aged coffee for shipment to Seattle. A Dutch trading company had agreed by fax to buy 20 tons of the coffee. As it happens, 20 tons will not fit in a single shipping container and Brent had enough of the coffee to fill a second one.
Rather than ship the second container partially empty he queried the trading company to see if they wanted another full container.
They said yes and the coffee came to Seattle, where presumably it will be sold, not because some buyer trudged through a jungle to find it, but because it filled out a container.
COFFEE IS THE WORLD’S second most-traded commodity. Only petroleum surpasses it. Just at the wholesale level, 11 billion pounds of coffee changed hands last year.
This extraordinary amount of trade is the result of a cultural and agronomic curiosity. The International Coffee Organization reports that 59 different countries grow some significant amount of coffee. They are all in the tropics, usually oceans away from the people who drink it. Coffee has to move. It is bought and sold, in some cases four or five times, to get to its market.
The coffee-growing countries form a band around the middle of the earth and range from giant producers, like Brazil and Columbia, the largest, to the very small, like Hawaii, whose entire production comes from a single 22-mile strip on one island.
There is not necessarily a correlation between amount of production and quality.
Brazil’s coffee is not prized by coffee people; some of Columbia’s is, while Jamaica’s minuscule production is the highest-priced coffee on earth. Choosing among the great variety of beans is the single most important activity a coffee company performs.
The coffee business has two distinct segments, which are so distinct as to be almost different businesses entirely.
The largest of these is composed of the big national and international roasters, generally called commercial roasters, the Folgers and Maxwell Houses of the world. It is and has been for decades stagnant.
Much smaller but much more dynamic is what is variously called the specialty, gourmet or premium coffee business. With Starbucks at its head, the specialty business is growing phenomenally. Ten years ago it barely existed. Now, it is 12 percent of the entire coffee market and headed, industry analysts think, much higher.
In the commercial business, coffee beans are a commodity, bought and sold like so many barrels of crude oil. The world is awash in these coffee beans and prices are at historically low levels. Millions of bags of beans are sitting in warehouses all over the world, going bad with no buyers in sight.
In the specialty business, beans are scarce and buyers are begging to buy them.
Most of the coffee bought and sold in the world today is bought sight unseen. It is bought by reputation, habit and on the basis of sample tastings. Most coffee buyers seldom leave their offices.
The coffee buyer is much more likely to go down the hall to his company’s tasting room than around the world to a coffee plantation to try new coffee.
Even at Starbucks, the buyers spend much more time in Seattle than out beating the bush for new beans. This despite the fact that among other accomplishments, the company has manufactured a sort of swashbuckling Indiana Jones coffee-buying legend that Olsen, a former Montana wheat farmer, wears as if born to it.
The company’s extraordinary growth in the five years since Howard Schultz bought it has bound Olsen to a desk and a tasting table. In simpler times, Olsen traveled extensively, although it was never true that much of the company’s beans were discovered in foreign terrain, after fording wild rivers and fighting off deadly spiders.
Since Alfred Peet quit buying and roasting Starbucks’ beans, the company has acquired them in much the same way every other specialty roaster does – on the telephone.
Coffees are traded differently in virtually every place they are grown, but most follow a general pattern.
Small growers sell them to millers, who might or might not be growers themselves. The millers process the coffee and sell the green beans to local traders who sell them to exporters. Exporters ship them overseas to brokers. The brokers sell them to either wholesalers or directly to roasters.
Frequently, on the last two links in this chain, the coffee is sold on the basis of samples that have been air expressed ahead of the actual shipments.
At Starbucks, which Olsen boasts has the “world’s largest supply of the world’s best coffee,” those samples arrive by the dozens every day.
Samples come in from all manner of well-meaning and profit-seeking people. Stockholders send suggestions. The Salvadoran ambassador sends a letter. Somebody traveling in the Chinese interior sends a sample from Hunan.
These days they all think Starbucks should know about their beans.
“The phone rings every day and somebody’s sister-in-law’s uncle’s aunt has seen some coffee growing somewhere and she wants us to know about it,” Olsen says.
Mary Townsend, Starbucks’ other buyer, says she has a standard answer when anybody asks her anything about a coffee.
“Send me a sample and I’ll cup it.”
These cuppings, as they are known throughout the industry, are as formal and full of ritual as any religious exercise, which, given the fervor with which the coffee is often regarded, they might well be.
Olsen and Townsend cup as many as 50 coffees on a given day. In addition to samples being tasted for possible purchase, every shipment of coffee is cupped upon arrival at the roasting plant.
On busy days, the coffees are arranged on virtually every flat surface in the small tasting room in the middle of Starbucks’ Airport Way roasting plant.
Each sample includes a tray of whole, green beans, a tray of whole roasted beans, and 7.5 grams of freshly roasted and ground beans in a cup. Each sample is labeled, telling what it is, where it’s from and what its moisture content is.
Water is heated to just below boiling. When it is poured over the grounds, a crust forms from the grounds that float to the top. When the crust is broken with a spoon, the trapped aromas waft out into the nose of the waiting taster, which is, or ought to be, right down in it, taking deep whiffs.
The trays of whole beans are visually inspected at the same time.
After the smell has been smelled, the coffee is allowed to cool for perhaps 10 minutes.
“Then commences the slurping and spitting,” Olsen says.
The tasters circle the room, loudly taking each coffee into their mouths. The forceful slurping is done to spray the coffee back into the mouth, ensuring the full measure of aroma and flavor will be gotten from it. Then it is spat into a huge brass spittoon and on to the next cup. Notes might be made, impressions recorded.
Most people’s experience of tastes – coffee, wine, whatever – is anecdotal. They don’t compare. They have sweet corn one night and it’s great. Then try it again a week later and it’s terrible. They don’t sit down and sample 100 ears of corn in one sitting.
Cupping is largely a matter of more rigorously comparing taste sensations to previous sensations. Checking the taste against the floppy disk in your brain, as Alfred Peet says.
“The sensations are real. It’s not something you make up,” Olsen says.
“Most other tasting rooms, you’re not trying to see how good it can be, but how bad it can be and still pass minimum standards. We have an ideal coffee for each of these types. As we go forward we continue to go up the chain.”
At one point, after tasting an Ethiopian coffee, which he found superb, Olsen says, “Mary, we’ve got to figure out what this is. Then we’ll know how to get really good coffee.’
Getting consistent coffee these days out of Ethiopia, as well as a lot of other countries, is “a crapshoot,” Olsen says. It is an irony of the business that just as the demand for premium coffee grows, the supply is threaten by politics and technological “progress.” And that’s in addition to all the normal things that can go wrong even when supplies are plentiful.
Olsen picks a piece of bean out a sample tray.
“One little piece of broken bean like the one in my hand can ruin a cup of coffee. It can ruin a whole pot, a bag. It can ruin your whole day.”
Townsend, reflecting on this later, said: “There are so many things that can go wrong, it’s amazing there’s as much good coffee as there is.”
THE LIQUID, which is the point of all this, is principally composed of burnt hydrocarbons, mineral salts and alkaloids suspended in a solution of hot water and vegetable oils. Dozens of gaseous compounds float above it.
As it is sipped into the mouth, other vapors are released from within the liquid itself.
Molecules from both the gases and vapors are inhaled and trapped, like nuggets in a miner’s seine, in the nasal membrane, where several million olfactory cells put down whatever they were doing – probably nothing, human olfactory cells are notoriously underemployed – and go to work sorting the molecules, matching them against the records of previous molecular travels through the olfactory network.
Meanwhile, organic compounds in the liquid – acids, salts and sugars – roll over the mucous membrane of the tongue, exciting the taste buds. The mouth and the tongue also measure the texture of the drink, feeling it, weighing the sediment and oils as they wash through.
The excitation of the taste buds, called gustation, and the sorting of the aroma, called olfaction, are combined with the textural analysis, and the whole complicated stew is forwarded to the brain.
This all happens in milliseconds and the brain of the average person, checking the event against several thousand taste memories, says something like: Oh, coffee.
The brain of the more enraptured coffee drinker – for example, any resident of Seattle older than 8 – might say: Ah, coffee.
Or, if the brain rests inside the head of a professional coffee taster and has a catalog of taste memories much larger and more frequently thumbed, it might say: Ho-hum, high-grown, high-tech hybrid, washed arabica, an agronomic miracle, productive, well-raised on a government estate in East Java, the product of a thousand years’ history and a thousand people’s labors, nice coffee.